With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series or genre, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
Small-town bureaucrat Leslie Knope is at her breaking point. Big-city auditors are threatening to slash Pawnee, Indiana’s Parks And Recreation budget to the bone, and Leslie, the deputy director of Parks And Rec, isn’t having it. She knows Pawnee, she knows its citizens, and because her boss is a borderline hermit who would rather see his department operating as a subsidiary of Chuck E. Cheese’s, she pretty much runs parks. With the auditors discussing their cutbacks in terms of percentages and dollar amounts, Leslie fights for the jobs of her friends and colleagues, summarizing all seven seasons of Parks And Recreation in a single sentence.
“These are real people in a real town working in a real building with real feelings.”
To which one of the auditors, Leslie’s future husband Ben Wyatt, dryly replies, “This building has feelings?”
If the buildings of any modern sitcom setting have feelings, they’d be the ones in Pawnee. Like other great fictional TV towns—Springfield, Mayberry, Dillon, Stars Hollow—Pawnee is a vibrant, lived-in, and (in a manner of speaking) real setting. It has local haunts (JJ’s Diner, The Snakehole Lounge, Tommy’s Bistro), businesses (Sweetums, Kernston’s Rubber Nipples), heroes (miniature horse Li’l Sebastian, former Pawnee Central basketball phenom “Pistol” Pete Disellio), and ancestries (Sweetums owners the Newports, loosely connected hell-raisers the Lerpisses). It also has a history rich in chauvinism, superstition, and atrocities committed upon the people of the Wamapoke tribe. As initially presented on Parks And Recreation, Pawnee is a raccoon-infested microcosm of American ills, with an easily irritable populace and a big pit running alongside Sullivan Street. Leslie Knope aims to fill that pit, the gaping black hole where Pawnee’s heart should be.
A cheerful package of civic pride and faith in government, Leslie Knope sprang forth from a project that was originally pitched as a spin-off of The Office. Despite the early casting of one-time Office player Rashida Jones, and the involvement of Office personnel including showrunner Greg Daniels, writer Michael Schur, editor Dean Holland, and original casting director Allison Jones, Parks And Rec swiftly evolved into its own beast. Retaining the mockumentary format of their previous show, co-creators Daniels and Schur framed their new protagonist as a dogged civil servant with the headstrong blind-spots of a Michael Scott, but gave her a greater deal of intelligence and wherewithal, a characterization Amy Poehler wears like a second skin.
Getting Poehler’s surroundings right was a longer game, but Schur and team eventually built a fictional town where a single person could validate Leslie’s convictions while the people at large challenged her on a weekly basis. Those closest to the character formed one of the finest ensembles in sitcom history, further proof that Allison Jones is the secret architect of modern screen comedy. Rashida Jones came on as Ann Perkins, whose friendship with Leslie began after her goober of a boyfriend (Chris Pratt, pre-popcorn-movie stardom) plummeted into the pit behind their house, breaking both of his legs. Having kicked the series into action, Pratt’s Andy Dwyer took an inspiredly crooked path toward maturity, growing alongside Aubrey Plaza’s April Ludgate, the sarcastic Parks Department intern who found her own calling without sacrificing any of her willful weirdness. (Shocked to discover they’ve aged into boring old adults, the couple eventually become homeowners, purchasing the creepiest house in Pawnee from Werner Herzog.) As Tom Haverford, Aziz Ansari gave Parks And Rec another big dreamer, who aspires to P. Diddy levels of luxury and glamour, but usually lands on P.F. Chang’s levels of tackiness. Confined to the background during season one, Donna Meagle (Retta) and Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) pick up their own personality tics along the way, like Donna’s fierce protectiveness of her Mercedes SUV and Jerry’s inability to do anything right.
And then there’s Ron Swanson, a towering figure of a breakout character so compelling he’s pretty much merged with the public perception of the man playing him, Nick Offerman. Offerman had auditioned for the role of Michael Scott, but it was a different boss who’d give the actor the defining role of his career: A man’s man whose faith in old ways and resistance to change isn’t reactionary—he’s just afraid that opening up and trying anything new would get him left behind and alone. The ideal foil for Leslie, Offerman happened to be hilarious in the role, too, lowering Ron’s defenses every so often to expose hidden weaknesses or take falls that gave gifted physical comedians Poehler and Pratt a run for their money. Strident Swanson declarations like, “Any dog under 50 pounds is a cat and cats are useless” and, “Never half-ass two things—whole-ass one thing” will be superimposed on JPGs and GIFs until some real-life Ron Swanson shuts down the Internet.
