So after two strong episodes back-to-back, I guess I can forgive the writers for “Sweet Sixteen” – a solid, but not spectacular entry into season four. The episode deals with Leslie’s (Amy Poehler) inability to successfully juggle being the deputy director of the parks department and run for office. Ron (Nick Offerman) has a solution: she should take a sabbatical. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Leslie, and she insists that she can do it all. Her claim is tested when not only is she trying to deal with her campaign and her job, but it’s Jerry’s (Jim O’Heir) birthday. Because he’s the office nudnik, no one remembers until he casually mentions it after Tom (Aziz Ansari) insults a shirt he got from his wife.
That Leslie wants to give Jerry a kick-ass birthday party is great – but because she’s so frazzled and overworked, everything she touches seems to turn to shit. While driving through town she spots her campaign signs. In what amounts to a superb sight gag, the printers printed the url code of the .jpg instead of the actual image. If she was more on top of things, she would’ve caught that. Ron, in trying to prove his point, doesn’t lift a finger to help, instead allowing Leslie to flail so that she can realize that she can’t spread herself so thin. This is one of those great “Ron teaches Leslie a lesson in his own assholey way” moments that are so great – we’ve come to understand that despite his stoic facade, Ron’s actually a caring guy, and he wants what’s best for Leslie.
Despite it being last minute, Jerry’s birthday party is being thrown at Donna’s (Retta) lake house cabin. She predictably rules this place with an iron fist and doesn’t take much crap from anybody. In a slightly Leslie-esque moment, she passes out house rules, printed, laminated and bound to her guests. I like Donna a lot – her reaction shots are right up there with Tom’s smile to the camera, or Andy’s subtle cheats to the camera, but too often she’s got little more to do than rest comfortably in the “sassy black office worker” stereotype – Now, granted all the characters are brushed with super-broad strokes, but it’s always nice when Donna’s more drawn out (her flinty relationship with Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins is pretty fascinating).
The part of the episode that dragged the story down, and has the potential of dragging the rest of the season down is the weird relationship between Ann and Tom. They are not suited for each other. In this episode, Tom is shocked because Ann doesn’t know who Genuwine is (for those who don’t know, he’s a mid 1990’s R&B singer). In a cute twist, Tom finds out Genuwine is Donna’s cousin. Ann’s ignorance of the singer’s fame angers Tom and gives him pause for thought: can he be in a relationship with a woman who is so different (I loved the list of reasons why he’ll break up with Ann – one of them being that she reads books all the time). April (Aubrey Plaza) who gets drunk lets it slip that Tom is considering dumping Ann so she decides to break up with him first – this has been done in sitcoms before, and unfortunately, it’s not done any funnier or smarter in this episode.
Jerry’s birthday party of course, doesn’t go off without a hitch – Leslie forgot Jerry’s birthday cake. Oh and she forgot Jerry. This gives us a great sight gag of Jerry relaxing in a bubble bath with a glass of red wine, as Leslie and Ron burst into his bathroom. They kidnap him and drag him throughout Pawnee while Leslie douses some fires. Unfortunately, by the time they come back to the lake house, everyone’s either asleep or out in the woods looking for Andy’s (Chris Pratt) three-legged dog, Champ (more on that in a minute). Ben, asleep on the couch, is startled awake and offers a sleepy, “surprise” (his bed-head is pretty funny – but it also looks like Jean-Ralphio’s crazy ‘do). Everyone is dragged out to wish Jerry a happy birthday, but not before Leslie crashed and falls asleep, with her head on Jerry’s shoulder.
While all this is happening, we’re also given more glimpses to just how pathetic Chris (Rob Lowe) really is. Sad about Tom and Ann’s relationship and still smarting over his breakup, the writers really give Chris some much-needed shading. He’s lonely, and he’s surrounded by couples and he cannot compensate for his loneliness by being the fastest or knowing the most. While babysitting Champ, he transfers his loneliness and his obsessive behavior into caring for the dog.
So, all in all – not a great episode, but there were some truly laugh-out-loud moments despite the subtle lull:
1) Tom’s mash-up nickname for he and Ann: “Tann”
2) Tom’s toasting of “Tann.”
3) Ann’s response: a eulogy for “Tann.”
4) Not a hilarious moment, but a touching one: April’s lovely smile as she affectionately pats Andy on his arm in approval when he tells her that Chris will be taking care of Champ from time to time, to alleviate his loneliness.
5) Leslie’s sparring with the printer over the campaign sign that has the url instead of the actual .jpg.
6) Jerry’s ugly shirt that his wife gifted him.
7) Always a stickler for the rules, Leslie refuses to conduct campaign business on city hall premises so she rushes out of the building when something campaign-related pops up.
8) Always a stickler for all things sarcastic, April locks Leslie out of city hall, once she has enough of her boss’s running in and out her building. Trying to put a positive spin on things, Leslie suggests to April to think of it as a game. April, feigning enthusiasm says, “You know what would be fun? Oh my god, this!” and then she locks Leslie out.