Monday, February 23, 2015

Farewell, Pawnee: The Essential Parks and Recreation

As the final season of NBC’s critically acclaimed comedy draws to a close (with more of a whimper than a bang, it must be mentioned, as the network has been churning out two new episodes per week in an incredibly transparent effort to clear the way for more reality TV), it’s more than worth taking a look back at some of the moments, the magic, and of course the laughter the show has provided in its seven season run.

I’m going to try and narrow it down my recommendations to one episode per season, for those who don’t have unlimited time to binge-watch (or re-binge-watch). 

Season 1: "The Banquet"
I think most people’s instinct for the sometimes painfully awkward first season is to ignore it completely, or to name “Rock Show” (the season-ender) as their favorite. But if “Rock Show” is the biggest indicator of the better show to come in season 2, that progress is because of the notes the writers and actors hit during “The Banquet.” This episode, number 5 of 6, has a little bit of everything we’ve come to know and love – Leslie’s early insecurity and need for her mother’s approval, Ron and his love affair with all things meat, Tom being his best schmoozy self, and even some character development thrown in for good measure (this is the episode where Ann begins to realize her relationship with Andy is headed for a dead end; when Mark seems to see the sadness of his bachelor lifestyle; and of course when Leslie and Ann realize that best friendship does come with the occasional dispute, and a need for honesty). It’s also got Leslie being mistaken for a man all night at the titular banquet because she’s gotten herself a “political powerhouse” hairstyle for the evening, so there’s that.

Season Two: "The Master Plan"
Loathe though I am to give Rob Lowe any kind of credit, the arrival of his Chris Traeger and Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt really did complete Parks in a way  I hadn’t fully realized it needed. These two new characters show up in Pawnee right on the brink of Leslie’s anticipated triumph in this episode, wherein she is preparing a proposal for Pawnee’s “master plan” for the upcoming fiscal year. Unfortunately the two are state auditors, there to slash the very budget Leslie is hoping to utilize to build her park. She immediately can’t abide Ben in particular, which in obvious sitcom fashion must mean (spoiler alert!) they will eventually fall in love. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that this episode also features some fantastic comedic moments with April and Andy (and Ben Schwartz’s Jean Ralphio).

Season Three: TIE – "Fancy Party", "The Fight"
Season three is when the show really found its groove, so obviously I can’t pick just one episode to recommend. "Fancy Party" features April and Andy’s surprise wedding, and apart from having a soft spot for them, it’s just a very unexpectedly charming event. Everyone comes together to celebrate without questioning the rushed nature of the nuptials – everyone except Leslie, but even she eventually comes around.

"The Fight", on the other hand, features a far less pleasant party. Everyone converges on the Snakehole Lounge (“The Sexiest and Most Dangerous club in Pawnee”) to support Tom, who has invented his own alcohol. As you might expect, this is a terrible idea, as the drink’s potency leads to a range of shenanigans, most notably Ann and Leslie’s biggest fight to date. It’s played both hilariously and relatably by Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones, and the supporting cast provides just enough comic relief to take the edge off.

Season Four: "Win, Lose, or Draw"
I’m recommending the season finale for the 4th season not because it’s the most standout episode, but because Parks’ fourth season is the most cohesive, narrative-wise, with each episode building on the last, chapters in an overarching story following Leslie’s campaign for city council. Thus it all culminates in “Win, Lose, or Draw” wherein we see all of the hard work and support put in by Leslie’s team pay off in a big way. I won’t lie to you, I cried at the end of this episode, and you might too.

Season Five: "Emergency Response"
While it’s very tempting to pick “Ben and Leslie” (I just love everything about the two of them together, okay?!), I didn’t think this list needed TWO wedding episodes. I’ve therefore selected the episode preceding their wedding, “Emergency Response.” This episode has Leslie at her finest crazy, aided and abetted by the gang as they try to cope with a hypothetical city-wide emergency situation. It also features Ron's fabulous turn on Joan Calamezzo's show, doling advice out to Pawnee's citizens.

Season Six: "Moving Up"

Picking the season finale again, not because every episode of the sixth season is equally strong, but because most of them are a little weak, in a way I have some trouble articulating. There was just something missing from the back half of season six, and it took the finale (both the storyline and the rebooting time jump) to really pull me back in. "Moving Up" has a bunch of blink-and-you'll-miss-them call back to earlier moments in the show's history, and an intriguing scene from 2017 that bucks the show's usual tradition of tying things up neatly at season's end. This is an episode that could've been a series-ender itself, but instead became the framework for season seven, which has proven both innovative and heartwarming. 

