[This Week In TV] Parks & Recreation, Agent Carter, Victoria’s Secret Swim Special

This Week in TV is a weekly feature reviewing the best, worst and most interesting episodes of television from the past seven days. The plan is to cover a wide variety of shows, but not always the same ones each week, so let us know in the comments which ones you’d particularly like to read about. This week sees the series finale of Parks & Recreation, Agent Carter reach the end of its eight-episode run, and Victoria’s Secret draping semi-naked women across our televisions just because it can.

Parks & Recreation  – “One Last Ride”

The outpouring of grief in certain corners of the internet over Parks & Rec‘s final farewell would seem disproportionate on the surface for a show which never did especially well in the ratings and whose output varied in quality over its final few seasons. It wouldn’t be the first show to be lauded by a small but passionate internet fanbase – one need only look to Chuck or Community for shows whose very survival depended on it – but Parks seems to have struck a more personal and emotional chord with its fanbase than almost any other show to have gone before. The most passionate tributes to 30 Rock, for instance, came from women inspired by Tina Fey giving her sex a real voice in the television comedy landscape and, through her magnificent alter-ego, Liz Lemon, permission to be every bit as ridiculous as the men around her. Parks & Rec wasn’t shy about its feminist leanings, but its audience seems to reach far beyond those narrow parameters: whether men or women, fans or critics, feminist or apolitical, even the Indiana tourist board, it seemed that no matter where you looked, love for the show was all around.

While I can hardly pretend to speak for such a wide variety of people, my personal feeling is that the intense passion so many felt for the show most likely grew out of one of its simplest, but most gently powerful characteristics: it was a show which, at its core, was kind. Leslie Knope may have overcome no shortage of cartoon villains during her time in Pawnee – Tammy II and Councilman Jamm being among the most memorable – but her greatest triumphs were rooted in empathy and understanding. Fiercely competitive and ambitious though Leslie was, her willingness to listen and make the right choices stood her apart at a time when the TV landscape was dominated by comedy born out of cynicism and drama portraying tortured anti-heroes navigating bleak ethical landscapes.

Parks & Rec was a beacon of light, embodied first and foremost by Leslie but enhanced by the affectionate and well-meaning doofuses she called her friends and colleagues, each representing their own corner of American life. In Ron f**kin’ Swanson, she found her closest friend in a man seemingly her polar opposite: a gruff, anti-social conservative whose keenest interest in big government was trying to sabotage it at every opportunity, all while cultivating TV’s greatest moustache. From Ann, April and Andy came the voices of youth trying to find their place in the world (or in Chris Pratt’s place, the galaxy); Tom and Donna were livewire portrayals of people from underrepresented races making the American Dream their own; Ben was a positive voice for nerddom, Chris for the high-achievers. Pawnee was a place where everyone was welcome. Well, except Mark Brendanawicz.

As for the finale itself? Well, as has been the trend over the past few seasons, it got the sentiment right even if the pacing and humour were sometimes a little lacking. The structure, Six Feet Under inflected, meant the story moved in fits and starts and the eponymous ‘last ride’ never felt like much of a struggle or an achievement for any of the characters. However, as a farewell to this wonderful cast of characters, it did right by all of them, perhaps none moreso than in leaving Ron canoeing serenely across a vast lake, having found total contentment. April got one last piece of wonderful Leslie advice, Ann and Chris made a brief but charming return, and there was one last, magnificent dig at a public library. In short, it offered an hour-long encapsulation of everything which made Parks special to so many, and no-one could ask for much more than that.

Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter

Agent Carter – “Valediction”

Another feminist show to take its bow this week was Marvel’s Agent Carter, which, like Parks, has enjoyed some critical acclaim even while never quite becoming as much of a ratings hit as expected. The show took a while to find its feet, leaning too heavily at first on some eye-rollingly unsubtle representations of post-war discrimination, and plotting which worked passably well for individual episodes but struggled to establish a compelling or coherent bigger picture.

What kept it on track throughout was the performance of Hayley Atwell, at times single-handedly dragging the show forward through sheer force of charisma. While Peggy’s characterisation on the page was never really extended beyond a hyper-competent woman fighting for a place in a world of powerful but ignorant men, Atwell filled in the details with effortless grace, bringing humour and suggesting a sympathetic heart beating beneath her charaacter’s closed exterior. While the show’s one-note feminism offered more crowd-pleasing than nuance, Atwell’s transformation of Peggy into someone more fully developed than your stereotypical ‘strong woman’ was instrumental in drawing the audience onto her side and making each of her triumphs truly gratifying.

A shame, then, that ‘Valediction’ took much of the finale of Peggy’s own show out of her hands and repositioned it to revolve around – yes – a powerful but ignorant man. Howard Stark may be one of the most important supporting characters in Marvel’s canon, but making him the centrepiece of Agent Carter‘s serialised plotline detracted from the series’ central feminist message and at the final hurdle, diminished its core strength – Atwell’s Carter. It didn’t help that Stark is, like most of the men in the show, a rather one-dimension buffoon. Dominic Cooper played the role as written, but the performance was still a grating one, with everything from the syrupy accent to the smug grin making the character more than a little unbearable across a full episode.

