My headline’s a bit idealistic, I know. Much of the richness and payoff of the final season of Parks & Recreation would not have existed if not for some of the wobblier early seasons in which these characters were established and then given room to transition and grow. But the premise is sound: television episodes should exist not simply to fill the space between commercials, but because they have something to say. And especially with The Colbert Report gone, I’ll miss the political satire of Parks & Recreation, a show that always seemed to have a deeper goal than the generation of laughs. “GryzzlBox,” for instance, not only juggled the final plot arc of the show–in which Leslie Knope attempts to preserve a parcel of land for public use as opposed to becoming the next Google-like private campus–but also made salient points about the loss of personal privacy for the convenience of shopping (data-mining) and dealt with Leslie’s recovering relationship with her former boss, Ron Swanson. A later episode, “Pie Mary,” dealt with the no-win nonsense of feminism, in which Leslie realizes that she can either boycott a pie-making contest (thereby offending those who proudly identify as stay-at-home moms) or attend and raise the ire of extremely vocal (and monied) feminists; when her husband, Ben, chooses to participate instead, it’s not only a sharp example of our double-standards, but an opportunity to mock male-rights activists (the “male men”).
Here’s the most amazing political quip you’ll get from the show:
Ignore the fact that you’re right, wear your blandest outfit, and go out there and apologize.
[This is compared to taking a shot of tequila–a bit unpleasant to get down, but once you do, the whole world gets a bit brighter.]
But while that was satire of the media/political machine (another whitewashed-into-nothingness apology), Parks & Recreation stayed in our hearts by not bowing down and apologizing, and instead standing up for itself. In other words, first season or last, uncompromisingly take on the big targets. This filters down to characters, too, none of whom simply got happy endings: April struggled to figure out what she actually wanted to do (an echo of those of us who already have good jobs but perhaps feel unsatisfied or FOMO’d) and Tom Haverford, always a bit of a joke character, literally had to put all of his nonsense and egoism aside to deliver a sincere proposal to his girlfriend. It shouldn’t have taken seven seasons for him to feel like a real human being, and shows should figure out how to get there faster. (Jerry Gergich’s arc of incompetence never really ended, but his excitement over being a public notary or eventually becoming the mayor were all first and foremost sincere. When he continued to accidentally fumble and drop his items, one-by-one down a drain, it was with good cheer–both his wedding ring and his backup wedding ring–and it was with true friendship that Donna, a woman who largely berated him for entertainment, retrieved those items for him.)
Sincerity, then, in humor. “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” strayed from the standard documentary format of the sitcom in order to show clips from Andy’s final episode of his public access children’s show, complete with fake advertisements. It’s funny to see characters on the show playing other characters within Andy’s show, but never lost in all of that is the way everyone really feels about one another. Just as adults can actually learn something from a well-scripted episode of Sesame Street, so too can everyone connect with the larger messages shown through Johnny Karate. The same can be said for “Two Funerals,” which reminds us that endings are also filled with new beginnings.
And then there’s the Six Feet Under-like finale, which leaps even further past the 2017 setting of the final setting to 2027 (and beyond), in order to show how everyone–including bit players like Typhoon and Craig–have moved on. Everybody gets a farewell, and everybody gets a moment of sincerity, even if it’s played for laughs, too, and even if nothing bad actually happens to these beloved characters. Here’s the message from the show, then, to all the other showrunners out there, and why every season needs to be treated as if it’s already earned the big moments, already has the backstories:
What makes work worth doing is doing it with the people that you love.
A show simply isn’t worth watching if there’s no reason to care.