I guess we should talk about that ending first?
Are you ready?
Not at all…but that’s never stopped us before.
So after all the handwringing about Parks being in a creative slump, the concern about Leslie making the right choice for her character, and eye-rolling about the sudden introduction of not one baby but three, we learn that Leslie Knope — like the show — really can have it all. Having convinced the National Park Service to bring the Regional Director Job to Pawnee instead of taking our heroine to Chicago, we’re then treated to an exhilarating time jump three years into the future: Leslie (and her new haircut) is very much in command, Ben is in a tux for some reason, April and Andy are babysitting the Knope-Wyatt moppets, Larry is now Terry, and apparently Jon Hamm has been working in the department for three years and is finally getting fired after “literally hundreds of chances” (Hamm’s cameo made me audibly squeal, though he has shown time and again how game he is for anything outside the sphere of Don Draper). There is considerably more we do not know, but the series — again, now leading into its almost certainly final season — has been given a jolt of energy right when it needs it, and for the first time I can honestly say on Parks, I have no idea where it’s going next. Which is delightful.
So much of a shock was that final minute, with Sorkin-esque steadicams gliding all over that gorgeous, wood-paneled office (that Ron had been stealthily renovating for half the season, the show itself stealthily foreshadowing this twist), that it threatens to overshadow all that came before, which was “typical” Parks brilliance and charm. It was one of the very few times Mike Schur & co. haven’t had to write a season finale as a series finale, but — strangely — this coda made it feel so much more definitive than any previous “finale” hour, even “Leslie and Ben.” Even for a show that has thrived on change, regularly moving its pieces around the board (and off the board, and adding new pieces on the board), this was an exceptionally bold move, but an exciting one. And once you get over the initial WOAH, you can realize the problems they’ve neatly managed to solve:
1) We’re skipping the most clichéd of all sitcom arcs, late pregnancy-to-newborn care. We don’t need to worry about how Leslie balanced it all, because of course she did, because she is Leslie. Besides, as many have said, they’ve already done this with Ann just this season — what angle could they possibly take on it to make it worth that much airtime? Good for the show on already having a solution in place before last week’s criticism even arose — once again, Mike Schur can run a television series better than I can.
2) In setting the national office in Pawnee, as much as that may have felt like narrative wish fulfillment, we don’t have to jettison half the cast — or worse, fracture it. The gang can stay together, for as happy as Leslie’s friends were for her taking the job, none of them felt called to Chicago themselves. (Although, I did start to wonder if the two slots Leslie originally had to choose from would be filled by Ann and Chris. That would have been TOO easy.) Most importantly, that wasn’t a last-minute deal-breaker for Leslie; she had already made the difficult choice to take the job, after some gentle prodding by FLOTUS herself (and later from Ben), so getting to keep her hometown after all was just the icing on the cake.
3) The Pawnee-Eagleton merger, which had consumed much of this season, is settled. Even though there were seeds of doubt sewn in San Francisco suggesting it might require several more years of her attention, at the Unity Concert the team collected several thousand signatures affirming the move, so it’s pretty safe to say that at this point that the show will have long moved on. What’s more, Pawnee itself, with its many awful, ignorant citizens that may have worn out their welcome this season, can recede into the background as Leslie’s new team focuses on bigger issues.
4) Leslie, from her inception, has wanted to lead on a national level, and eventually in a bigger office than Regional Director within the National Park Service. That was a logical next step for her following her flame-out in the City Council, but what better way to tee up another political campaign than leverage a job she will have held for over three years? Not trying to completely guess how the series will ultimately end, but she is destined to one day leave Pawnee. Ron keeps reminding her of that, and he is always right about these things.
5) Above all, it’s a way to provide an electric charge to the narrative, and present new problems and new characters in a new-ish setting without sacrificing a single thing at the heart of the show. Schur, in a fantastic interview with Alan Sepinwall that you must read, says he took a lot of inspiration from Battlestar Galactica‘s fabled time jump (a decision Ben would approve, no doubt), and how it could challenge the Parks writers in a new way while injecting a new season’s worth of story in one stroke, while giving them a chance to retroactively fill in the gaps of what we missed as we go along. (There must be oceans of material for Hamm’s “Incompetent Ed.”)
