In the emotional Parks finale, everyone gets what they deserve — including us.
Anything is possible if you follow your dreams. Johnny Karate.
Back in 2009, there wasn’t much hope for Parks and Recreation. It had been portrayed in the trades as a spin-off of NBC’s The Office (then at its peak), but quickly moved away from that idea; instead it was “just another” fake-documentary show. The six episodes that made up its first season were messy and unfocused — and worst of all, people were just really annoyed by its central character, an impossibly sunny small-town government employee with dreams of being the second female president of the United States (after Hillary Clinton). But given a second chance at life (which wouldn’t be its last), showrunner Michael Schur and his crack writers subtly retooled with Season 2, though no adjustment was larger than the shift in how the other characters responded to Leslie Knope. Before, she was a nuisance. Now, she was someone to admire, even as she was getting them to do things they didn’t want to do. Amy Poehler’s guileless performance won them — and us — over.
The Parks team astutely realized that we didn’t need another cynical sitcom, so they instead injected gobs and gobs of heart. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when describing Parks: its heart. I’ve said before that watching the show feels like receiving a warm hug; how subversive, really, to have a show where the characters genuinely love each other and set aside their differences to accomplish great things? It may be a fantasy, but no less one than The West Wing‘s vision of idealized politics; where else could an optimistic Democrat (a fact that was confirmed only just last night) find not only common ground, but true friendship with a staunchly masculine, gold-hoarding Libertarian? Or with a flamboyantly stylish capitalist? Or with a sulking, Halloween-obsessed anarchist?
From Harvest Festivals to Unity Concerts, from park construction to memorial services for miniature horses, and from election victories to ignominious recalls, Parks presented a town more detailed and margin-stuffed than any TV city since Springfield, populated with idiosyncratic and consistently funny side characters. It’s given us catchphrases (“Treat yo’ self!”) and highly quotable jokes, miraculous physical comedy (point your attention here and here, perhaps the two funniest scenes in the show’s illustrious history), a heaping dose of nerdiness (I have never identified more with a TV character than with Thrones/Star Wars/Settlers of Catan-loving Ben Wyatt), and one of the all-time greatest creations of any medium in Ronald Ulysses Swanson. Yesterday on Twitter, people were trading lines and favorite scenes, and more than half of them must have belonged to Nick Offerman’s mustachioed hero. There’s been no shortage of thinkpieces about the series’s legacy, most of them quite excellent — consider this mine.
Parks, as it’s widely known, has “ended” multiple times before — both Leslie’s election episode, and her wedding to Ben, were slotted in as possible series finales before the show was saved at the eleventh hour — again — by NBC.* But finally, seven seasons after it first began, it was time to end it for good, and on the show’s own terms. The result was an emotional, heartfelt finale that was true to itself, which is all you can ask for.
*Just what has happened to that once mighty network could be the subject of its own article; suffice to say that out of Parks, The Office, 30 Rock, and Community, which made up the strongest comedy block I’ve EVER seen, only that last show remains, reincarnated on Yahoo. Everything else NBC has tried to program on Thursdays has died on the vine; now the network has all but vacated the night when it comes to scripted programming.
The “plot,” such as it was, was a simple one: Leslie and the gang have gathered in the Parks Department office one last time, where her exhaustive retrospective of the years they’ve spent together are interrupted by a man (Jon Daly, reprising a role from Season 1 that no one, even Leslie, remembers) who needs a swing fixed at the park near his house. It may be early in the morning, but Leslie rallies the troops, doing what she does best — collecting paperwork — while the others tag along. But each stop along the way gives Leslie an opportunity to sincerely thank and compliment her friends, and as she does so — a touch on the shoulder here, a handshake there — we get a glimpse into the future (and in some cases far future) of each of our beloved characters: births, deaths, weddings, and emotional payoffs galore. If you didn’t expect this series finale to evoke Six Feet Under’s, you haven’t stocked up with nearly enough tissues. (For more from Schur and the cast, check out this great postmortem with Entertainment Weekly.)
You ready, babe?
