[8.6/10] I spent a lot of my write-ups of Parks and Recreation’s first season talking about how, on rewatch, the series doesn’t feel like Parks and Rec yet. Well, “The Camel” doesn’t feel like Parks and Rec either. It’s not as propulsive as the show’s plots usually are; there’s less of any big obstacle, and more of the group just hanging out in a room together. But it’s great! And it’s a testament to the fact that while P&R found its groove and to a lesser extent a blueprint for how to do to what it does, these sorts of episodes that feel a little different can be just as great.
To be frank, this feels like an episode that would vindicate the “it’s just a clone of The Office” criticisms the series faced. The Parks Dept. (plus Ann! As ann cheerfully reminds us) gathering in a room to decide which piece of art to submit to the city-wide mural contest feels like something akin to the “Office Olympics” or the employees of Dunder Mifflin having an office-wide rhetorical debate over whether Hilary Swank is hot. It’s a chance for everyone’s personalities to shine in a sort of hangout mode, and it pays real dividends.
There’s three things I particularly loved. The first is that this may be my favorite Tom subplot ever. The fact that he buys “$20 worth of art,” disdains it for being abstract, and then, against his will, becomes emotionally invested in and engrossed by those “shapes” such a fun reversal for the typically shallow character. The second is I love how Mark instantly knows that the way to win the contest is produce something totally anodyne, with no point of view, and creates something that’s absolute pablum. His understanding of this is a great character moment, and the clincher being that Ron likes it is perfect.
But the third and most important is that it gives Leslie a simple but effective choice -- one between taking the path that will let her win, and taking the one that will strengthen the camaraderie among her co-workers. The police department submitting a ridiculous “dogs playing poker” cutout with flames and hamburger-headed babes being the sign that she should submit their art-by-committee “camel” of a piece is great.
And then there’s the incredible subplot with Ron enjoying Andy’s shoeshines so much that he (a.) intentionally scuffs his shoes and (b.) moans a little. There’s not much to the story, it’s just a great character bit. Staid Ron is awkward about how much he likes the feeling of the shoeshine, and dopey Andy doesn’t understand Ron’s way of saying they should pretend it never happened. It’s just fun awkward stuff between them that doesn’t have much of a point beyond seeing an amusing incident between them.
There’s that slack sort of vibe to that whole episode, and it really works. I have a certain idea in my head for sort of the platonic ideal of a Parks and Rec episode, and while “The Camel” doesn’t fit that mold, it’s still funny, true to the characters, and true to the spirit of the show, which makes it great.