By James Poniewozik
January 14, 2015

Spoilers for last night’s season premiere of Parks and Recreation follow:

As the title “2017” suggested, the first half hour of Parks and Recreation‘s premiere returned us to the near-future it teased at the end of the previous season. Parks is not suddenly going to become a science-fiction show in its final run of episodes, but as we saw in “2017” and “Ron and Jammy,” it’s relying on the trusty dystopian principle that the future will be like today, except shinier and dumber.

It’s in the details, like the ubiquitous translucent Gryzzl tablets, with their sketchy AI interface (“I love your skin. GIVE ME YOUR SKIN!”). But it’s also in the people: Parks has built up a vast, Simpsons-like array of supporting players, and the hour spent some time catching us up with them (which will clearly be a tall order for the abbreviated final season). Besides re-assembling the office team, introducing a creepily homespun Werner Herzog and bringing back Councilman Jamm and Tammy (and unleashing Amy Poehler’s killer Megan Mullally imitation), it updated us on folks like Joan Calamezzo, whose résumé now includes the memoir Game of Joans.

But the most intriguing development for the final season was a bit of a return to Parks and Rec‘s earliest days and themes: Leslie and Ron are enemies.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of this; clearly there’s too much affection between them for this to keep going long, entertaining as it is to watch them force hostility toward each other. (“I’ve never known what bangs are and I don’t intend to learn!” “In my experience with butt-faces, you are one.”) And not an hour had passed before they were setting their differences aside to free Jamm from Tammy’s spell. I don’t think anyone is too worried that they won’t patch things up by series’ end.

But setting them against each other on the park project does give some heft to the show’s themes about government, which have always been as much personal as political. Ron and Leslie are great friends, but they’re also philosophical opposites: he’s a committed anti-government libertarian, and she’s a die-hard believer in government’s ability to help people. That difference was more pronounced in the show’s early episodes; later, as Ron and Leslie became besties, their differences came up mostly in the context of setting them aside.

Now, they’re on opposing sides of the series’ final battle between private and public: whether a significant chunk of land from the Newport estate will become a national park or a corporate campus for Gryzzl. Parks is a sweet, funny show at heart, but in its way it is genuinely about a political question: is government good for anything? Generally Parks has settled this question on Leslie’s terms, with Ron gruffly supporting his friend against her enemies. Having someone we like–Ron, who genuinely believes in the market over the public sector–as Leslie’s rival should give this last arc a little more heft.

The season premiere already sowed the seeds for how I’m guessing this will resolve: Ron will realize that the Gryzzl guys he’s working for are techno-douchebags. Friendship, I’m guessing, will triumph and Leslie will get some kind of win. But by at least giving an airing to Ron and Leslie’s real differences, I’m hoping that Parks will be able to do justice to another one of its longrunning themes: that decent people can disagree, that not everyone opposed to your causes is necessarily “the human equivalent of gas station sushi.”

Showing that a group of sincerely disagreeing people can believe that in America may be this 2017’s most outlandish sci-fi premise of all.

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