The places, traditions, and institutions of Parks And Recreation gave Pawnee an outline; the characters filled that outline in. And then their feelings gave the whole thing shape, a three-dimensional image of what government could achieve if government did what it was supposed to do (and what Leslie Knope believed it could do). If that real building had real feelings, it would be these, a compassion and a kindness rendered into bricks and mortar, representing “social safety nets and honest governance and improved lives,” but also an unshakeable faith in humanity—even when those people present humanity at its worst. Lucky for us, Parks And Recreation found humor on both ends of that spectrum.
Like its spiritual predecessor, Parks And Recreation begins with six shaky episodes that feel less like a debut season and more like a three-hour pilot. When the show returned for season two in fall 2009, its premiere stuck to the parts of those six episodes that worked (Leslie’s endless resolve, the citizens of Pawnee’s endless outrage) and massaged the parts that didn’t (almost everything else). Showrunner Michael Schur would later remark that the keys to Parks And Rec’s second-season turnaround lay in humanizing Leslie while exaggerating the people she serves—and that’s where you get the negative reaction to the penguin marriage our hero officiates in “Pawnee Zoo.” After unknowingly joining two male penguins in holy matrimony, Leslie incites anger from Pawnee’s conservatives and celebration from the town’s LGBT community, though her political aspirations preclude her from publicly taking a stance on the issue. More importantly, she’s allowed to respond to the situation like a normal human being, abandoning the nonstop spin of season one while refusing the Society For Family Stability Foundation’s call for her resignation. It’s not the first time Leslie would face such opposition, and it was far from the last, but in terms of the show’s evolution, it’s the most important.
A very funny episode with far-reaching implications, the particulars of “Practice Date” aren’t as important as what’s happening beneath the surface and at the periphery of the episode. In the A-story, Ann prepares a nervous Leslie for her night with mumbly, kind-hearted Pawnee police officer Dave Sanderson (Louis C.K.) by staging a “practice date” that Ann eventually turns into a worst-case scenario. It’s a defining moment for the pair, but the more definitive character work occurs back at city hall, where the parks staffers respond to the latest round of revelations about lecherous Councilman Bill Dexhart by unearthing each others’ dirty laundry. The competition kicks off two running gags that endure to the very end of the series: Jerry Gergich’s role as office punching bag, and Ron Swanson’s double life as jazz saxophonist Duke Silver. Tom’s discovery of Ron’s smooth little secret lends a shade of vulnerability to Nick Offerman’s deadpan performance, and displaying the chinks in Swanson’s armor (his weakness for strong, brunette women; his bubbly giggle) would become a favored pastime of the Parks And Rec writers. Sprinkled throughout the series, they’re indications that the character is more than a mustache and “Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.”
In later years, Parks And Recreation developed the habit of making all of its characters’ wildest dreams come true. That makes for some heartwarming viewing, but the show was more potent when it dreamed on a smaller scale. Take Leslie and Tom’s parallel journeys in “Woman Of The Year,” for example: The former looks forward to winning the Indiana Organization Of Women’s Dorothy Everton Smythe Woman Of The Year prize, but a publicity-hungry IOW gives the award to Ron instead. Tom, meanwhile, stumbles upon his first step to mogul status when his favorite nightclub, the Snakehole Lounge, starts seeking investors—but in order to invest, he needs to scrounge up some money from his co-workers. Parks And Rec is first and foremost a workplace comedy, and “Woman Of The Year” contains some of the show’s finest inter-office collaborations, as Leslie and Ron scheme to undermine the IOW’s bogus motivations and Donna fails to break up the wannabe Entourage of Tom and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein (Ben Schwartz). Even when the show itself wasn’t shooting for the stars, it was still turning out smart, quality comedy like “Woman Of The Year.”
