Parks & Recreation 4-11: The Comeback Kid

Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and his claymation.

One of the things I love about Parks & Recreation is its sense of continuity. The writers have created a mythology for Pawnee and its citizens that makes everything just a little bit more real, albeit also more ridiculous. Running gags like the terrible history of Pawnee, often depicted in its murals, absurd media personalities like Perd Hapley, and the utter horribleness of the library show up in bits and pieces; while any given bit may or may not be a winner, they have a cumulative benefit to the show.

For instance, when you watched Season 3’s Ron & Tammy Part Two, you probably noted Ben Wyatt’s preference of calzone instead of pizza, and how absolutely everyone thought that was a terrible idea. Maybe you didn’t come away from the episode thinking “Hey, I hope Parks & Rec explains more about Ben’s attitude toward Italian fast food,” but then, BAM, this week comes along and gives you even more about Ben’s attitude toward Italian fast food and how it’ll lead to financial and personal success, and it is awesome.

 

Well, it would be awesome, if not for the fact that calzones are stupid and everyone hates them. Even Chris Traeger finds them fatty and unnecessary, and he loves everything. But Ben and Calzones are a thing on Parks & Rec, and not a totally irrelevant thing: Calzones are one of the things that makes Ben an outsider; maybe his idea for a calzone franchise would fly in other cities, but not Pawnee, where everyone still uses Alta Vista, a little horse is a celebrity, and everyone knows calzones are terrible.

The Comeback Kid is a fairly simple episode with an obvious goal. When the show broke for Christmas, it left with a new status quo: Leslie was still going to run for city council, but with the help of her friends and co-workers instead of the professional political consultants; and Ben was unemployed after his resignation and subsequent refusal to take a safe, boring accounting job. It was mildly surprising that when everyone pledged their support to Leslie and her campaign, Ben was nowhere to be found.

After all, Ben is a smart guy. He’s practical, good at planning, and knows his way around a budget. He’s also in love with Leslie, and has literally nothing else to do with his life. He’s a natural fit to take part in her campaign, if not outright lead it.

So if you left Parks & Recreation wondering “What is the deal with Ben?”, Comeback Kid is here to answer your question with two perfectly executed storylines:

  1. Leslie and her crew are well-meaning, but really have no idea what they’re doing;
  2. Ben tries to redefine his life, but he has no idea what he’s doing.

In the first part, Leslie and her team try to organize the first big event of her campaign. They rent an arena, gather supporters, and try to win an endorsement from local high school basketball icon Pistol Pete. Needless to say, it all collapses in a spiral of disappointment, traffic infractions, red carpet shortages, inadequate stages, and an ice rink.

It’s possible everyone is just a little too incompetent. After all, these people put together massive, successful events like the Harvest Festival and the Li’l Sebastian Memorial, so a simple speech shouldn’t be impossible to organize.  But the climactic scene of everyone trying to walk across an ice rink to Leslie’s stage was too perfect to criticize.

But the more interesting thing about Comeback Kid is that it was largely about Ben Wyatt, who has primarily been defined by his relationships with other characters. He was introduced as an adversary for Leslie, a government axe man who thought more about the budget than the services it provides. At the same time, he was the shadowy mirror image of the relentlessly positive Chris Traeger. Even after he became part of the team, he was still the outsider, the guy who didn’t get Pawnee and was there to point out how weird the town was. Then his relationship with Leslie began – and subsequently ended – and that became the primary role for Ben.

Comeback Kid is the first time we’ve seen Ben on his own, with no interaction with the regular cast aside from short scenes at the beginning and end. Instead, he spends most of the episode with Chris, which seems appropriate since they’ve known each other a long time.

Ben, as it turns out, is a lot like Leslie: without his job to define him, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. But unlike Leslie in Citizen Knope, Ben is dealing with the actual end of his job, as opposed to Leslie’s two-week suspension. He resolved to take some time for himself to explore his interests, but unfortunately his interests are terrible.

At least they’re terribly hilarious. The Lo-Cal Calzone Zone sounds about as useful as another salad restaurant. His foray into the tedious and pain-staking field of stop-motion animation is as marvelously anticlimactic as anything I’ve ever seen on television.

Looked at from a certain point of view, this is kind of a depressing episode: Ben Wyatt has nothing at all going for him in his life aside from his job. (And Leslie, obviously, though she’s wisely kept away from Ben for most of the episode.) Absolutely no one is interested in his hobbies or entrepreneurial ideas. He was going to take some time and rediscover himself, but all he discovered is that he is awful at many things, and that’s not even considering the fact that he doesn’t understand how useless calzones are.

But perhaps that’s beside the point, as Ben ultimately finds a purpose as Leslie’s new campaign manager, making everyone happy. It was inevitable, but Comeback Kid was a nice pause of sorts before establishing the real new status quo, and spending some time with a character no one knows all that well.

 

Etc…

  • “He’s really bad at digging.” April accurately points out one of the few limitations of a three-legged dog. Are we really going to get three-legged dog jokes every week?
  • “How about a lay-up?” Ann’s attempt to negotiate with Pistol Pete, who doesn’t want to continue living in the past.
  • I know Ron is a staunch libertarian, but surely even he could understand that driving around with stuff falling out of your truck is a bad idea?
  • I would really like to watch all of Requiem for a Tuesday some time.
  • Michael Hutchison

    I really like Ben’s baffled cry, as the horror of his claymation sets in: “HOW is it not LONGER?!” I would bet that a lot of stop-motion animators have that feeling constantly.