With the end of Parks and Recreation‘s sixth season, we wanted to take some time to reflect on our favorite comedy’s epic season finale A new job, a trip to San Francisco, appearances by everybody from the Decemberists and Jon Hamm to Michelle Obama, and even a time jump. It was an hour of pure joy, and we’re just bursting to talk about last week’s big episode.
Wow, I can’t believe how great that finale was…again. When has Parks not had an amazing season finale? They always find ways to tie up the season’s major storylines and then set the ball in motion to take things in another direction. As we’ve said all season long, it’s also been nice to watch these people grow, change and mature. Andy is still a dope, but he’s found a couple of things he’s good at and capitalized on them to the point that he has a thriving business playing kids’ parties. April, despite her disdain for just about everything and everyone, has also found her strong suits and made herself a career without giving up who she really is deep down. Ron may have evolved the most by marrying Diane and taking on his new family, but he’s also still just Ron Swanson; anti-government, hard-working craftsman and the most devoted friend anyone could ask for. Tom has also been through some stuff and come out in a very different place, and these changes have all happened in ways that were organic and entertaining to watch. We’ve even gotten to know Donna better, helping fill the void left by Ann’s departure. It says a lot about this ensemble that it could lose the likes of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe without missing a beat.
Unlike on The Office, when we couldn’t understand why Pam refused to leave Scranton with Jim for his big opportunity in Philly, we can grasp more easily how hard everything is for Leslie. Even when her dream job seems to be the only real choice and it looks like leaving Pawnee is imminent, the way she figures out how to stay in Pawnee and move the National Parks job there is backed up with rationale and concrete plans. That’s the best part; even when there’s some sort of contrivance on the show, we can’t get mad at them because they completely back up their logic. We can just let ourselves enjoy it, which is why the show is so perfect.
Ben and Leslie have also moved past Jim & Pam for me on my favorite TV couples list. There’s just something so fantastic about the way this couple fell in love and grew together. They’re both just good looking dorks who don’t apologize for the things they love and are as loyal and steadfast as anyone you’ll ever meet. Their devotion to each other is impressive. Their dedication, as characters, to their ideals is amazing. And I assume we won’t watch their relationship nearly crumble in a poorly executed storyline next season.
The big set pieces for this episode were perfect. The National Parks Convention and Ben’s inspirational stop in Golden GatePark were a realistic yet romantic way to finally convince Leslie that she had to take her dream job. The Cones of Dunshire plotline, and what it could ultimately mean for Ben and Leslie’s future (maybe even why Ben was in a tux at the end of the hour?) was genius. The Unity Concert was a pure delight. The callbacks in this sequence alone would have been a beautiful coda to the series. Ben’s obsession with Letters to Cleo, the Mouse Rat reunion, the “5000 Candles in the Wind” grand finale (complete with Lil’ Sebastian hologram), the chance to include Diane, Tammy Two, Joan Calamezzo, Perd Hapley and the whole crazy Saperstein clan without them seeming shoehorned in. This all dovetailed nicely into Tom’s restaurant storyline and the way many of Pawnee’s luminaries and VIP guests were instrumental in his success. Plus, that story’s been a nice way to integrate Craig.
The whole time jump scene was just beyond. Once again, it could have been a great end to the show, but knowing they’d been renewed, the producers took the opportunity make the three year jump, skipping Leslie’s whole pregnancy, the triplets’ birth and some wacky maternity stories. Leslie and Ben now have three toddlers (do you think they ever play with John Middle Name Redacted Swanson?), plenty of help in Andy and April (mostly April), and what looks like two thriving careers. We don’t know exactly how Tom, Donna, or Ron are doing, but we’re sure to find out. Did Tammy Two’s threat become an issue at some point? Is Tom’s restaurant still thriving? Did Dr. Saperstein screw him over again? There’s so many ways this could go, and the time jump allows the writers to just go for it. Things aren’t stagnant, even if we’re still in little ol’ Pawnee.
And don’t think I forgot the epic cameo of one Jon Hamm. The mere fact that he said “literally” made it the best thing ever, but him being deemed less competent than Jerry (or Larry, or Terry) was fantastic. I also loved that it was mentioned that he’d been there the whole three years, allowing for random Jon Hamm cameos at any moment in Season 7 that the writers choose to flashback.
Here’s how you know a comedy is at the top of its game: They can make a travel episode work. Over the course of the season, Parks and Recreation had two of them. The Pawnee crew went to London earlier in the season and the season finale sent Leslie, Ben, and Andy to San Francisco. And both episodes were great! Travel episodes are notoriously terrible across the board, and in fact, my least favorite Parks episode may be the season five premiere set in WashingtonD.C. (Though, let’s be honest. Even that had its moments, including the eminently quotable “Chris Traeger: Feelings Update”.) But this season they pulled off two really funny trips, both of which affected the course of the series. You pull that off once in a season and you’re good at your job. Do it twice, and you’re really just showing off.
I’ve probably said this before, but if you go back and watch the second season episode “Stakeout” – the one that introduces Louis C.K. as Officer Dave, you can see that this is where everybody agreed that they were just going to make TV’s best comedy. I’ve seen it so many times, and Ron Swanson trying to flip a hamburger into this mouth and missing spectacularly still makes me crack up almost to the point of tears. And since then, Parks has given us one of the best runs of any comedy. I’d put Seasons Two through Six up against Seasons Four through Eight of The Simpsons for overall quality and consistency.
