Parks and Recreation, “Flu Season”

There’s been a lot of hype about Parks and Recreation‘s “Flu Season.” Showrunner Michael Schur has consistently said that it is the series’ best effort to-date, the critics were all buzzing about it once they received screeners near the end of 2010 and in general, this is supposed to be the episode for the series.

Sometimes, all the pre-air hype means the actual viewing is something of a letdown, no matter how good (Community‘s “Epidemiology” for example) or bad (Community‘s “Basic Rocket Science” for example) the actual episode is.

This is not the case with “Flu Season.” It completely lives up to the extremely high expectations set out for it in every way. I’m not ready to say that it’s my absolute favorite episode of the series, but it’s damn close to that mark and is most certainly in the current Mount Rushmore of Parks efforts. It’s fantastic. I’ve been thinking about it since last night and while I was at the student union by myself reading a book, I literally laughed out loud because of something Leslie did here. I couldn’t contain it, just like I can’t contain it now. This is such a wonderful episode of comedic television, one that will probably find its way near the top of Best of 2011 lists despite it only being January 28.

In the beginning, Leslie Knope was something of a female version of Michael Scott. This has been discussed at-length over the last two years. She was in this position of power, but often seemed blissfully ignorant to those around her and the circumstances she was in. At times, it was annoying. But the series has figured out a way to make her weaknesses into strengths and Leslie’s been a much better and consistent character ever since. Unlike Michael, she doesn’t waiver from episode to episode, doing whatever the plot dictates. She’s more centered and intelligent and admirable and so when things get a little wonky for her, the writers always have a good explanation for it. Whereas Michael can act like a stupid child just because that’s who he is, Leslie’s most extreme behavior often comes in moments of crisis — like strapping herself to a gate to prevent the destruction of a local monument — or due to some sort of biological issue like the sugar high in “Sweetums” or the sleep deprivation in “Telethon.” No matter what, there’s always a good reason for Leslie to be a bit off her game.

“Flu Season” returns to that framework with, well, the flu. An awful strain has run rampant through Pawnee, taking out April and later Chris and Leslie. This is very bad news because Leslie and Ben have organized a massively important meeting with the leaders of business in the city/county in hopes of getting their approval and investment in the Harvest Festival. Ben thinks he can handle it himself, but let’s be real: This is an event perfect for Leslie’s determination, intelligence and goofy charm. Unfortunately, though she tries to fight it with coats, scarves and pure attrition, she’s eventually admitted to the hospital so that Ann can take care of her. But of course, things don’t really go as Ann and Ben hope because the Knope just won’t be held down.

I know this is too early to say, but this should probably be part of Amy Poehler’s Emmy tape. She’s morphed into a fantastic actress over the past 26 episodes and even though flu-stricken Leslie is a broad Leslie, Poehler makes rains it in and out just enough throughout the episode. When she sneaks back to the meeting to surprise Ben and starts talking to the walls and complaining about them switching places with the floor, I could not stop laughing. Lines like “Good evening everyone, I’m Leslie Monster and this is Nightline” are freaking ridiculous, but her performance and the writers emphasis on the fact that she took too many meds makes it all come together in a potent way.

Moreover, the conclusion to the story, in which Leslie pulls it all together to give the perfect speech for the local businesspeople, totally works as well. We’ve seen that kind of thing from Michael Scott before, but there’s something more appealing, charming and believable about a superhuman Leslie Knope. It’s fully believable that no matter what’s wrong with her, Leslie would carry this speech home because to her, this is the most important thing that she’s ever done. Michael isn’t that way, he makes random good choices and things like that, but he’s not driven in the same way and thus Leslie’s triumphs are that much more impacting.

Leslie’s circumstances also allow for the deepening of her relationship with Ben, which has quickly become very awesome. Ben appears to be jaded and angry, but it’s so very obvious that he’d rather be like Leslie and his legitimate awe during her performance was glorious. I don’t want to knock the original master John Krasinski — or Stephen Merchant for that matter — but I think I’d have to say that absolutely no one looks at the camera in amazement better than Adam Scott. And the soup, oh the soup!

Of course, “Flu Season” succeeds so well because even with Leslie’s awesome performance, the episode gives almost everyone something fun and great to do. I’m not as overwhelmingly charmed by Rob Lowe’s performance here as everyone else, but I know funny when I see it and his continuous references to his body as a microchip and the hospital montage were some of the best comedic work I’ve seen lately. And anytime Rashida Jones gets to be overtly funny, I am really happy.

Andy and Ron? Also fantastic. Their shoe-shining altercation from last season was great and so it was really nice to see them reconnect in a legitimately personal way even though Ron began the episode ranting about how he doesn’t like to get mixed up in other people’s business. There’s just such an inherent warmth and charm with this people who even when they conflict themselves in the talking head segments, it’s not as evil or negative as the kind of stuff that happens on The Office. That this happens with the most jaded and angry characters like Ron and April makes it even better. And as a Hoosier myself, I couldn’t help but smile when the two of them were talking about the Colts and Indiana sports in general. It’s cheap, but it works.

Finally, this episode is just packed with small moments for everyone. Leslie’s licking of Jerry’s stuff, Ron grilling INDOORS, April holding up a plastic knife to defend herself, Ann’s cussing at April, Tom’s helmet and spray hand sanitizer, all of it, just freaking amazing. I am grinning from ear to ear. I think you are too.

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