[Review based on "Campaign Ad" (4.12),"Bowling for Votes" (4.13) and "Operation Ann" (4.14)]
A difficult task in writing a television show is balancing changing characters with continuing to feature characters and relationships that work well (and fans enjoy). Neglecting either side is disastrous for a show, as it can stagnate without growth or it can seem inconsistent and alienate the audience. A show like Parks that relies on strong characterization and relationships is especially sensitive to these issues so any changes in the show's dynamics is best analyzed after gaining the perspective of a few episodes.
"Operation Ann" continues the shift from Ann to Ben as Leslie's main confidant and her most important relationship. This was symbolized by Ann's handoff of the campaign manager position to Ben, who was more suited to the role. In some ways, Ben is a more suitable confidant for Leslie, given their similar passions for nerdy pursuits (and love of murals), but the show loses the strong female friendship that it was lauded for. However, it does provide a nice (and realistic) reversal of fortunes from earlier seasons when Ann would easily find dates or enter relationships while helping Leslie create an internet dating profile (3.10 - "Soulmates"). While there is no danger of Ann and Leslie's friendship ending, this split focus doesn't help the sense that Ann has become less relevant over the last two seasons.
This episode's hinting of a possible future relationship between Tom and Ann seems to be a way of alleviating this problem. A multi-episode dating arc would allow the show to use her for more than jokes in the B- or C-stories (as in last episode when Ron input her name as "Girl" in bowling). This arc would also help the show find a way to move Tom forward, since the Entertainment720 plot seemed like a detour (as his return to the parks department was inevitable). Creating a believable human side for womanizing character takes time to establish, and the show has plot lines with Tom's ex-wife and Lucy to use as momentum (this is a problem that How I Met Your Mother deals with to a greater degree with Barney). Tom's future with Lucy is uncertain at this point (after being hinted with their kiss at the end of 4.6 - "End of the World"), which seems to be a likely source of conflict if he and Ann begin dating.
The show has also used the last couple episodes to create possible conflict for April. Last week's sweet moment where she gave Chris the movie tickets combined with her maturity in helping Ann seem to indicate that she's grown from the show's season (in which she was still a high school student, to be fair). However, this episode seemed to draw a big contrast between her and Andy, whose lovable antics during the scavenger hunt could have been drawn from season 2. In his review, Sepinwall wondered how worried he should be for their future, though a breakup arc would seem very out of place with the show's overall tone. I envision that the show will use this development to advance both characters past stories about their lack of knowledge about health insurance but could involve April dragging Andy into adulthood.
- Lots of callbacks this week - Galentine's Day, Oren, The Bulge, the bloody murals in the parks dept., Li'l Sebastian, Ron's birthday
- "Dear Congress, it's Leslie again"
- Donna having a man waiting out in the car - don't worry
- I didn't get the same sense as Sepinwall that April was lamenting Andy's decision to buy cookie cutters - calling him amazing seemed genuine
- "You beautiful spinster. I will find you love"
- Joe Biden on Leslie's prospective sweethearts for Ann
- Jerry's Craigslist ad for "man seeking man for night of casual fun"
- Great seeing Adam Scott's Party Down costar Martin Starr
- "You didn't tell me that your friend was so beautiful. Not as beautiful as my sister, but you know the law"
- Ron is awesome: "I got lucky. And I love riddles!"
- No explanation given for Chris's improved mood at the end of the dance. The misdirection with his look towards Ann made it seem as though there was more to it than just the pep talk, but the viewers were left hanging.