12. "Fancy Party," Parks and Recreation (2011)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Just about every long-running sitcom eventually gets to a wedding episode. Most involve a late-arriving bride or groom (see Rhoda, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Get Smart, etc.) to give some tension to what is, in reality, the most carefully scripted day in a person's life. Sometimes the wedding doesn't happen at all (as on Shelley Long's last episode of Cheers), which usually makes me pity the characters. Because the reasons for aborted TV weddings are so contrived, I imagine network executives standing just offstage hissing, "I don't care what excuse you come up with, just don't say 'yes'!"
And occasionally, sitcom characters go through with a horribly ill-advised marriage (Ross and Emily on Friends, Mark and Sophie on Peep Show) or a loveless "green card marriage" (Taxi), making viewers miss the warmth and hilarity of a good funeral episode.
I picked "Fancy Party" for a wedding episode even though it's so sweet and so atypical. The one with doubts about the marriage is not the bride or groom, but hyper-organized Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), who's thrown by the sudden nuptials between fellow City Hall workers April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt).
Leslie: Two boneheads, whom I love dearly, are about to sacrifice their future because they haven't thought this thing through, and nobody seems concerned about this!
Like a real wedding, "Fancy Party" is full of little surprises and unexpected encounters (look out, it's Orin!) rather than trellises collapsing and people falling into the wedding cake. In fact, the biggest tragedy is the lack of a wedding cake, as Chris (Rob Lowe) instead arrives with a vegetable loaf "sweetened with fruit reduction." To which Ron (Nick Offerman) responds: "So not only does this thing exist, but now you've deprived everyone of cake!"
To be fair, Chris doesn''t know that his dessert is supposed to serve as a wedding cake, as April and Andy disguise the event as a simple "dinner party" — or, rather, a Knopish potluck with instructions for each guest. (Donna's invitation says, "Please bring cooked steak.")
Leslie arrives after whiffing the chance to tell Ben (Adam Scott) how much she wants him to stay in Pawnee, instead telling him to write a pros-and-cons list in order to decide whether to take a job in Indianapolis. So she doesn't react well when April and Andy tell her the real purpose of the party.
Leslie: Why are you doing this? Are you pregnant? Are you sick? Are you terminal? Why is this... great thing happening?
In a talking-head segment, Leslie explains the importance of planning before getting into a relationship: "It took me four years to find the right hairdresser, and we still fight all the time!"
"Fancy Party" cleverly pokes fun at Bridezilla weddings by showing us an alternative. Leslie takes a while to accept the casualness of the event, but what could be more fun than Andy's grandma excitedly gripping her walker when she finds out the reason for the gathering? Or Chris's spastic dancing, clearly not the result of any forethought? Or the loose performing style of Andy's band, Mouserat? Sure, Tom (Aziz Ansari) gets upset that his "best man" duties are so brief, but he gets a dance partner by the end of the evening after Andy announces his single status to the crowd (after first asking him if he's gay — "so Jean-Ralphio is just a friend?").
Andy: (to crowd) We are in love, so we didn't overthink it. Seriously, I cannot emphasize how little we thought about this!
Most sitcom episodes are about bad decisions and embarrassing consequences (see every scheme of Ralph Kramden, Fred Sanford, and Basil Fawlty to make money), but Parks and Recreation almost always follows the "Why don't you just go through with it?" philosophy of taking chances. By the end of "Fancy Party," Leslie has decided that she doesn't have to protect April and Andy from their impulsiveness, and she takes her own step of blurting out her feelings to Ben (who has already acted on his own). Plenty of solid jokes, strong character development, and the absence of anyone running to a church make this a superlative wedding episode.
• I admit it: I tear up every time I see April entering the room to Simon and Garfunkel's "April Come She Will." Worth whatever it cost to get the rights for 40 seconds.
• More on Leslie's relationship problems: "One time I fell madly in love with a Civil War re-enactor that I had only known for six hours, and then I found out that he wore those clothes all time! And he was married. But the clothes thing really bothered me."
• The "B" story, in which Ann (Rashida Jones) goes to a singles night, never really fits with the main story, but it's worth it for Donna (Retta) giving advice on how to flirt and asking the hapless Ann, "Did you grow up in the woods? Are you Nell, from the movie Nell?"
• Also hilarious: the cold open in which Ron performs dental surgery on himself with a pair of pliers. "It's always important to demonstrate to your co-workers that you are capable of withstanding a great deal of pain."
• From Steve Heisler's A.V. Club review of the episode:
A solid half of the episode involves Leslie only sharing doubts to the camera; she accepts that the wedding is real and that Chris is going to deprive the entire party of cake with his vegetable loaf monstrosity. This is definitely a change from the higher-strung Leslie of yesteryear, which goes to show that not only are Parks & Rec's characters interesting to watch pretty much always, but they also learn from their mistakes. At one point during "Fancy Party," Ron warns Leslie not to meddle into things that aren't her business, and the way he points over to Andy and April is so casual and specific, that it indicates he's repeating advice he's given before.
• Another Parks and Recreation episode, "Flu Season," is at No. 47.