Now we have months and months to speculate about what comes next, so I better say a few things about the previous 55 minutes…
San Fransisco. While the biggest moment for Leslie by far was her shouty, sweaty surprise in front of First Lady Michelle Obama (who acquitted herself reasonably well, plugging her “Let’s Move” program while not being as funny as Joe Biden), and her subsequent encouragement from her husband as they overlooked the Golden Gate bridge from the Forest of Endor, the funniest moments came from Ben and Andy’s side quest. The guys tagged along partially so Andy could push skateboards down the city’s elevated streets, but primarily to pitch Pawnee to a hip tech company (GRYZZL: “It’s the cloud for your cloud”) as a candidate for their free wi-fi initiative, something Ben wants to do for the city before he leaves it. But the gross, barefoot Blake Anderson (Workaholics) doesn’t really see Pawnee as “the next Toledo,” and it takes a triumphant return of THE CONES OF DUNSHIRE(!!!) to help him to see the light. Ben even gets to do the whole “lean back in your chair while laughing evilly” thing, as he schools the Silicon Valley crowd and proves he is indeed the architect of the game. I absolutely adore “The Cones of Dunshire” both as a concept and in how it tells us so much about Ben’s character; the reveal at the end of the hour that it was hapless accountant Barney who copyrighted the game in Ben’s name was a sweet little cameo, too.
Unity Concert. Good grief, cameos EVERYWHERE! The concert lineup did not disappoint, including The Decemberists (my favorite band, it’s true, so this could literally not get any cooler), Ginuwine (“Donna’s cousin,” who dedicated his song “Pony” to Lil’ Sebastian), Letters to Cleo (making 90’s music-loving Ben geek out, again), and Yo La Tengo (all dressed like Bobby Knight, for some reason). The Jeff Tweedy-led “Land Ho” even called Mouse Rat up on stage for a rousing closing performance in the style of The Last Waltz, giving the lonely, erstwhile “Johnny Karate” a chance to live that rock star dream one more time — complete with a glorious Lil’ Sebastian hologram.
But that doesn’t hold a candle — or 5,000 — to Parks finally playing one of its closest-held cards, Ron revealing himself to the world as Duke Silver. (That he would do so was never really in doubt. Come on.) Leslie’s reaction is perfect: “I am furious, but I’ve already forgiven you and want you to teach me how to play saxophone!” For Ron’s part, he reflects with his wife that he’s a different person now, with more room in his life for “fun.” While it’s been easy to criticize the Concert arc as simply a repetition of Season 3’s Harvest Festival, the scale (and production value) is so much bigger, and the character payoffs are so much sweeter. There’s so much packed into this hour-long finale, in fact, that one tiny subplot had to be dropped almost entirely — that of the gang conspiring Jamm (who’s planning his own “Secession Rally,” but don’t worry, the bass player from a rock cover band will be there) and the “sewer gutter witch” Tammy 2 into a kiss, which will appear online in the Producer’s Cut.
Tommy’s Bistro. Tom has never worked harder on anything — what a cool life! — but is impatient to the point of forcing a “soft open” to capitalize on the concert buzz. Accordingly, the first night is a disaster of truly terrible proportions; Donna and Angry Craig get into it; Ron has to finish his chairs FAR ahead of schedule (who do you think he is, Thomas Hucker?), and — in what is maybe the worst thing Larry has ever done, which is saying something — the menus have to be thrown out because they’ve been accidentally filled with pictures of the Gergich dog’s rectum. This drives Tom’s primary investor away, but he gets a shot a redemption the next night, when — after a little Saperstein Sibling Hype — literally everyone shows up, and he gets rave reviews. (That includes Perd, whose drink order is “an empty glass.”) Even Dr. Saperstein, he who stole Rent-a-Swag away from Tom, sees its potential and wants to become a partner. So it all works out, and even if I haven’t fallen in love with the Bistro arc, the jump to 2017 means that Tom could be doing just about anything. Which, again, is really exciting.
I mentioned “wish-fulfillment” earlier, and to a certain extent Parks has always felt a little bit like a fantasy, where characters of different ideologies can get along, and hard work and optimism win the day. It’s worked hard to maintain its positive vibe, taking a cue from The West Wing in presenting an idealized view of friendship amidst small-town government, because the alternative is the kind of trumped-up melodrama you can find on almost any other show. So when Leslie lights up before her final play — “I can have everything I want!” — there’s a reaction from some circles that calls that a cheat. She gets the job, her family, and all her friends? How is that relatable or fair? The answer is simple: because she has earned it. She has worked hard, and made sacrifices, and is fiercely loyal to the people she cares about. Someone like that should be rewarded — she deserves a founder’s plaque with her name on it, ironic quote or no. There are plenty of other places to go for nihlism, chaos, or realpolitik (just look to the other show I cover for the site, for starters). But Pawnee-Eagleton is not that place. That’s what makes it so valuable, and why it will be dearly missed.
Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: B+