Leslie finally gets to challenge Bobby Newport face-to-face in a televised debate, but the deck is stacked against her.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Episode Title: “The Debate”

Writer: Amy Poehler

Director: Amy Poehler

As the Parks staff is preparing for Leslie’s (Amy Poehler) debate with Ben Newport (Paul Rudd.) Chris (Rob Lowe), Ann (Rashida Jones) and Tom (Aziz Ansari) are assigned to talk to reporters as the spin team. Meanwhile, Ron (Nick Offerman), April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) plan to throw a party for donors.

Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie examine the stage for the debate, prepare opening statements and psych themselves up for the debate, which should be a cinch for Leslie. Prepping April and Andy’s place for the party, Tom reveals that Ann has broken up with him.

Tom’s latest shenanigans was to call a radio station and talk dirty about their relationship. April advises him to cut the swagger and be sincere. Good advice. I find Ansari’s general schtick to be abrasive, even at its funniest, and I’d love to see Tom be an actual person.

Ben tests Chris’ spin abilities with hypothetical crises. Chris makes his move on Ann. He’s even thinking that if Newport wins, their department will be closed and there won’t be a work/relationship conflict.

At the donor party, Andy has forgotten to pay the cable bill so they can’t watch the debate. Backstage at the debate, Leslie compliments Ben’s managing, though he says he’s no match for Jen (Kathryn Hahn) and he adds that Leslie can beat Newport on her own.

The debate begins with the national anthem and Jen is confident that Bobby can’t lose. He’ll either exceed low expectations or garner sympathy for failing miserably. This is pretty politically astute. Look how close Palin got with her “Can I call you Joe” B.S.

Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) and Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) moderate the debate. Gun salesman Fester Trim (Brad Leland), adult film star Brandi Maxxxx (Mara Marini), Manrico Della Rossa (Gary Carlos Cervantes) are also debaters. Did we know they were running before?

Opening statements are ridiculous from Trim, Maxxxx and Della Rossa. Leslie nails her opening remarks and Newport turns it into a sympathy play for him. He plays hurt feelings and nerves in an endearing simpleton charm. This is scarily perceptive. We know from the previous Newport episode how dangerously ignorant he is, but to someone just tuning in it works. A Twitter question asks about Pawnee safety. Trim of course suggests guns on cars. Bobby offers sympathy to the tweeter and relates a story of a theft he suffered, to much applause.

April can’t reach the cable company while Andy acts out Road House for the partygoers. Back at the debate, Joan asks why Ramset Park is filthy. Leslie runs out of time to answer in a silly schtick from Perd designed only to eat up her time. Bobby suggests cleaning the park. The audience applauds. Then Bobby relates a personal story about his cleaning lady Yolanda. Leslie rebuts suggesting hard work, but Brandi ruins it by comparing her hard work to porn.

Reporters pressure the spin team for answers. Depressed Tom is giving cynical answers so Ann pulls him aside. Tom finally admits he acts out because he’s nervous and makes a sincere plea to Ann. To me, a moment like this only makes his bravado shenanigans sadder, because they’re so empty.

During intermission, Ben advises Leslie to avoid attacking Bobby because he plays it for sympathy. A montage of debate topics includes ridiculous topics like faithful movie adaptations of books and the best Bond, and abortion. Leslie manages to keep things on topic. This is “Parks and Rec” at its best, combining absurdity with real politics.

Jen reveals she has a surprise weapon to clinch it for Bobby. While Andy begins acting out Rambo, Ron begins stealing cable. At the debate, Bobby answers a business question revealing the secret weapon. Leslie’s policy would force Sweetums to move to Mexico. Bobby will keep Sweetums in town, ensuring jobs and candy for all.

Leslie realizes Sweetums planned this threat to move to help win Bobby the election (his father owns Sweetums.). Leslie wants to attack, but Ben suggests she stick with the planned closing statement. Leslie vow to crush Bobby and Ben supports her. Ron hangs on the cable line tampering with the wires.

Bobby’s closing statement is that he’s counting on the town to tell him what to do. It plays as sincere politics. The cable comes back on in time for the party to see Leslie’s closing remarks. She accuses Bobby and his dad of holding the town hostage. She promises that as city councilwoman she’d never let anyone take advantage of Pawnee. Even Bobby says, “Holy s***, that was awesome.”

Ann rejects Chris but doesn’t get back together with Tom either. The chance that Ann is still single is enough to motivate Tom back into spin mode. Bobby invites the Knope campaign to a party at his dad’s house leaving the gang dumbfounded. In the tag, Andy acts out the missionary scene from Rambo.

This was a solid episode from writer/director Poehler. The debate is full of outrageous digs at the process (including Twitter questions) and the random interests of small town folks. It walks a delicate line with Bobby’s character and manages to generate real sympathy and fear that he could actually beat Leslie.

Every character gets something to do. Ron makes a fabulous speech to the donor party. Andy’s movie re-enactments are an easy laugh but there’s no denying them. Chris lights up a bit and then sinks back into his exercise depression. April shows real wisdom with her advice to Tom. Tom has a moment, but fans of his schtick will be happy he’s back to “in your face” mode by the end. The introduction of Brandi, Fester and Manrico were a nice surprise, though easy stereotypes (porn star, gun nut, etc.)

The plot moves forward, though we don’t find out if the debate affected the polls.That’ll be next week I presume. A lot happened. With three separate stories (the debate, the press/spin and the party) it kept moving and each subplot resolved.