Plenty of good TV sitcoms turn great with the benefit of time. Comedic voices are refined, cast chemistry improves, recurring jokes pop up. All of these things happened to Parks And Recreation during the course of its second season, but the show’s best self snaps into place in a single episode. With a visit from auditors Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), “The Master Plan” kicks off a major Parks And Recreation cliffhanger: The state of Indiana has sent Chris and Ben to solve Pawnee’s budget problems, leading to a full government shutdown. It’s Leslie’s worst nightmare and Ron’s waking daydream, and just watching Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman react to the auditors’ arrival would be enough fun for one episode. But “The Master Plan” has that title for more than one reason: It’s a blueprint for the rest of the show’s run that elegantly introduces new characters (Chris’ positive outlook makes Leslie downright nihilistic; Ben’s spendthrift ways stem from his disastrous stint as a teenaged mayor) while nudging established players down the path toward professional satisfaction, love, and drunkenly making out with Jean-Ralphio. Lowe and Scott arrive in Pawnee to pare the government down to essential staff only, but they’d prove themselves essential to Parks And Recreation in no time.
When a violent strain of influenza hits Pawnee, Leslie feigns immunity; she has a presentation coming up, so she can’t afford the sick day. This in spite of the fact that she’s evidently ill—though no more so than Chris “Microchip” Traeger, whose extreme diet and fitness regimen leaves him highly susceptible to infection. Coupled with April’s sickbed torture of nurse Ann, the severity of Leslie’s and Chris’ symptoms provides “Flu Season” with its biggest laughs. (The ailing deputy director of parks hits a hilarious low point when she mistakes a poster for her presentation audience: “Good evening, everyone. I’m Leslie Monster and this is Nightline.”) The episode’s conclusion—in which Leslie’s feverish ramblings give way to a confident address and a fully recovered Chris ends his hospital stay with “a light 15K”—is testament to the spirit of perseverance at the heart of Parks And Rec, though “Flu Season” acknowledges that the power of positive thinking has its limits. (Cut to: A haggard Rob Lowe, staring into a mirror, willing himself to “Stop. Pooping.”)
The centerpiece of Parks And Recreation’s third and best season is the Pawnee Harvest Festival, the “go big or go home” project mounted by the Parks Department to prove its worth following the government shutdown. At a time when Parks And Rec’s future was similarly uncertain, the Harvest Festival plot was the shot in the arm the show needed—it was also a convenient way of integrating Adam Scott and Rob Lowe into weekly story lines. Scott’s Ben Wyatt receives an early spotlight moment in “Media Blitz,” as the character’s own sordid political past hijacks a series of interviews intended to promote the festival. Scott is spectacular as a deer in reporters’ headlights, but “Media Blitz” is equally important on a world-building level: Pawnee’s media elite is in full effect, including overly explanatory newsman Perd “The Story Of This Reporter’s Name Is That It’s ‘Perd Hapley’” Hapley (Jay Jackson) and self-styled talk-show maven (and bitter enemy of Leslie Knope) Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins). Joan’s sway over her audience says a lot about Pawnee, but the key to best understanding Parks And Rec’s setting lies in the first stop on Ben’s public meltdown tour: Crazy Ira And The Douche. The morning-zoo show’s raunchy chatter is so influential, its shock jocks (played by Matt Besser and Nick Kroll) nearly derail the entire Harvest Festival.
Passion and honesty are the hallmarks of Leslie and Ann’s friendship, attributes that other contemporary TV depictions of female bonding are only just starting to emulate. (Naturally, Amy Poehler is an executive producer on one of the first shows to pick up that thread.) This means they’ll each go to extreme lengths to make the other happy, but it also means that their first argument is a barn burner: Leslie is upset that Ann doesn’t push herself harder; Ann is upset that Leslie would even think that. In “The Fight,” they fuel that fire with Snake Juice, Tom’s Kahlúa knockoff that, according to Donna, is “basically rat poison.” The potency of the potable is demonstrated in the funniest sequence of Parks And Rec’s funniest episode (April spews Spanish! Ben cracks himself up with a Howard Stern catchphrase! Ron dances while wearing a tiny hat!), but the true genius of “The Fight” is that it also basks in the aftermath of the Parks Department’s disastrous night at the Snakehole Lounge. United in hangover (along with the majority of the regulars), Leslie forgives Ann, and vice versa—then they go puke their guts out offscreen. It’s an important moment for two of the most important relationships on the show: Leslie and Ann, and Drunk Leslie and Drunk Ann.
