'Parks and Recreation': Camping, Batman and fine leather goods

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parks-and-rec-rangers.jpg "Parks and Recreation" told three very distinct, separate stories this week. Normally that would be a cause for some concern, as the best episodes tend to involve characters overlapping and intersecting.

But in Thursday's (Oct. 13) episode, "Pawnee Rangers," each one worked so well on its own that it didn't really matter. By using some of the show's most reliable comedy combinations (Ron and Leslie, Tom and Ben) along with a couple new pairings (Chris and Jerry, Donna along with Tom and Ben), it delivered maybe its start-to-finish funniest episode of the fall.

Rangers vs. Goddesses: Ron, no surprise, is pumped for the annual Pawnee Rangers camping trip, presenting as it does so many opportunities for young men to learn about solitude, self-reliance and making shelters out of a cardboard box and a canvas sheet. Leslie is just as excited to take her group, the Pawnee Goddesses, on their retreat, presenting as it does a chance to prove that her club, which she started when the Rangers wouldn't admit girls, is better than Ron's.

(And on that topic, if a quarter of the episode, rather than just the cold open, had been Leslie dancing around trying to get Ron to admit the Goddesses were better, and Ron stoically refusing, I would've been OK with that.)

Because Leslie is so competitive when she has a cause -- and even within that cause: See how badly she treats non-camper/crafter Ann on the trip* -- and because Ron is so out of step with Kids Today, it's no contest. The trip ends with all the Ranger boys (and Andy) taking the Goddess oath and Ron sitting alone by his campfire. But along the way, we get to see such gems as Leslie resenting her proteges for learning too well from her and wanting to let the boys join; Ann finally getting props with her planted mackerel catch; and the episode-closing note of Leslie setting up a club for kids as tough (or nearly so; they're just kids, after all) as Ron, the Swansons. "This will be no fun at all," Ron grins.

(*For the first time in I don't know how long, Leslie didn't refer to Ann as beautiful, for instance.)

Ron and Leslie's mutual respect, and the fantastic rapport Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman have, makes her gesture at the end more than a sop to a man's hurt feelings. For starters, Ron would never admit to having hurt feelings. But Leslie knows how much he loves being rugged and manly, and she doesn't want to deprive him of that just because most 12-year-old boys don't share his passion.

Treat Yo'self: While nearly everyone else is camping, Tom and Donna are engaging in their own annual ritual: A day of pampering, fine leather goods, cupcakes and complete indulgence they call Treat Yo'self. Donna, however, notices Ben is edgy -- the "Game of Thrones" shout-out was genius-level stuff -- and wonders if he couldn't stand a little R&R too. Tom resists, but not even he can say no to a man eating soup alone on a bench.

Turns out Ben has been brave-facing his breakup with Leslie, but it's getting to him. His utter incapability to relax at the spa was one of the comedy highlights of the episode, and his crying in the Batman suit was simultaneously funny, sweet and a little bit disturbing. And if this wasn't the best use of Retta as Donna ever on the series, it was a very close second to her wing-womaning Ann last season.

Jerry has a hot daughter: She's played by Sarah Wright, who will always be Lizzy from "The Loop" to me, and she happens to catch Chris' eye as she and her dad are going out to lunch. Jerry hasn't really experienced the full Traeger before now, but watching his befuddlement at Chris' offer to let him chaperone their first several dates and to provide constant relationship updates was a fine showcase for Jim O'Heir. Also loved that Wright said "lit'rally" the same way Rob Lowe does.

"Pawnee Rangers" was the 50th episode of "Parks and Rec"; fingers crossed for 50 more. What did you think of the show this week?
Photo/Video credit: NBC