Parks & Rec 2-2: Manifesto on police violence, or tone-deaf artifact?

Episode: 2-2 The Stakeout

Plot: Leslie and Tom discover marijuana growing in their new public garden. Ann goes out with Mark. Ron has a hernia. Tom gets arrested when he and Leslie try to run a stakeout.

Deep Thoughts: One of the ways it’s going to be weird to recap a show I’ve already watched at least once is that it’s hard not to know what I know about the characters and apply that knowledge retroactively. In fact, I think it’s impossible and not even necessary. We know Officer Sanderson ends up being the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer in one of those “Hollywood thinks stalking is cute” situations, and that makes me dislike him pretty strongly. I’m a fan of consent in general. But his adorable dorkitude here and his obvious, immediate recognition that Leslie is amazing are both very attractive. So anyway. Hi, Officer Sanderson.

Your Related Link For The Day: Not to be too much of a bummer, but — Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no. This is a good rundown to share with your auntie who doesn’t believe there’s a problem. (Once she’s on board, send her over to Campaign Zero.)

But seriously, can we talk about this episode and police violence? Tom is a jerk sometimes, and this episode is early days and his character is still a little flat. But he goes from zero to a terrifically rude sixty with Officer Sanderson. He’s out of line and he’s inappropriate and… I just don’t get it.

This episode aired in 2009, so one hand I’m inclined to believe this is just an artifact of a more innocent time when (white) viewers of sitcoms could watch this go down and not worry for Tom’s safety. I don’t think it’s meant as a commentary on the differences between Indian-Americans and African-Americans in terms of police violence; that’s too subtle for this show. So this explanation seems the most likely.

On the other hand… on the other hand… this episode also features an explicit conversation between Leslie and Tom about his origins and self-loathing. Leslie guesses that he was “conceived in Libya,” and while the characters don’t dwell on that, I think this is meant to look silly and offensive, and Tom (not for the last time!) emphasizes how frustrated he is with people who assume he’s anything but a native American. And he admits that he changed his name from Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani explicitly because he wanted to be successful in politics in a poignant moment in which he seems torn and even angry about the situation (“If I knew a dude named Barack Obama was going to be elected president maybe I wouldn’t have!”).

Tom’s name and origins aren’t directly related to the police violence plot, but it’s a conversation that indicates the writers are thinking about race and racism. And the episode segues so quickly from that conversation to Tom’s completely wigging out at the cop that I just can’t believe it’s accidental. And that leaves me even more frustrated with this episode. Is it just a setup so we meet Officer Sanderson in a context that makes us like him, because he doesn’t shoot Tom in the face? That’s cheap and I’d hate to think the writers would do that. I think I’d prefer the explanation that this is meant to introduce us to Tom as a complicated character with a lot of pretty deep issues. I think we’re supposed to be a little shocked at Tom’s overreaction, and then maybe think that it’s because Tom does fear police violence that he responds with such immediate and inappropriate attitude.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it. At the very least, I’m afraid that if it requires this much thought, any Message intended here flew right over the heads of most of the sitcom audience. And that means it’s just a weird-feeling episode, and I’m not sure I like that part.

Ann is Mean: There’s just one random comment about taking Andy to the movies and how stupid he is. But also, the “flirting” between Mark and Ann is so painful and unpleasant. Sarcasm can be deeply sexy, and yet with these two it’s just… sarcastic. Yawn.

I suppose as a recapper I have to mention that this is the episode featuring Leslie’s most-quoted quote, “Hoes before bros. Uteruses before duderuses. Ovaries before brovaries.” I just wish she were saying it to a friend who deserved it.

April Is My Spirit Animal: I am Leslie in some ways, and aspire to more Lesliehood in others. April, on the other hand, is the person I am in my wildest fantasies. Her complete self-possession and absolute disregard of anybody else’s opinions just make me so happy. But she’s a nuanced character, for all her oddity. Here, she’s the only one who notices that Ron’s in pain and needs help.

The LOL moment: Ron, incapacitated by his hernia, throws a hamburger at his own face because he can’t bend enough to eat. As always, Nick Offerman makes this ludicrous-sounding situation both believable and hilarious.

I am Leslie: If I had planted a garden full of nutritious vegetables and someone had planted weed in it, I too would lose my cool. On the other hand: 1) I know the difference between weed and carrots, and 2) it’s way weirder that Andy is eating all their produce.

I want to be more like Leslie: “I ate a brownie once at a party in college. It was intense. It was kind of indescribable, actually. I felt like I was floating. Turns out there wasn’t any pot in the brownie. It was just an insanely good brownie.” Own it, girl.

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