The ups and downs of season four trace the twin roller coasters of Leslie’s campaign for city council and her romantic relationship with Ben. With the campaign on the ropes because of that relationship, the Knope 2012 team begins “The Comeback Kid” in a deficit, slipping, sliding, and baking their way backward from there. (The episode is a perfect fit for former Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully, the master of Springfield tragicomedy.) While Chris attempts to break Ben out of a Claymation-and-calzones funk, the parks employees pull together for Leslie, staging a flashy campaign rally in spite of their tight budget and relative lack of campaign-management experience. Tom can’t buy enough red carpet, Ron can’t build enough of a stage, and April neglected to make sure the venue was equipped for basketball (and not ice hockey), calamities that all lead to a Parks And Recreation clinic on physical comedy. As an unfortunate choice for theme music—Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet”—blares over the loudspeakers, the show stands firm in its optimism. After six grown adults are forced to hoist their city-council candidate to her lectern, things can only get better from there.
If the fourth season of Parks And Recreation is the show’s Friday Night Lights year, then this is the state championship: Election day in Pawnee, with all eyes on the battle between Leslie Knope and her toughest opponent, Sweetums scion Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). As their show matured, the Parks And Rec producers became more strategic with where and how they deployed talking-head confessionals and other mockumentary flourishes, and “Win, Lose, Or Draw” stands out as one of the first episodes to do away with those devices entirely. Not that it’s noticeable, or that they’d even be necessary, since the sports-drama-like tension of “Win, Lose, Or Draw” forces every last emotion and opinion to the surface. This is the episode that should’ve won Amy Poehler the Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series prize at the 2012 Emmys, a display of range—tears of joy as she punches her own name on the ballot; nervous laughter when it appears she’s lost—that cements Leslie Knope as one of the great comic creations of her era. (Poehler could’ve won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series at that year’s ceremony, too, if her script for “The Debate” wasn’t competing against Schur’s “Win, Lose, Or Draw” or the epic fart joke told by one-time co-star Louis C.K. in Louie’s “Pregnant.”) The energy of the election resonates through the whole cast, but this one’s for their Coach Taylor, the one who didn’t have a concession speech because she had clear eyes, a full heart, and she couldn’t lose.
Leslie’s election was a moment of triumph, but it unmoored Parks And Rec for the two seasons that followed. Marriages, pregnancies, and Pawnee’s merger with snobby rival town Eagleton kept things humming, but the introduction of regular adversaries (Jon Glaser as odious Councilman Jeremy Jamm, those snobs from Eagleton) and a recall/re-election arc proved less successful. But the end of season six restored purpose and drive to the show, flashing forward to the year 2017, to a not-so-distant future in which the residents of an economically recovered Pawnee use hologram phones and call Jerry “Terry,” and Leslie runs a regional office of the National Park Service.
By far the biggest shock of this time warp was Leslie and Ron’s mysterious feud over something called “Morningstar.” “Leslie And Ron” brings that feud to a head, as the former director and deputy director of Parks And Recreation are forced to resolve their conflict in one night, locked inside the office they no longer share. “Leslie And Ron” cuts right to the big, beating heart of Parks And Rec, with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman demonstrating—through flashbacks, complicated charts, and the bitchin’ saxophone solo that’s always been missing from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”—how two wildly disparate personalities could become, in Ron’s typically noncommittal words, “work-proximity associates.” At the center of Parks And Rec’s public-sector fantasy is the belief that government should unite, rather than divide. The Leslie Knope-Ron Swanson dynamic epitomizes this belief, a friendship forged in a mutual respect that overcomes all political and philosophical disagreements, be they about a city-wide festival, the union of two lives (or several thousand), or a park that used to be a pit.
Next time: Eric Thurm picks out 10 episodes that slice to the core of Samurai Jack.