So much is made about that one show about nothing. But what about that show that made something out of nothing?
For Parks and Recreation, that’s true in a literal and figurative sense. It’s quite remarkable when you think about what this show began as, what it was about. We had Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, a tireless local politician blinded by optimism and powered by the circa-2008 Obama “Yes We Can” spirit. Leslie Knope saw a pit, and she wanted to make a park out of it. Something out of nothing.
We also had a TV show that became a wonderful something, built admirably out of “nothing” expectations.
Through a series of industry misreporting and poor messaging, Parks and Recreation was billed as a spin-off of The Office. Though there was a point in time that this was an idea, it had long been abandoned even before Amy Poehler signed on to play Leslie Knope. Still, the idea that Parks was a rip-off and Poehler was merely putting her own spin on Steve Carell’s Michael Scott plagued the show’s inauspicious six-episode first season. But the series survived our initial dismissal of it, and developed into something much more than an Office copycat. It became something. It became perfect.
Few TV comedies dare to balance pathos and quirk with tight, rapid-fire comedy the way that Parks has over its six seasons. And while Tuesday night’s series finale was more moving and emotionally rewarding—and dare we say dangerously close to sappy—than it was particularly funny, it’s a sweet send-off that was earned.
Over the course of the hour we got snapshots of each character’s future. It was an exhaustive, even relentless montage of happily ever afters. Whether it’s the success of Tom’s self-help book (the brilliantly titled Failure: An American Success Story) or Leslie’s two terms as governor of Indiana, everyone had their wildest hopes and dreams fulfilled—or, in the case of Leslie, a goal that was specifically recorded in her kindergarten dream journal.
Almost aggressively devoid of broad humor, the super-sweet finale may have been the most audacious creative direction a series could’ve taken. There were no “events”—a long-built-up-to wedding, for example—or wild, long-teased revelations—like how a guy met his kids’ mother. There wasn’t an onslaught of bits and jokes. Instead, we got an hour that simply let us know, with excessive positivity, that everyone was going to be OK.
It was a little bittersweet to see that these characters will live on and we won’t be part of their lives anymore. Donna will come in ninth place in Italy’s Got Talent, serve in a NASCAR pit crew, and get into philanthropy. Garry Gergich will be elected mayor 10 times, and die happily on his 100th birthday. Andy and April will be parents. Ron will run Pawnee National Park. Rob Lowe still will not age.
The episode was filled with little goodbyes. Little fast-forwards. Little moments that made you go “aw” instead of “ha”—something this show has always been blessedly brave enough and confident enough to do over the years.
At a time on TV when there seemed to be an unspoken mandate that comedy be cynical and sarcastic, that jokes needed to double as put-downs and the only way to get audiences to laugh was to be mean-spirited, Parks and Recreation thrived on its positivity. More, it wasn’t making an overt and drilled-over-your-head point about social issues or cultural sensitivities, the way so many shows have taken on—and often admirably.
While this final season has, with its subplot on the Facebook-esque company Gryzzl, sharpened its satire of our dependence on technological connection over human interaction, the most blatant social commentary that could be mined from Parks and Recreation is just how blissful that human interaction can be. That, quite literally, money can’t buy happiness. And neither can power.
While ambition is essential—and Leslie Knope was certainly bursting with it—the show was simply saying that life is great, no matter if you’re the President of the United States or the Deputy Director of the Parks Department in small-town Pawnee, Indiana. It is full of friends and love and good work and waffles. These things shouldn’t just be embraced, but, as Leslie and this show taught us, embraced aggressively.
The friends Leslie embraced comprised what might have been the most unexpected and unusual ensemble on television, and it’s no surprise that they’ve all gone on to be the hottest actors in Hollywood right now. There was Chris Pratt’s affable buffoon Andy, Aubrey Plaza’s deliciously dour April, Aziz Ansari’s overconfident swagger king Tom, and Nick Offerman's libertarian Everyman Ron Swanson—a character that might be TV’s best creation of the past 10 years.
With them, with Amy Poehler’s masterful portrait of Leslie Knope, and with Adam Scott as her perfect foil, Parks perfected what great series like Cheers and The Mary Tyler Moore Show had done before it. These are characters that you could always count on to act in exactly the way you’d predict they would. That’s flawless comedy writing when it’s pulled off, and remarkably hard to do. And it’s what makes the rare, always purposeful occasions when the characters act unpredictably all the more effective.
There’s a lot to cherish from the Parks and Recreation run. We’ll always have the .GIF of Ron Swanson wasted in a tiny top hat. The funniest Rob Lowe of all-time will forever be the Adonis staring into a mirror, instructing himself: “Stop. Pooping.” No TV proposals will be as touching as Ben’s to Leslie—like Leslie, we’ll always want to remember every detail—and no wedding vows from a comedy have ever been as sweet, or as perfect. “I love you and I like you.”
It’s horridly depressing to think Parks and Recreation is over, and with it, quite possibly one of the strongest eras in NBC’s hallowed comedy history. Has any modern night of television been as strong or as intelligent as a night featuring Parks, The Office, 30 Rock, and Community? Amy Poehler was, quite plainly, a genius as Leslie. Her Leslie was not only one of the best comedy creations of all time, but the success of the creation will do more for women—and especially women in Hollywood seeking complex roles—worthy of their talents than we now know.
Leslie proved that being smart and being emotional don’t need to be at odds with each other; that intelligence and exuberance should be flaunted with equal fashion. She proved that being passionate about something doesn’t make you odd. It makes you awesome.
Leslie Knope was a character that meant something. Parks and Recreation was a show that meant a whole lot of something to many people. We loved it and we liked it. So very much.