Yes, cue up your copies of Mouse Rat’s “Bye Bye Lil’ Sebastian” for Parks and Recreation has aired its final episode. After warming the hearts of a small but very dedicated audience for seven seasons, the last vestige of NBC’s most recent sitcom line-up “Comedy Night Done Right” has aired had its last laugh, much like The Office and 30 Rock before it. Parks and Recreation was a show that started in uncertainty with a lukewarm first season that many at the time accused of being a mere clone of The Office due to it’s documentary style filming and Greg Daniels’ role as a creator on both shows. Ironically, by the time the show ended the biggest thing to praise about it was how much it evolved from that initial season.
In addition to a lackluster first season, Parks had the disservice of being constantly on the losing end of NBC’s ever rearranging schedule. Along with 30 Rock, the show was shuffled and rescheduled multiple times, giving average audiences little consistency in time slot and less of a real chance to grab onto the show. Then again, Parks and Rec was never that mainstream a show. Part of the weird joy of watching that comedy line up was watching NBC scramble to find a place for comedy shows that were steeped so far in continuity, running gags and untraditional characters that it’d be hard for a new audience to jump into, like Parks, 30 Rock or Community. None of them really ever fit in the mold that NBC wanted (ie another hit like The Office) and most of the shows that merely tried to copy previous hits (ie Outsourced, Whitney, 1600 Penn, etc) ended up falling to the wayside while those outlier shows managed to survive far longer than anyone would have expected. Through all of the hardships of previous shows fading or moving away from the NBC comedy lineup that I personally grew up with, Parks & Rec was always a constant, so it’s sad to see it go, particularly with the unfortunately bitter note of it ending less than a week after the tragically young death of longtime writer and producer of the show Harris Wittels.
It’s easy to see why most of these shows managed to survive, what with Community‘s strongly vocal fanbase and 30 Rock‘s star power leads of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey keeping them afloat. Parks didn’t really have that. Sure, Amy Poehler is recognizable, but was never as big of a name as Fey on her own. Plus, while the fanbase for Parks was always loyal they never went as far as to protest the show’s stumbling from the schedule right outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza like the fans of Community. No, Parks kept itself alive simply by being the odd but charming show it evolved into being. From mere Office clone roots, the show became this entity onto itself. At the head of this entity was always Poehler’s Leslie Knope, a former one note joke of an overexcited government worker transformered over seven years into a caring, obsessive and proudly defensive woman striving to make a difference in her community despite the many ridiculously inane people she had to deal with, from the brazenly obnoxious councilmen to fast food titans to the oblivious rich boys trying to head into politics. Leslie Knope regretted her faults, gabbed about her passions and stood by her friends in very genuine and relatable ways, never seeming ungrateful or spiteful even in the face of unfair scrutiny. By the final season, I’d argue Knope ended up becoming one of the truly great female sitcom leading ladies, right up there with Murphy Brown and Mary Richards, as a confident and strong woman that also had dimensional weaknesses and doubts about herself. The writers and Poehler managed to achieve this by putting the character first before the joke, no matter how funny the cheaper way could be.
However, as Knope would probably say herself, she wouldn’t be anything with the rocks that were her cohorts in the Pawnee Parks Department, who also morphed into these endearing and lovable people of their own. People like Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate, two formerly leech like loafers that barely did anything into an endearing and hard working couple that, despite the deadpan sardonic quips of April or the doltish non-sequiturs of Andy, showed their passion for one another in adorably odd fashions. Similarly, Tom Haverford transformed from an extension of Aziz Ansari’s stand-up into a hardworking entertainment mogul, Donna Meagle blossomed from the typical sassy lady of the office into a multifaceted woman of the world, Ben Wyatt & Chris Traeger were molded from being mere replacements for the departing Mark Brendanawicz (remember when he was a thing on this show?) to full fledged characters that were perfectly integrated into the show with obsessive ticks towards nerd culture & accounting as well as fitness & positivity respectively. Hell, even die hard blow hard Ron Swanson managed to show dimensions unseen when we found out about his secret saxophone playing persona Duke Silver and he found a woman he could confide in and show his softer side for in Diane. All of these people grew and even some of the ones who had more awkward or stagnant development (Ann, Jerry) have had enough moments of pure warmth to make them part of the Parks family. It was an eclectic main cast of people of different races, tastes and personal philosophies that made them the weird people we couldn’t stop watching.
Of course, there are so many other smaller characters that gave us laughs. The recurring favorites of doltishly self absorbed Jamm, boisterously proud Craig Middlebrooks, giddily corrupt Jean-Ralphio, vainly self destructive Joan Callamezzo, sexually crass Tammy II and so many others. The guest appearances as diverse as Kristen Bell, Paul Rudd, Joe Bidden, Patton Oswalt, Sam Elliot, Ginuwine, Jonathan Banks, Bill Murray and Michelle Obama. Through all these people, Parks managed to breathe life into the fictional city of Pawnee with impeccable tact, taking these strange characters who were initially designed for one off jokes and giving them layers in ways reminiscent of another show many of the writers on Parks (including Greg Daniels) used to work for; The Simpsons. Much like that show’s Springfield, Pawnee played fast and loose with location and proximity within Indiana, but never stopped keeping the continuity of the town alive, whether it be through the constant allusions to the inexplicably beloved Lil’ Sebastian or the intense rivalry with the neighboring Eagleton. Pawnee, with all it’s Paunch Burgers and inane town hall meeting complaints, felt like an exaggerated yet living & breathing Midwestern city with it’s own lore, albeit very silly and satirically biting lore at points.
Yet, despite all the angry complaints that drove Leslie Knope mad on a regular basis, the people of the Parks Department in Pawnee never felt insincere. Were they rude? Yes. Disturbed? Sure. Insane? Well, more than a few were, but they never seemed disingenuous about any of that. Few shows ever really manage to stay on long without making their characters one dimensional bitter caricatures of themselves in their later seasons, especially with the more highly successful ones like How I Met Your Mother or The Office. Parks however was just successful enough to be humble, to appreciate every season they got no matter how much they’d probably end up being displaced by NBC shuffling their timeslot, right up until the broadcast of their series finale. That resilience translated into a show that would bite when it wanted to, but mostly kept it’s jokes centered on the dynamics between the characters and their relationships, romantic or friendly. The show never lost sight of what made each individual character interesting and challenged complacency by throwing some new obstacle in their face. So, when Leslie Knope achieves her goal of becoming a city council member and is eventually recalled from her position in season 5, her initial disappointment is completely lifted and transformed into hope for the future by the love and support of those people she holds closest; the friends that never stopped helping her. All of that is what made the future set final season so satisfying. Through the not-too-distant-future of 2017 and beyond, the cast of characters on Parks will still keep on moving through life, knowing when to pursue their lofty goals and when to sacrifice them for the sake of those they love. That devotion translated to it’s audience, who followed the adventures of Leslie, Ron, Ann, Ben, April, Andy, Tom, Donna, Jerry, Chris & Pawnee through seven seasons of love, heartbreak and laughs. It’s the kind of relationship one could only hope to have with anyone in their local Parks Department, though no one there would probably be able to create a song as majestic as “5000 Candles in the Wind.”