I haven't picked a favorite episode for season seven yet, mostly because I don't think I'm ready to acknowledge that the journey's almost over. Saying goodbye to a long-running show is, for a TV lover like myself, a uniquely bittersweet experience. One thing I'm happy about as a viewer is that Parks and Recreation has been given the chance to go out on their terms, something that didn't seem possible back in the early stages of its tenure, when premature cancellation seemed inevitable. I know a lot of people who, like myself, have come to consider this their go-to "happy" show, pulling up an episode on days when they just need to smile for a few minutes. I think people underestimate the amount of diligent, dedicated work that has gone into this show over the past seven years, and how much everyone who's a part of it cares about the fans, the characters, and just telling the best story possible. This is a show that has taught us that following your dreams isn't necessarily a fool's errand - after all, we began this journey with one woman and her ambition to build a park. Seeing how far Leslie and the gang have come has been hilarious, entertaining, and just so rewarding. Thank you, Parks team, and thank you, NBC, for letting us share in that joy for as long as you did. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: Suspicion Nation by Lisa Bloom

If you’re going to read one book about the sad state of race relations in America, you should probably read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (I don’t think Lisa Bloom would begrudge me that, since she recommends the book herself). But if you’re going to read two books about race in America - and given the current state of affairs, it certainly couldn’t hurt - you should absolutely pick up a copy of Suspicion Nation by civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom.
The book is an exploration of the new brand of racism in America, tracing its course from something that was blatant and almost a point of pride for some bigots (think George Wallace), to something subtler and, in many ways, just as sinister. Our racial prejudices have become so internalized, so institutionalized, that they are part of daily life and a routine aspect of the criminal justice system. Bloom uses the tragic case of Trayvon Martin to illustrate just how the fears and suspicions we keep (involuntarily, in some cases) in the secret corners of our minds can affect our viewpoints, our judgment, and can be the deciding factor between life and death. George Zimmerman wasn’t acquitted because it was successfully proven that he wasn’t a racist; he was acquitted because his perspective of the world, colored in prejudices he might not even be able to articulate or acknowledge, was shared by his attorneys, the prosecution, and the majority of the jury members who elected not to punish him for Trayvon’s murder.
What Suspicion Nation succeeds at is pinpointing precisely why the Zimmerman verdict feels like a punch in the gut. It’s not just because a murderer escaped justice (that, sadly, happens all the time); it’s that an entirely winnable case was lost due largely to a refusal to address our nation’s race problem. Trayvon Martin was denied justice because it was absurdly easy to persuade the six female jurors that an unarmed seventeen year old constitutes a threat simply based on his race.
In the first half of the book Bloom walks through the case step by step, providing an idiot-proof guide to how this trial ought to have been conducted and the numerous places the prosecution went wrong. She highlights the alternative, more logical approach a better prosecutor might have taken, providing suggestions and analysis that make you wish fervently that she’d been the one in that courtroom advocating for Trayvon, the only person in the case who could not speak for himself.

The sheer number of times the prosecutors dropped the ball is disheartening, to put it mildly. And while Bloom refuses to speculate that this incompetence might have been deliberate, I’m not entirely convinced.  Basic facts were ignored every step of the way, and game-changing arguments that could have turned the tide (and the jury) against Zimmerman were thrown completely out the window. The jury, which ought to have been a carefully selected group of individuals with no prior knowledge of the case, was littered with preconceived notions about not only race and the nature of Florida’s laws, but about Trayvon and Zimmerman themselves.  The state needed only to find six individuals who could go into the trial with the ability to listen impartially to the evidence, and it seems they failed even at that, which may have sunk them long before they were able to selectively and sloppily present the facts of the case.
The logic of dismissing race as a factor is beyond me. Yes, I can understand that intent is difficult to prove in many cases – you can hardly crack open a defendant’s brain and see what they were thinking at the time of the crime—but in this case intent was a crucial part of the case and, Bloom argues, fairly easily proven. The defense claimed, and the jury believed, that all that mattered in the altercation between Trayvon and Zimmerman was “who was on top and who was on the bottom.” This is a factor, to be sure, but then so is the fact that the altercation would not have existed in the first place if Zimmerman hadn’t followed Trayvon, if the teenager hadn’t suspected he was in danger, and if Zimmerman didn’t have a demonstrated history of expressing suspicion toward members of the black community. The prosecution had evidence supporting all this, by the way; they simply failed to use it. As an amateur who has yet to see the inside of a law classroom, even I can see that this was at best negligence, and at worst a determined obfuscation of the facts so the narrative would conform to Zimmerman’s side of the story.
Bloom interjects at several key points to lay out a hypothetical prosecution strategy so simple that a pair of trained monkeys likely could have pulled it off. So why couldn’t the state’s team of prosecutors? While Bloom generously pleads the fifth on a real answer to this query, I have a different one: was it a question of can’t or won’t? It seems only too clear that even the prosecutors ostensibly trying to prove Zimmerman guilty couldn’t completely dismiss the notion that his suspicion of a young black man was reasonable. And that question of reasonableness, Bloom emphasizes, was the key to unlocking the self-defense argument. 
If you’re like me, this book will make you angry. You’ll page through it torn between disbelief and the kind of rage that makes you want to shake someone, perhaps the prosecutors, and tell them to wake up and smell the racial profiling. But after you’ve finished reading, you’ll be haunted by it, by the specter of buried prejudice that exists in every corner of society. The media, the government, your friends and family, even yourself – when it comes down to it none of us is completely innocent of experiencing traces of the ‘suspicion’ Bloom details. The book’s conclusion acknowledges that we have a long road ahead of us when it comes to repairing this damage, but it also ends on a note of hope that we can and will repair the damage we’ve done:
“We can prevent our country from making the same mistake by deciding that the scourges of racial bias and rampant gun violence are intolerable, and that the life of each of our children, every single one, matters and is worthy of our passionate protection” (297).
Let’s hope she’s right.