- Donna, who gets her real estate license and moves to Seattle with Joe, was always one of the more level-headed characters despite her love of flashy accoutrements. But no one has had more amazing experiences — she came in 9th in Italy’s Got Talent, and even served on a NASCAR pit crew, to name two. In 2023 (six years after the end of the series) her and Joe are living a fabulous life, taking frequent vacations (including one to beautiful “Middle Korea”), but all isn’t right with Joe’s job — his school just killed not only Math Club, but Math as a subject. This gives Donna the idea to go non-profit with her sizable income, creating an organization named — wait for it — “TEACH YO’ SELF!”
- In 2019, Craig marries Typhoon! Ron is their Best Man, an incredibly sweet payoff for something that was only set up in last week’s episode! And then we jump wayyyyy into the future to see the two of them in their old age, still hamming it up while on a flight in a transparent plane. This primes the pump for the generation-spanning teases to come.
- April and Andy: In 2022, they’re still going as Burt Macklin and his lover Janet Snakehole for Halloween, but trick-or-treating is making Andy want to have kids of their own. (“I want to put a babe in you, babe.”) To April, the morning sickness and stretch marks sound legitimately great — it’s the raising a child part that terrifies her. So she gets a sweet pep talk from Leslie who, instead of making the (tired) argument about how fulfilling children are, appeals to how great April and Andy are as a team: “Think of it like you’re adding a few new teammates.” This works, and one year later (again, on Halloween), April has put on zombie makeup specifically for labor. Welcome to Earth, Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack O’Lantern Dwyer— or “Jack” for short!
- We even get to see a glimpse of Jean-Ralphio’s future, who attempts to fake his death in 2022, and makes a poor rabbi play a Lil’ Jon song at his funeral. But he and Mona Lisa are caught, naturally, before they can escape to open a casino in Tajikistan.
- In 2019, Tom is eager to expand his Bistro to multiple locations, but it blows up in his face. He’s so devastated, he even makes a documentary about how big of a failure he is, and can’t stop watching it. But after Lucy encourages him, he gets one final, brilliant idea: become an author by embracing honesty. So FAILURE: AN AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY becomes a bestseller, and Tom is a sought-after motivational speaker. Adorably, he has used Andy, April, Ben, Leslie, Ron, Donna, and (of course) himself as “types” of successful people — but don’t be a Garry! Nobody wants to be a Garry! But Tom is still Tom, and still a slimeball — at least on the outside.
- Garry, no longer the punching bag, has the perfect life: he is ultimately elected as Mayor of Pawnee for ten consecutive terms (the first as a result of a massive write-in campaign that only his friends could have orchestrated.) He is truly loved by the people, even whatever alien overlords are ruling over us decades into the future. And then, on his 100th birthday in 2048, after spending the day relishing in the love his extensive (and extensively blond) family — though his wife Gayle looks exactly the same — Garry passes away. His funeral receives the full 21-stamp salute from the people of Indiana, a fitting tribute, though they still manage to misspell his name on the gravestone. Leslie thinks that’s fitting, too. (More on you-know-what later.)
- Ron’s future is my favorite, as I expect it will be for you: in 2022, he promptly resigns from the Very Good Building & Development company; he feels he’s accomplished all he’s ever wanted in his life, with a beautiful family and a 51% share of that magical Scotland distillery. In his words, he’s “at a personal crossroads,” and he doesn’t want to make the mistake again of not talking to Leslie about it. He wants to do something truly useful with his life, and Leslie, as she so often does, has the perfect idea. She’s given so many great gifts to Ron and the rest of her friends over the years (the simplest ones are the best, like the device that shut his office door with the push of a button), but she’s saved her greatest for this moment: making him the superintendent of the Pawnee National Park. Yes, he’s back working for the federal government, but his job is to walk the land and talk to bears! Ron’s quiet but sincere “Thank you, Leslie,” is the culmination of their decade-plus relationship, and the smile he bears while paddling out over the lake is one of pure joy. An absolutely pitch-perfect grace note.
But what of Leslie and Ben? In 2025 — eight years after moving to Washington, and nearly two decades after this journey began — Leslie and Congressman(!) Wyatt are at the White House for a social gathering with (apparently eternal) Vice President Biden and other dignitaries. But before Leslie can take down the Veep in charades, she gets a intriguing offer: the DNC wants her to run for the soon-to-be-vacant office of Governor of Indiana. It’s another stepping stone to the ultimate goal she’s had since she was a child, but there’s a complication: Jenn Barkley has just made the exact same offer to Ben. Uh-oh.
