“Parks and Recreation”: Future Perfect

Parks

(Warning: This blog post contains spoilers for the sixth season finale of Parks and Recreation.)

As NBC’s beloved Parks and Recreation nears the end of its glorious seven-year lifespan, a predictable narrative malaise has begun to set in, even among the show’s most passionate fans. Leslie Knope has overcome one adversity after another, Ron Swanson has eaten his weight in bacon more times than can possibly be healthy for his cholesterol, and the show’s deep bench of supporting characters has coalesced into a cohesive unit as a result of Leslie’s tutelage. Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones triumphantly took their leave in the middle of the season, further contributing to the sense that the show had reached its agreeable, if slightly less remarkable, twilight.

That is, until “Moving Up” catapulted the show into uncharted territory.

In fact, the last five episodes of this sixth season of Parks and Recreation put these qualms to rest. It’s remarkable and energizing to watch a show so fully in command of its strengths, in tune with its audience’s expectations and willing to subvert those expectations at every turn, all without compromising the show’s fundamental goals. In particular, the two-part season finale “Moving Up” dazzled, showcasing every one of the show’s soaring highs while managing to find new places to take these characters.

The easiest place to start is at the end, with a mind-blowing three-year time jump that features a Jon Hamm cameo so wonderful that I burst into spontaneous exclamations of “Hamm! Hamm! Hamm!” upon seeing it. (Yes, this actually happened.) Once the dust had settled from that outburst, I realized that Parks creator Michael Schur and the show’s writing staff had come up with a brilliant solution to the encroaching complacency that has lurked around the edges of Pawnee this season. How many more times could Leslie have contemplated leaving Pawnee before pulling back at the last moment to the delight of her fellow staffers? At what point did the reliably awesome climactic conversations between Leslie and Ron cease to be enlightening for either party? Did Pawnee even really want Leslie Knope around anymore? With the three years since Leslie’s decision to take the federal government job and move it to Pawnee firmly in the past, the show can thrust the characters we love into unfamiliar situations. Even as “Moving Up” served as an utterly fitting bow on the enormous Parks and Rec gift box, the final minute on the third floor of the Parks building was a pilot episode unto itself, albeit one with six tremendous seasons supporting it.

Parks

Beyond the attention-grabbing epilogue, the season finale pulled off one magical feat after another. Ron Swanson finally publicizing his Duke Silver persona has been foreshadowed since the second season, and the payoff was satisfying without swallowing the rest of the episode whole. Callbacks ranged from the explicit (Cones of Dunshire) to the obscure (Gryzzldump). April and Andy further cemented their position as one of the all-time great TV couples with their half-serious decision to divorce only to re-marry again for the thrill. Even Billy Eichner’s Craig, an occasionally grating and incongruous presence when he eats up too much screentime, had a few genuinely funny moments, none more satisfying than his Kyra Sedgwick anecdote. Oh, and Michelle Obama was there too. (It’s a testament to the achievements of this episode that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning such a high-profile guest appearance, which elicited genius reaction takes from Amy Poehler.)

Michelle

Parks and Recreation has always dealt head-on with the trials and tribulations of day-to-day government work. With this final-act twist, the show is doubling down on that theme, sidestepping dozens of pregnancy and infant-rearing plotlines that have been the downfall of so many sitcoms past. In the seventh (and presumably final) season, Leslie Knope and the rest of the Parks gang will be in a new setting with new responsibilities, and the show will hopefully find interesting stories to tell about higher-stakes federal government work. But the core of the show remains intact. There’s work to be done, and there’s no one we’d rather see on the job than Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, Andy Dwyer, Donna Meagle, April Ludgate, Tom Haverford and the rest of the Parks staff. (Even Terry.)

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