Spoilers for the penultimate night of Parks and Recreation follow:
As satisfying as much of the final season of Parks and Recreation has been, its structure puzzled me. It started off with a Leslie-vs.-Ron storyline that seemed like it would carry through the season, then resolved the arc in the fourth episode. The remaining episodes have had the throughline of Ben’s run for Congress, but they’ve often felt like an epilogue–funny, heartfelt epilogue, but epilogue nonetheless.
But the last two episodes before the finale changed my thinking in a couple ways. First, if it means getting an entire episode of the Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show, who the hell cares? (Seriously, except for casting issues and the occasional bit of dangerous advice to children, there’s no reason you could not produce the show tomorrow as one of the best kids’ programs on TV.)
Second, the unusual structure in retrospect seems to be a clever bit of problem-solving. Any long-running sitcom has a lot of unfinished business to take care of in the finale: characters to send off, history to nod to, segments of the fan base to service. Take a show that’s built as expansive a universe as Parks & Rec and you’re looking at a very, very crowded finale–a situation which can often make final sitcom episodes into weird, hurried affairs.
The solution: make most of the final season into a kind of extended finale, one episode at a time, one character at a time.
The brilliant first half-hour of Tuesday’s double-shot focused, of course, on Andy. Thanks to Chris Pratt’s eager-puppy performance, he’s served up some of the show’s most reliably outsized comedy, but as the episode reminded us, he also has a thematic role in the series. As Leslie points out in his sendoff, it was Andy–originally Ann’s loutish boyfriend in the show’s early days–who helped set the whole story in motion through the Pit project.
But more than that, Andy was a project in himself. Over the years he evolved from a hapless slacker with unrealistic dreams to a caring adult with unrealistic dreams (some of which–like becoming Burt Macklin, even in fictional form–he achieved). He was able to channel his oversized-kid energy into a career as an oversized kid, but also developed enough awareness of other people to give up his local fame to move with April to Washington.
(This, by the way, continues the parallels between Parks and its touchstone Friday Night Lights, whose finale also turned on Eric Taylor’s agreeing to move to Philadelphia for Tami’s career–the importance of partnership in a relationship is a big theme of Parks, and not just when it comes to Ben and Leslie.)
The theme extended to the second half-hour, “Two Funerals”–with the long-awaited guest appearance of Bill Murray as the late Mayor Gunderson–which put a cap on Tom Haverford’s evolution from playerhood, as Leslie helped him find a typically dramatic, Haverfordian way to put a ring on it. (The episode’s focus was a little broader than “Johnny Karate,” as it also gave Garry/Jerry/&c a little respect–but not too much!–by making him Pawnee’s interim mayor.) Like Andy, Tom began as a much rawer-edged version of the character we now know, and he’s found a way to mature without denying what makes him himself.
Along the way, the episodes included too many callbacks and references to list (let alone the Johnny Karate legal disclaimer). But above all, they were reminders that Parks and Rec has always been about more than just public-works projects. Each character–even sufficient-unto-himself Ron–is a project, a lot with potential for improvement, just as we all are. The way to complete those projects, the show suggests with Andy and Tom, is not to become another person but to become the best version of yourself. It can take some digging and several years, Parks and Rec suggests, but with effort and a little belief in the ridiculous, you can turn a pit into a person.
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