They both admit that the other would do great; Leslie’s separate pros & cons charts are essentially identical. They’re already planning to visit Pawnee, so Ben sweetly gets the gang all back together, so they can bounce the conundrum off their friends. And, for once, that includes long-lost Ann and Chris, the former of whom is a recipient from a bulldozing Leslie hug. It’s fantastic. As the friends mingle and reminisce (including Chris writing down a list of Leslie’s lovely Ann-centric metaphors), Leslie and Ben realize they’ve been too caught up in the emotion to even mention the matter at hand. So Leslie proposes a radical (for her) solution: just flip a coin! And get everyone to sign it, and it’ll make its way to the Smithsonian!
For the final 20 minutes of the episode, we were poised to settle one of the burning questions raised in the flash-forwards: at Garry’s funeral in 2048, a much older Ben and Leslie (with the former looking something like Draco Malfoy) are there…with what seems to be a Secret Service detail. That subtle hint led to a lot of delightful squealing at my house, as we knew what that meant — one of them is a current (or former) President of the United States. Could this 2025 coin flip be the cosmic event that sets those events in motion?
As it turns out, no. Ben does what we knew he always would: defer to Leslie’s lifelong dream, making the announcement in front of the group before any coin can be tossed. Leslie Knope is running for Governor of Indiana.
2035: Leslie Knope has served two terms as Governor of Indiana, and is being honored at the state University, receiving a doctorate and making a speech (she’ll just have to cope with getting a library named after her.) She alludes to an “unknown challenge” heading her way, and gives an impassioned appeal to everyone listening to “Find your team, and get to work.” We see a montage of moments throughout the series where Leslie and her friends have done just that, a wonderful summation of the series and its enduring, sanguine spirit.
It wasn’t the funniest episode of Parks, but it was nonetheless perfect. This series has meant a great deal to me over the years; I’ve stuck with it from the beginning, through all of the cancellation threats, and evangelized for it wherever I could. It’s the rare sitcom that maintained its quality over its multiple-season run (The Office certainly can’t say that) — even it’s “worst” season was still better than most things on TV. Its indefatigable optimism about the way things could be became more and more indispensable as the politics of our world became more and more fractured. And now, it will live forever.
If you want to know what I think is happening in 2048, I suspect both Leslie and Ben have each taken a turn in POTUS’s chair. What could be more fitting, for a series built on collaboration and sacrifice?
When we worked here together, we fought, scratched and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is about: small, incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.” And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love.
Final (no, I’m not crying, it’s just all the dust) Odds and Ends:
- “Come on, Garry — you’re the mayor now. Have some dignity.”
- Indicative of the series’s small audience, after the gang has had their triumphant moment fixing the swing, the guy they did it for doesn’t even really care.
- “I got me a terminal case of GET ME TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE AT SIIIIIIX FLAAAAAGS!” Never change, Jean-Ralphio. Even that torch you’ve been secretly carrying for Leslie.
- Ben has had continued success with CONES OF DUNSHIRE, whose bestselling sequel was called “punishingly intricate” by Gameplay Magazine! This was one of my all-time favorite bits from the series, and I’m so happy we revisited it one more time.
- One more question left dangling is Andy’s job in the future (I’m sure whatever it is, he’s happy in it), but we do get to meet his brand-new character: Sgt. Thunderfist, M.D.
- Farewell cameos: Shauna Mulwae-Tweep, Ethel Beavers, and hapless Kyle, the only man at City Hall that even Garry could make fun of.
- So Leslie’s daughter and Ann’s son are hitting it off, huh? I smell sequel series!
- “Chip Traeger, how ya been?” “Andy, it’s Chris!” “…Huh!”
- The personality quiz in Tom’s book pays rich dividends: Ron is a “Ron,” but Ben is somehow a “Tom,” which sends Tom out of the building on a beeline to re-calibrate it.
- IN THE YEAR 2017 AND BEYOND…Seattle builds a Space Haystack around its Space Needle; to Tom’s misfortune (and one can only fathom Ron’s response), the country at some point runs out of beef; there are pills you can take (but not eat) that will enhance your hair, and a wristband that will measure your health; Brandi Maxxxx improbably continues to follow in Leslie’s footsteps, now as chair of the Pawnee City Council. Yikes.
- “And as for qualifications? You’re Ron Swanson.”
Godspeed, Parks — and thank you for reading. It’s been fun.