I Awesomesauce You, Parks and Recreation

Parks-and-RecreationIn a world that seems increasingly dependent on irony and sarcasm, especially in its humor, Parks and Recreation almost seems like a miracle. More than anything else, the show is built on sincerity and positivity, and the hope that better things are always yet to come. But the show never seemed hokey or corny (or not in a bad way at least). Rather it earned this sunny disposition fully, and felt more aspirational than anything else. More than that, it was also a lovely tribute to the idea of public service, and the commitment to helping your fellow citizens whether they want or care about it. All of this was wonderfully encapsulated in last night’s series finale, which serves not only as a perfect wrap-up of the show’s story, but also a singular distillation of everything that made Parks and Recreation a brilliant and lovely inspiration.

The “plot” of the finale is very simple: with Leslie, Ben, Andy, April, and Donna all preparing to leave Pawnee, the gang has gathered in the old Parks Department office to reminisce via a Bataan Death March down memory lane (spearheaded by Leslie, of course). When a citizen stops in and puts in a request to get a swing set fixed, Leslie and the gang decide to complete one last project before they go their separate ways. While this aspect of the finale is ultimately insignificant, in itself it is appropriate. The way that Leslie (and even the others) commit themselves to this simple little repair request is inspiring. Even if it is somewhat motivated by nostalgia it also demonstrates how they all, in their own ways, love helping this town and its citizens to the point that they will tackle this minor job that isn’t even theirs to do anymore. While in the end the work barely matters (the guy who made the request isn’t very invested in the outcome at all) they do it because it is one last opportunity to make sure that they leave the town in a better place than they found it. This was a thematic force throughout the entire series: that each character, in their own ways, through their own philosophies, was trying to help Pawnee become better. They cared about their town, they cared about their neighbors (in some cases, in the most abstract of ways) and they wanted to improve the community those two things made. In this light, it isn’t so surprising that so many politicians from both sides of the aisle were willing to appear in cameos during the show’s later years. Whether you agree or disagree with Leslie’s or Ron’s ideologies, you could certainly appreciate their commitment to their civil service, in a mostly uncynical way that we barely see in television government.

However, the real meat of the finale doesn’t lie in this minor swing repair in 2017 (the show jumped ahead three years for its final season) but rather in many moments large and small over the ensuing years and decades. As Leslie and the others go about their task, we get looks into the future of all the major characters, and fittingly this is where we get to the true heart of the show. Each character gets their own extended set of flashforwards; and in each of these sequences, the writers of the show (and the actors too, it should be said; the characters often feel like extensions of the performers) cut to the very core of who each of these fictional people are, and what makes them happy, and how they move forward in life. After seven years, these characters have been so well-crafted and given such depth, that we fully feel with them, and when we see where they all end up, and what they’ve each accomplished in the future, it’s joyous and fulfilling.

But while each character’s future is given its own segment, none of the characters are ever fully separate or alone. They all still appear in each other’s futures, linked together forever through thick and thin. Over these seven seasons (and in the show’s timeline, 10+ years) this ragtag group has become a strong, close-knit family, and it would be impossible for them to have futures apart. That sense of family is strengthened by the fact that these characters (and their performers) are so versatile and layered that they can be mixed and matched in almost any permutation and still be both funny and emotionally connected. No character ever feels out of place with any other character, and that opened the door for both a lot of intimacy and an absurd amount of comedy. The one thing that unified them all, that makes their family feel uniform even with so many distinct individuals, was the sense of happiness and hope that drove them. While some characters (Ron, Ben, April) were more capable of pragmatism and/or disdain than the rest, deep down they were people who were driven by their sincerity and their passion, who just needed the right people to let loose and enjoy themselves more openly. Within the confines of the Pawnee Parks Department, they found those people

Ultimately, it is this personal sincerity that made Parks and Recreation so singular and so amazing. Because while the characters themselves were unerringly sincere and passionate and hopeful, Greg Daniels, Michael Schur et al were smart enough to provide them with a world with just enough disappointment and obstacle to make that sincerity both impressive and necessary. Throughout the series, the gang all had their setbacks to go with their triumphs: Tom had several businesses fail, the three major couples of the show (Leslie & Ben, Andy & April, and Chris & Ann) all had rough patches and separations, Ron grew apart from all of his friends, Andy had his dreams of being a cop denied, Chris struggled with depression, Ben resigned in disgrace and Leslie was recalled from her City Council seat. And even in the flashforwards, we see the characters quietly struggling with existential questions, each of them having reached the next turning point in their lives. Yet because these characters are all born from the same endless sincerity and hope, they persevered, and endured, and came together and rose up. While the world was frustrating and backwards and unfair, the Parks and Rec gang never truly faltered in being who they were, or in striving towards their goals. That is how Parks and Recreation was so successfully positive: because it recognized that positivity is nothing without struggle, that sincerity is nothing without challenge, and accomplishment is nothing without resistance.

So after 7 (10) years in Pawnee, after so many steps forward and back, and after so many highs and lows, we say goodbye to that wonderfully weird town, and to its very best citizens. In the end, it feels unequivocal that Pawnee, and the Parks gang, and us the audience are all in a better place than we were before, thanks to this particular gathering of people, both fictional and non. We can see it in the flashforwards to the challenging but happy futures of our heroes, we can see it in the completed swing repair, we can see it in the clever easter egg that the besuited gentleman who requests the swing repair in the first place was also the drunk homeless guy Leslie pried out of the slide in the very first episode. And ultimately, we can see it in the dozens of articles and blog posts and tweets and statuses paying tribute to this goofy, hopeful family, a group that really represents the best you can hope for in life: good friends, a good purpose, and a sincere, happy commitment to them both

Goodbye, Parks and Recreation. And thank you.

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It’s worth noting that I may never have gotten into Parks and Rec without the encouragement of my awesome girlfriend Shiran, who has also written about Parks and Rec here and here. She’s my Leslie, and my April, and my Ben and my Andy, and my love of this show is one of many things I owe her. Love you sweetheart!

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