When you watch Parks & Recreation episodes on Netflix with the subtitles on, they describe the upbeat, peppy theme as “triumphant music.” (Sometimes, I need to watch Parks & Recreation while I blow-dry my hair, hence this discovery.) Triumphant seems like a great word to describe this little series that could – a series that, while always beloved by critics and Internet denizens alike, was constantly on the verge of cancellation, but which was eventually allowed to exit gracefully on its own terms. As much as I wanted this show to go on for years and years, I’m happy it went the way that it did. This is how you do a finale. (I’m looking RIGHT at you, How I Met Your Mother. Yeah. I’m still mad.)
The last few minutes of the sixth and penultimate season of Parks made an ambitious leap from 2014 to 2017, and while time jumps can fail spectacularly, this one, handled deftly by showrunner Mike Schur, breathed new life into the show, which was admittedly showing signs of dragging. Following this exciting new thread, the short seventh season kept the show’s big heart completely intact but just let the characters make small leaps into the future (not to mention the pop culture – I can’t believe Shia LaBeouf does wedding gowns AND engagement rings!). The finale took that opportunity to leap even further and further, with a simple framing device that let the audience take a look at the futures of their favorite characters.
We open with the original Parks crew, though they’ve all moved on to other jobs, having one last meeting in their old office in City Hall (still in 2017). Leslie, Ben, April and Andy are on the verge of their move to D.C.; Tom is looking to franchise his restaurant; Donna and Joe are moving to Seattle to take advantage of the booming real estate business; Gary is the new honorary mayor of Pawnee; and Ron… well, Ron isn’t going anywhere. Luckily for them, a random citizen pops in to report a broken swing, and the Leslie we know and love immediately steps up and offers her crack team up to fix it. Throughout the process, as she physically touches each of her former coworkers and friends, we get a glimpse into their futures, which are all filled with joy because this is Parks & fucking Recreation.
I don’t want to just write down the minute details of what everybody does, so let me just quickly sum up. Donna finds her joy in helping her husband achieve his dreams while living the luxurious life she’s always deserve. Leslie accepts a job, on Ron’s behalf (because of course she knows how to forge his signature after all these years) so that he can manage the idyllic national park she helped build. Andy and April have a child (Jack, who was obviously born on Halloween), and another on the way. Jean Ralphio and Mona Lisa are running funeral scams to build casinos. Tom, always enterprising, takes failure and turns it into a series of successful books. Gary gets to be mayor forever (and is sworn in by maybe my favorite auxiliary character, Brandi Maxx), and Ben and Leslie? Well, Ben becomes a congressman, and during a party at Joe and Jill Biden’s (where Leslie kicks Joe’s ass at charades), they’re both offered the chance to run for governor of Indiana. Ben sees that his wife’s lifelong dream is bigger than his ambitions, and offers her the chance to run and become a successful two-term governor with a library named after her at the University of Indiana. (“Fuck. A library?!” Leslie grumbles at the ceremony.) Oh, and judging from the secret service men at Gary’s future-funeral, Leslie and/or Ben may have risen in the ranks over the years, but I think that’s best left to the imagination.
The show went out on a high note and ended with the largest possible one – Ann and Chris are back! Ann’s daughter is named Leslie and she and Leslie’s son are totally into each other! The old gang gets back together and reminisces before they all part ways! – and if there has ever been a show that deserves the highest and happiest of notes, this is it. In the midst of a television landscape where everyone seems serious and mean and vindictive (sometimes even in the comedies), Parks & Recreation has spent its seven seasons serving as the brightest possible ray of sunshine it could be. Sure, it had a rocky first season – it was still being considered as a sort of Office spin-off, and Leslie still shared too much of Michael Scott’s DNA to work on her own – but once it found its footing, it ran hard with it, and created one of the strangest, funniest small towns since The Simpsons‘ Springfield. It was heartwarming; characters went for their dreams and often achieved them, but kept plugging along when they didn’t. It was romantic; when Ben and Leslie fell in love, the show let them be in love without falling into the Pam/Jim “will they break up?” trap that ruined the last season or two of The Office. It was laugh-out-loud funny, between Nick Offerman’s deadpan, any time Amy Poehler got to play sick or drunk or tired, and Chris Pratt’s beautiful pratfalls.
I loved this show for bringing pure joy into my life week after week, even when Game of Thrones was murdering my favorite characters and Mad Men was murdering everyone’s relationships and How I Met Your Mother‘s final season and finale hurt me incredibly deeply. (NO, I’M STILL NOT OVER IT, THANKS FOR ASKING.) I loved this show for being unashamedly feminist, not just with its girl-power loving protagonist, but the people who surround her – Ron and Ben, Leslie’s two men, are never emasculated by her success like men written by lesser writers would be, but help hoist her up so that she can rise as high as possible. I loved this show for loving love, from April and Andy threatening to divorce each other so they can get married again to Ben and Leslie’s “I love you and I like you.” And most of all, I loved this show for never sacrificing emotional resonance for comedy – the characters on this show were allowed to love hard, dream big and be triumphant, even when it veered into sentimentality (although, again, the writers on this show are good enough to never let things stay there).
I doubt that there will be another show this happy and positive for a long time, because frankly, negativity is easier. I know this firsthand. It’s always easier to be funny when I’m being mean or self-deprecating, and that’s why I admire Parks & Recreation so much. (Thankfully, there’s at least one show that seems capable of carrying on Parks‘ bouncy legacy – Broad City, produced by, of course, Amy Poehler.) Like I said, I would have been thrilled to have more of it, but unlike its predecessor The Office, which I honestly believe it surpassed (Vulture agrees and wrote a great piece on it), it wasn’t allowed to have a few crappy seasons before it got around to its great finale. It got to shine bright with a short, great final season and go out in a blaze of glory and joy and happy endings, like it deserved.
I also want to say one thing before I sign off from this piece. The Parks cast and crew has always clearly been very close, and it is truly horrible that they had to lose their EP and writer, Harris Wittels, just one week before their show ended (or at all, but you get what I mean). It’s a horrible, gut-wrenching tragedy to lose someone so young and so full of potential to a terrible disease like addiction, and I’m sorry for the people on Parks and beyond who worked with and loved Wittels. They included a brief and touching tribute to him at the very last minute of the finale, and it was a tragic button on a sad-happy finale.
I think I’ve rambled enough, but, well, I’ll miss you, Pawnee. You’re better than 5,000 candles in the wind, and I will miss you in the saddest fashion. But thanks, Parks people, for bringing this show into all of our lives. You’ve brought laughter and happiness into millions of people’s lives, and I think Leslie would be pretty psyched about that.