Beth's Cafe and Parks & Recreation Invigorate the Dependable


Beth's Cafe and Parks & Recreation Invigorate the Dependable

  • Beth's Cafe and Parks & Recreation Invigorate the Dependable

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    Jessica Spengler, 2010.
    As anyone who has ever gotten food from Beth's Cafe might've noticed: This is not from Beth's.

    The Night-In: Bacon and eggs (with hash browns and toast) from Beth's Cafe to be eaten in front of NBC's Parks and Recreation.

    The Cuisine: Beth's Cafe more or less marks the end of Aurora Avenue before it turns to Highway 99 proper (although you do get one last parting shot of sex shops and sleazy hotels before you hit the bridge). It's been around since 1954, serving the best and scuzziest that Aurora has to offer. I still remember naysayers doubting Beth's would survive for a single week after Washington's smoking ban went into effect, but the rough-and-tumble cafe has survived six years after the fact and Seattle is all the better for it.

    Beth's is probably best known for its 12-egg omelets, which effectively knocked out that Man Vs. Food wimp without even having to bust out the dreaded Triple Bypass (I swear I'll do one of these columns without featuring angry food intent on killing you . . . someday). However, the main thrust of this pairing required something from Beth's with a little more meat and potatoes.

    It's kinda tricky to haul all your breakfast home in one box and have it turn out to be anything but the world's ugliest omelet, particularly if you like your eggs over-easy. Still, the food made it home in an edible fashion, with Beth's two deftly prepared eggs not even breaking a yolk. While not technically "bottomless" anymore, Beth's infamously heavy hash browns still pack more than enough potato to knock you on your ass. The bacon was cooked, not charred to a black husk, so by my standards it was perfect. If you think I'm going to review the toast, I don't know what to tell you.

    The Entertainment: With both hardened staple 30 Rock and exciting whippersnapper Community out for the 2011 season, this week's installation of NBC's Thursday Comedy Nights will hinge on the mockumentary antics of The Office and Parks and Recreation -- both shows under the creative umbrella of acclaimed sitcom producer Greg Daniels.

    The Office is currently wrapping up with a much-anticipated hourlong episode to be aired this Thursday as the show seeks a hefty replacement due to a hasty exit by Steve Carrell, who possibly suspected he was going to be replaced by some punk robot from Seattle midway through next season. That might be all well and good for the bank accounts of the boatloads of guest stars The Office has been revolving, but when it comes to consistent laughs and the fates of likable characters, I'm far more interested in how the younger Greg Daniels joint's season will wrap itself up.

    Parks and Recreation is set in the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana, a small town plagued with financial issues, small-time corruption, and a crushing sense of apathy affecting most of its citizens. Initially speculated as a direct spin-off from The Office, the show ran into a few problems and unfavorable expectations from the very beginning.

    Critics feared the show's similar style, dry content matter, and cast (despite involving no Office characters) doomed Parks and Rec to being a bland, derivative mess, with the most worrisome of signs coming from an all-too-recognizable central character: hyperactive and socially inept mid-level bureaucrat Leslie Knope. The initial pigeonholing of Amy Poehler's boundless energy into a predictable Michael Scott clone seemed a dismal omen for the show's future, but Parks and Recreation quickly picked up its own charm around the second season.

    With Parks' diverse ensemble becoming much more memorable as a whole than the employees of the titular Office, attention slowly drifted away from the manic Knope and toward characters like the gruff libertarian and ineffectual Parks Department head Ron Swanson, the simply ineffectual intern-cum-assistant April Ludgate, the well-intentioned sleazebag Tom Haverford (played by the consistently amazing Aziz Ansari), and the resident manchild/shoeshiner Andy Dwyer.

    As the comedy net was cast further, less pressure was put on Poehler, allowing her character to really breathe and attain dimensions and relatability that even Carell's obnoxiously lovable boor couldn't manage to acheive in The Office's three extra seasons. Instead of just hovering over Knope for whatever inevitable horrific faux pas she can drop on her suffering co-workers next, Parks and Recreation places its central character's bumbling in a much more endearing light, making way for more stupid grins than cringes as she really does seem to make positive changes to Pawnee's landscape.

    Here the show's derivative nature started to work for it, introducing stock scenarios and universal conflicts drawn from the same well of inspirational sitcoms that have kept audiences' attention on character interaction over novel or overcomplicated plots. In particular, Leslie's friendship with Pawnee nurse Ann Perkins (played by Office expat Rashida Jones) seems to take a lot of notes from the friendship between Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern; last week's episode even featured the familiar tableau of "Friend Pitted Against Friend When They Find Out They Might Finally Work Together" that reminded me of one MTM episode in particular. I might not have made the connection if the other plotline in the episode weren't based on a makeshift version of The Newlywed Game gone horribly wrong, a delightfully cheesy trope that seems to pop up on sitcoms as frequently as The Crazy Neighbor or The Getting Stuck in an Elevator Episode.

    Parks and Recreation distances itself from the pessimism that thoroughly permeates buzzworthy comedies like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the time-sensitive humor of a show like Family Guy, but still manages to maintain its relevance through solid, memorable characters and snappy dialogue. When I say that it's one of the least alienating shows I've ever watched, I don't mean to say that it's safe to a fault; Parks and Recreation is just really difficult to hate.

    The Pairing: A prevalent running joke within Parks and Recreation is how much the characters love breakfast food. Curmudgeonly Ron Swanson leads the pack in breakfast obsession, with a stock photograph of a smiling woman holding a plate of eggs and sausage acting as his office's sole decoration for most of the series. The idea here is not to see breakfast solely as the first meal of the day, but as a genre of meal that cannot be dissected or further reduced to any significant extent. The traditional layout of bacon, eggs, pancakes, and toast recalls pastoral living (or at least media-saturated cityfolk's impression of pastoral living), a meal so far away from foodie cultures and health movements that to continue describing it would only deaden its allure.

    There are times when cliches feel tired and laborious, but possibly just as many times where they can bring people together in sharing common ground. Beth's Cafe hasn't reinvented breakfast meat, but has brought it competently to a place ripe with character and history. It feels sacrilegious to take those greasy hash browns out of Beth's crayon-colored walls, but plunking them in front of a new classic like Parks and Recreation gets no argument from me.

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