Myndi mentioned how Parks stacks up to The Office, and if you go and look back at the sixth season of that show, it had already started to falter. It still delivered occasionally great episodes, but if you compare their respective Season Six runs, it’s no contest. This was the point where The Office ended up getting more cartoonish, to the extent that Kevin (an adult with a job and everything) didn’t understand the concept of death. By contrast, Parks has found more dimensions to these characters. Go back and watch the first season – Ron Swanson and Andy are one-joke characters. Funny jokes delivered by incredibly talented people, but one-joke nonetheless. Ron Swanson is grumpy. Andy doesn’t understand things. And they got laughs, but they didn’t seem like characters who could surprise us more than a hundred episodes later. (Also, now that we know Chris Pratt is an amazing physical comedian, how weird is it that he spent most of the first season in a full body cast?)
And the reason Parks could grow in a way that The Office couldn’t is that it’s built around a positive force. The Office was a show about people who hated their jobs and just looked for something to get through the day. It’s a brilliant, eminently relatable premise. But it’s also a premise that prevented success. In a show built around tedium, you can’t have somebody break free and live their dream. Again, I love The Office. Still, it’s a show about people who don’t want to be there. Either they have to leave, give up, or settle for less. And they went with the third option. Early on, the co-workers didn’t really know another outside of the building. It was a big deal when Jim invited them to a party. But by the sixth season, they seemingly didn’t know anybody who didn’t work for Dunder-Mifflin and they were intimately involved in one another’s lives. That blunted the whole idea of the show. Further, The Office never figured out how to let characters be happy. The less said of Jim and Pam’s marital troubles, the better.
Parks took a different approach from day one by having Leslie Knope at its center. Instead of a show about people trying to get through the day, you had a show about somebody who wanted to fix everything and make people happy. She ensured that the show would always have a heart. And thus, it’s not weird when Donna offers to help when Leslie reveals her pregnancy. These people have been friends since day one, and they’ve been friends because Leslie decided that they were. Ron and Tom never had a prayer – Leslie made sure that they all cared about one another despite their attempts to distance themselves. As played by Amy Poehler, Leslie is a charismatic and unstoppable force.
As a further comparison – the best episode of The Office generally make you want to die and give you a single nugget of heart right at the very end. The best episodes of Parks and Recreation are about the group pulling together. (The first example that comes to mind – “99 Meetings”.)
There’s also the simple fact that Parks know how to let the characters be happy and still find humor there. There’s never going to be an episode about either Ben or Leslie cheating because they wouldn’t do that. The show doesn’t need to create conflict in their marriage to generate a story because they can find what’s funny in a solid, happy marriage. Tom doesn’t have to keep failing in his businesses because running a restaurant can be funny. And with the characters so well-drawn, it doesn’t feel like a cheat when Ron or April takes somebody else’s feelings into account. They’re the funniest misanthropes around, but they’re three-dimensional enough that they can show kindness without breaking character.
The season finale felt like a big warm hug for the viewers. Time and time again, they nail the emotions and the jokes. You know what I was saying about travel episodes earlier? Well, the season finale was both a travel episode and a showcase for non-actor cameo appearances. And it worked. Just look at that last musical number – you’ve got a stage full of famous musicians, the silliest joke in recent memory (Bobby Knight Ranger), a last-second reunion of MouseRat, Ron Swanson going public as Duke Silver, all performing a reprise of a fan-favorite song about a dead tiny horse. With one misstep, that could feel like either pandering to the fans or guest star overload. Instead, it’s perfect. Everything makes sense in that moment and we get to be just happy as Andy is.
As much as I love a good cynical comedy (I’ll never forget you, Delocated.), Parks and Recreation and its big, goofy heart just brings me so much joy. It’s a show that I want to share with everybody because I hate the idea of somebody missing out. After six seasons, I’m just as excited about each new episode as ever.
And to wrap things up, some of our favorite quotes from the episode:
“From now on, everyone call me Kristen, ’cause I am wigging out.”–Craig
“Liam Bonneville? The Department of the Interior’s resident bad boy? Now you’ve got my attention. Let me get my autograph book and we’ll head out.” — Leslie
“Obviously, we’re no Akron. I mean, we’re more like Dayton. But with your help, we can become Toledo.”–Ben
“We lead the country in online pizza ordering.”–Ben
“My chairs take time. Who do you think I am, Thomas Hucker?” — Ron
“Every time someone in Pawnee clicks through a slideshow of American Music Award sideboob fails, they’ll say ‘Thank you, Ben Wyatt’.” — Ben
“I love quitting! When I was a kid, if things didn’t go my way, I’d take my ball and go home. That’s better than winning because your friends can’t play anyway.” – Tom
“Playing music is something I like to keep private. Along with my family, my conversations, and my whereabouts at all times.” — Ron
“I’m crying out of happiness and sadness and gratitude and because I’m carrying triplets and for a fifth reason that I can’t figure out.” — Leslie
“There’s a booth over there serving something called fried sausage quilts, so I’m going to buy the booth.” — Ron
“Chicago seems like there’s a lot of stuff to do and people, but I like to do nothing with no one. So thank you and I love you, but no thank you and I hate you.” – April
“Do you mind if I snap a youie? It’s what I call selfies of other people.” – Tom
“Can you bring back Power Rangers? I don’t know what you do, but you seem important enough to get that done.”–Andy