“Parks and Recreation” always made the fine art of creating great television comedy look easy. For seven seasons the NBC series set an impossibly high benchmark, and now leaves the air without any true peer on network TV.
That it never attracted a massive audience or garnered the industry kudos it deserved doesn’t really matter. The show always took its narrative cues from the big-hearted optimist at its center, can-do civil servant Leslie Knope (brought to life by the indomitable Amy Poehler).
With a bona fide warmth that ran contrary to the trend of ironic small-screen comedies, “Parks” thrived as an eternal underdog. A series not just to watch for laughs, but to champion and love. (And in the age of social media, ideal fodder to tweet, like, GIF and meme with everyone else in the know.)
Permanent existence on the renewal bubble is probably the exact reason why it never reached that dreaded phase of TV wheel-spinning, when the need to stay on the air trumps creative inspiration. The show enjoyed the rare freedom to keep going and eventually come to an end all on its own terms.
The hourlong series finale (SPOILERS AHEAD) was officially written by Poehler and co-creator/series mastermind Mike Schur, but might as well have been written by Leslie herself. She couldn’t have hoped for better goodbyes to all of her best friends.
Having already jumped to the year 2017 at the end of season six, “Parks” went even further into the future in the finale, treating viewers to flash forwards illuminating what lies ahead for Pawnee’s tireless parks crew. But unlike the classic “Six Feet Under” finale, these weren’t glimpses of death (with two very funny exceptions) but windows into lives still to come.
Among the standout moments: Leslie arranges for Libertarian loner Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) to supervise a national park close to home, where he can spend his days working outside and talking to bears; iconoclast April (Aubrey Plaza) goes into labor on Halloween in full zombie makeup; and genial screw-up Garry (Jim O’Heir) extends a temporary stint as mayor of Pawnee into multiple terms, passing away peacefully at age 100 surrounded by his family, including ever-youthful wife Gayle (Christie Brinkley).
The lovefest extended to Tom (Aziz Ansari), Andy (Chris Pratt) and Donna (Retta). It even expanded to include recurring players Craig (Billy Eichner) and infectious idiot Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz). Former regulars Ann (Rashida Jones) and Chris (Rob Lowe) returned as part of a larger flash forward focused on Leslie and her perfectly matched husband Ben (Adam Scott) deciding which one of them would run for Governor of Indiana. (That storyline also included a cameo for Vice President Joe Biden — who practically became a recurring player on the show himself with three appearances and many more mentions — and his wife, Jill.)
Every carefully crafted payoff played like a great big hug to not only the characters but the audience. Under Schur’s steady hand as director, the narrative weaved back and forth through time with precision and grace. Fans got resolution without finality, waving goodbye while leaving viewers with a profound sense that all these lives continue on.
“Parks’” most delicate and distinguishing balancing act had always been the ability to pull off incredibly sentimental material without it feeling sappy or forced. The love — between the people on screen, behind the camera and watching at home — is genuine because these connections have been so carefully nurtured over the years.
It simply wasn’t possible to watch “Parks” on a regular basis and not come to care deeply about the characters. They were sitcom types who evolved into fully-fleshed-out individuals, complete with quirks and flaws that made us giggle but also revealed their humanity. That’s what makes a finale dedicated to happy endings the perfect choice.
But it wouldn’t have felt quite as right if “Parks” hadn’t already spent the previous 11 episodes of this season laying the groundwork for the end, gently nudging each of its key players toward the future, giving each member of the ensemble a chance to shine and delivering pantheon-level installments like “Leslie & Ron,” “Donna & Joe,” “Pie-Mary” and “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” along the way.
The pieces were already in place, and it doesn’t diminish what Poehler and Schur achieved in the final episode to say that all they needed to do was get the show across the finish line.
They also left the audience with something to talk about. When Ben and Leslie attend Garry’s funeral in the year 2048, they’re accompanied by a secret service detail. Did Leslie Knope actually achieve her presidential dreams? Or was it Ben Wyatt? Both? (Perhaps by that time America is experienced with spouses who each get a turn at the White House.)
The definitive answer to those questions is where “Parks” ultimately plays it coy, letting viewers imagine their own happy ending. It’s not the last moment of the episode, but it’s a sublime parting gift. And one that ensures “Parks” will enjoy an afterlife that extends long past its final broadcast.