Still, while nowhere near as exciting as the penultimate episode, ‘Snafu’, ‘Valediction’ was a solidly enjoyable hour despite its self-inflicted obstacles. It improved markedly once Peggy started to take charge of proceedings: while Dottie needed more time to fully register as a villain, her fight with Peggy was decent value and should the series return, she will be a very welcome part of it. Peggy talking Howard down from attacking New York also gave a satisfying pay-off to her mouring of Steve Rogers, with Atwell, of course, nailing every emotional beat. Agent Carter may still only be a good show when it has all the ingredients to be a sensational one, but in Atwell it has a genuine star whom it would be very sad not to see return for a second run.

Victoria's Secret Swim Special

Victoria’s Secret Swim Special

It’s a hard life being a television critic. Sometimes you just have to sit down, steel yourself, and watch a full hour of the world’s hottest models prance about in miniscule bikinis on gorgeous tropical beaches for review, because, well, it’s your damn job. No, no, don’t feel the need to send letters of thanks. These are the sacrifices we make; extensive rewinding, pausing and all.

So, the Swim Special. In a gripping narrative, the Angels turn up in Puerto Rico to shoot photos for the Victoria Secret swimsuit catalogue, with the dramatic stakes terrifyingly high as each model competes to claim the much sought-after cover. Lily Aldridge, owner of a body so celestial you’d think planets would revolve around it, is up first, proving herself a master of understatement by describing the shoot as ‘epic’ and ‘legendary’. Truly, hers is a task Heracles would wilt to face, having to overcome crippling vertigo by climbing a small ladder onto a moderately sized boulder. Brave Lily is for this applauded by the crew with the joy traditionally reserved for a returning war hero. Meanwhile, the eternally chipper Behati Prinsloo is busy derping about in town, pretending to take photographs before meeting up with her Puerto Rican chum, Joan Smalls, to try out some local dancing. Compelling stuff indeed, but not exactly showing the kind of dedication required to bag a prestigious *cough* cover. Having recovered from her traumatic experience on the boulder, Lily Aldridge heads off to do an underwater shoot with Alessandra Ambrosio. Alessandra has done these before, but Lily hasn’t and, once again, is utterly terrified. However, in a stunning twist, bad weather forces them to head back to land, where Lily gets to roll around in the surf instead. Triumphant music emphasizes the scale of her success.

Next, we check in with Candice Swanepoel, who has dominated the swimsuit catalogue cover for the past few years. Photographer Russell James, barely able to hide his smugness at having a much better job than you, describes her shoot as ‘illegal’. No-one’s entirely sure what this means, but fortunately there are no arrests. However, just as everyone’s settling in, villains Maroon 5 turn up and their devastating show of corporate rock mediocrity kills all known boners dead. The Angels recover from this disaster with meditation and yoga, achieving zen enlightenment courtesy of VS’ line in overpriced exercise gear. Adriana Lima and Joan Smalls then muck about with a pony for a bit, before the girls head into town for a night of celebration with Colombian crooner, Juanes. Unlike Maroon 5, he actually has an audience, who dance the night away amid domino-playing natives. With everyone else presumably ferociously hung over, Jasmine Tookes turns up briefly as a distraction before promptly disappearing again. Having recovered from their night of drink, drugs and dominos, the final four – Prinsloo, Aldridge, Swanepoel and Ambrosio, decked out in Top Gun sunglasses – engage in a decisive volleyball competition. TO THE DEATH. Or maybe not. Anyway, there’s disappointingly little match action and most of the drama is relayed through the camera focusing at length on the scoreboard, which may set a new standard for streamlined sports coverage.

Underdogs Behati and Lily beat the odds to emerge victorious, followed by much celebration and spooning. Or maybe I dreamt that last part. Anyway, Lily’s victory speech to the other girls couldn’t be any more patronising if she tried (“You’re great sports and you look beautiful.”) and she chest-bumps Behati, which almost made me go blind. Alessandra says she’ll look back on all this one day as ‘an incredible time in her life’, which seems a bit pessimistic. Little does she know but there’s to be no happy ending: Maroon 5 return and the Angels dance with contractually obligated enthusiasm to their bland warblings. Amusingly, no-one else bothered to show up. Adam Levine gets a kiss from his wife, Behati, and it’s all very disheartening. Overall, a downbeat ending sours an otherwise nerve-janglingly dramatic television event that doesn’t quite come together as whole, but hardly matters since most of its target audience will probably have watched it in periods of no more than four minutes at a time anyway. Also, I think Lily Aldridge owns my soul now.

Xander Markham

Londoner with a serious love of all things James Bond, most things Nintendo, plus crumpets, labradors, hammocks and horrible puns. Not necessarily in that order.

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