Future problem solvers: How Parks And Recreation beat the odds and went out on top

Future problem solvers: How Parks And Recreation beat the odds and went out on top

Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Retta, Jim O'Heir, Amy Poehler, Adam Scott
Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Retta, Jim O'Heir, Amy Poehler, Adam Scott

The downfall of many an aging sitcom is that the form, out of sheer necessity, is built around the idea of stasis. Sitcoms depend on characters being an extension of the viewers at home; leaning too much on serialization would force them to change in ways so significant that the show runs the risk of becoming unrecognizable. Because of this, sitcoms languished for years in goldfish mode, where the slate was wiped clean at the end of each episode. In some cases, this phenomenon was subverted through fortuitous cast turnover: The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers both saw significant characters leave around the middle of their runs. More often than not, sitcoms that run for longer than five years get locked into themselves, simply because they cannot overcome the gravity that holds them in place. But, as exhibited by Parks And Recreation, moving into a final season can set a show free.

Parks And Rec has always been about characters who were resistant to change. In season seven, they fought tooth and nail against familiar surroundings being stripped away, often losing. They fought for the protection of JJ’s Diner and they fought to find April a future in Pawnee. They fought to find the perfect mayor and to be the perfect candidate’s wife. They fought to take out drones and outsmart a multi-billion dollar corporation and, most heart-wrenchingly, to retain the relationships they’d spent years painstakingly crafting. But no matter the outcome, the characters came to understand that change is grace.

Especially on sitcoms, change is believing that something better is coming and that characters are brave enough to face it. This is the heart of who Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has always been. Part of what plagued Parks And Rec in its least successful stretches was that Leslie, above all else, was an agent of change. But Leslie lived in a sitcom universe, where entropy carried the day, so she became something akin to a tireless bully. Leslie primarily sees people for all the great things they could be, but as the show continued, she kept pushing characters who could not change because of the stasis of the world they lived in. That resulted in a sometimes painful case of unstoppable force meets immovable object.

What exacerbated this situation was the fact that the show often failed to provide any real, viable opposition for Leslie. Her nemeses were always absurdly oafish like Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) or two-dimensionally villainous like Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser), so her victories over them were empty ones. The most significant battles that Leslie faced were against the friends who she tried to ceaselessly nag into improvement, or the town that resisted her every attempt at betterment as though she were an overgrown Tracy Flick. Since Leslie never had a meaningful and well-matched rival, the writers sacrificed elements of her realism and empathy and set up a dynamic where her true opponents were the things she loved the most: her friends and her home.

What makes this season of Parks And Recreation so special is that it’s finally, brilliantly, paying off relationships and characters that have been in flux for several years. This is particularly edifying for the female characters, all of whom have grown into places of varied contentment. April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), buoyed by her time working under Leslie, now has enough confidence and drive to accept that she isn’t satisfied by her work. Refusing to settle, she lets herself be vulnerable enough to depend on her friends for help. Donna Meagle (Retta), long a masterful player in the dating game, finally weds Joe, a man who treasures her as the magnificently powerful woman she is. In building out her future, Donna allows herself to feel nostalgia for the people who filled her life for so long. Leslie, focused as always, seems to have taken to being a working mother. The show’s wise choice to use a three-year time jump in the season-six finale has allowed her triplets to become an amusing running joke, as opposed to a bar by which she defines herself.

Last year, I wrote a For Our Consideration essay about how sitcom heroines have fewer paths to pursue as shows age. I was dismayed at seeing protagonist after protagonist shunted into motherhood for lack of a better story option. Pegged to Parks And Recreation’s revelation that Leslie and Ben were having triplets, the piece was intended as an evaluation of the medium as a whole—but often read like an indictment of the sitcom at hand. While I stand by the statement that television could use more diversity as far as the lifestyle choices of women go, I could not have foreseen how substantially Parks And Recreation would use its final season to differentiate itself from the pack.

At the time the show announced that Leslie was not only pregnant, but pregnant with triplets, it seemed clear that a choice was being made to sidetrack a character who had always been singularly focused on her hopes and aspirations. After all, what choice did the show have but to go all-in on pregnancy and motherhood and the wholly consuming act that was juggling (figuratively) three babies? What couldn’t be anticipated was the decision to accelerate the show’s timeline, depositing the narrative in a place that allowed Parks And Rec to still be Parks And Rec. The move made motherhood merely a newfound facet of Leslie’s character, without the muss and fuss of having to witness the transition. And with this choice, Parks positioned itself for the grand final season it was always capable of having.

One of the obvious disadvantages of television criticism is that until the final episode has aired, there’s really no concrete way of knowing exactly where a series is heading or what a creator has in mind. (In some cases, as with The Sopranos and David Chase, even a finale doesn’t clarify things much.) Though I have no illusions about my essay having an effect on the show, this last stretch has exhibited a keen sense of Parks And Recreation responding to its critics with gentle good humor and, yes, grace. It recognizes what hasn’t worked in the past and attempts to rectify it. The abject cruelty with which the show treated perpetual whipping boy Jerry (Jim O’Heir) is softened, the characters finally taking a moment to acknowledge the sweet and well-meaning, if hapless, friend they always had. Guest characters are back in spades, but they’re used deftly, never overstaying their welcome. Leslie, seemingly invincible too often around the show’s midpoint, has faced any number of challenges and has lost more than she’s won.

Most impressively, the show has walked back the extreme cartoonishness that Leslie and Ron (Nick Offerman) could lapse into, driving home both their humanity and deep, abiding friendship in the season’s fourth episode, “Leslie And Ron.” It’s hands down one of Parks And Recreation’s finest episodes and the kind of half-hour a show can only pull off late in its run, when the characters have truly been through hell and back together.

Parks And Recreation has returned to form by taking the characters we love and letting them go. It’s allowed them to realize their potential and become all of the things that Leslie always knew they could be. Because of this, Leslie is again the heroine we all yearned to have in our own life, a transformation aided by a return to what she was always best at: facilitating greatness in the people, the town, and the country she loved.

As we enter the final moments spent in Pawnee, Indiana, it’s appropriate that little has changed for the town. There are cursory improvements—the headquarters of a globally recognized company, more parks, new businesses—but for the most part, it’s the same old Pawnee. Its citizens are overweight and under-informed and, above all else, unwilling to go along with just about anything Leslie Knope suggests.

But despite that lack of change in the long run, Leslie Knope still made things better. At times it seemed impossible, but Leslie Knope made Pawnee better. And even the most skeptical individuals can’t deny that Leslie Knope made television better, too.