As Parks And Recreation begins its abbreviated final season, the last big question before it is what, if anything, its ending could look like. This show may have long since lost the fastball that made it an ace and transitioned into the crafty lefty phase of its career—for those unfamiliar with casual baseball analogies, the good people at the law firm of Fwar, Dips, Winshares Gritt, Babip, Pecota, and Eckstein will be happy to explain, billable by the hour—but this remains a fundamentally solid show, regardless of which half of the 2010s it now takes place in. The trouble is that, while Parks And Recreation has never sunk to the same kind of depths as it spiritual predecessor The Office did at its nadir, it also lacks the kind of big driving plotlines that The Office was able to pull from in Steve Carell’s final season or the show’s own last year. The Office was a workplace comedy that drew its narrative lifeblood from the characters’ relationships and their search for fulfillment, whereas Parks And Recreation has generally been far more about the work itself. This is a show defined by its big projects: There’s a reason the Harvest Festival plotline remains the show’s finest hour(s).
That’s not to say Parks And Recreation doesn’t care about its characters’ inner lives; hell, there may not be a show on the air that more unabashedly roots for its characters to succeed. But that’s kind of the point, particularly in the post-Ann version of the show. Ever since Leslie and Ben got together, everyone’s life has more or less been on the right track, and it’s just harder for the show to sell audiences on the notion that not everything is going to work out okay sooner or later. That’s not necessarily for lack of trying. After all, tonight’s premiere episode, “2017,” does theoretically set up a longstanding feud between Ron and Leslie, one bad enough to destroy their friendship and keep them on non-speaking terms for two full years. For a character-driven show, such a rift between its two most important characters really ought to provide a driving force for the season. Yet if you asked me to describe what “2017” sets up as the final season’s last overarching plotline, I’d say it’s Leslie’s quest to get the Newport land and turn into a national park. And that isn’t just because this has always been a show made by and for people who care less about feelings than they do sound land management.
No, the real reason that Leslie and Ron’s conflict feels like a non-starter is that there’s really no doubt, based on everything we’ve ever seen of Parks And Recreation, that the two are going to make their peace. In fairness, it might be unrealistic to expect genuine uncertainty on that point, as even comedies far more mean-spirited than this would almost certainly have their main characters reconcile before the final bow. But then, look at “Ron And Jammy”: For that episode to work, Leslie and Ron need to be on the same side, and so a truce is declared without fuss or delay. Hell, there’s no obvious way to differentiate how Ron and Leslie interact under truce conditions here than they would have if the show had done this in season three or season five. Perhaps the show’s goals here are genuinely more narrowly focused than “2017” initially suggests, as “Ron And Jammy” does appear to suggest that Ron and Leslie’s continued dispute is more professional than personal. Or perhaps, even when the time jump gives the show a chance to shake things up, Parks And Recreation is hesitant to veer from the formula that got it to seven seasons in the first place.
And, honestly, that’s fine, if a tad disappointing for those (myself included) who were hoping the move to 2017 would more fully snap the show out of its status quo. Leslie is the character least changed by the shift in years and circumstances, but at least she’s a bit more self-aware about it than we’ve seen in previous seasons. As she observes in “Ron And Jammy” while assessing the situation, “I have a lot to gain by being right and I have severe tunnel vision about achieving my goals.” Besides, the real question with Leslie as the protagonist of a comedy is how much her reconfigured role puts her in a position to be funny. Her squabbling with Ron in “2017” isn’t bad, suffering mostly from overfamiliarity. On the other hand, I’m not going to object to Ron and Leslie conveniently forgetting their feud whenever the plot demands if it allows for more scenes like those in which the pair deprogram the Tammy-fied Jeremy Jamm. It’s hard to describe just how immensely satisfying it is to watch—and listen, my goodness!—to Leslie deliver hard slap after hard slap, and that’s before we even get to Amy Poehler’s delightfully uncanny Megan Mullally impression. This too isn’t exactly a new scenario for Leslie—a title like “Ron And Jammy” signals we’ve been down this road before—but Leslie tends to be at her most comically effective when she gets to play the relatively sane straight woman, going to absurd but entirely justified lengths to protect people against Pawnee’s far greater crazies.
For the other characters, the time jump has been more directly helpful. Tom Haverford has been the non-Leslie character who has struggled the most to get what he wanted, and it’s smart to move him ahead to a point where he’s more or less accomplished his goals. Tom trying to become a business mogul was by its nature a plot-driven enterprise that could, under the right circumstances, set up some terrific gags and comedic setpieces—why hello, Entertainment 720—but his newfound wealth and attendant ennui lets the show focus more on who he now is as a character. Also, it opens the door for the return of Natalie Morales as Tom’s old flame Lucy, and a world with more Natalie Morales on TV is one worth building. Exactly how she and Tom are going to play out is an open question: Though Lucy has made appearances going all the way back to the end of season two, Lucy has almost always been on the verge of leaving or just popping back in for a cameo.
In the meantime, at least Tom’s braggadocio and narcissism remain completely intact, albeit tempered by something that slightly resembles actual humanity. His takeover of Ben’s speech is too expected to generate much laughter, but his and Ben’s mutual emotional breakdown over Tom’s “I’ve met many ballers” speech makes it all worth it. And that’s really why Parks And Recreation remains a worthy member of NBC’s dwindling comedy lineup, because it can make the kind of moves that a show without a half-decade’s accumulated history simply couldn’t manage. The mere sight of Adam Scott and Aziz Ansari bawling over such a ridiculous speech is enough to generate laughter, but it’s the familiarity with the characters and their more typical reactions that propels the moment into real hilarity. A moment like this isn’t entirely unprecedented, but it’s easily rare enough to feel like a big deal from a character perspective, and that adds a little extra comedic weight to the moment.
The other featured character in tonight’s episodes is April, who finds herself dealing with the kind of professional and personal ennui that must always accompany Saturn’s return, at least if you ask Donna. April’s fear of becoming boring has long been one of her less endearing strands of immaturity, but at least in “2017” her fears at last feel justified. Nowhere else do the three skipped years feel quite so present as when she and Andy plan out the next few days’ worth of meals or when Andy—Andy!—remembers he needs to take a pill to prevent heartburn. The show flails for most of the half-hour to find a good solution to this, but my goodness does it find one in the form of Werner Herzog, creepy home-seller. Parachuting into Parks And Recreation to bring his essential Werner Herzog-ness to the proceedings, Herzog gets to embody an unexpectedly Teutonic side of Pawnee’s well-documented ridiculousness. It’s just a shame April and Andy didn’t think to adopt him as their grandfather to go with their adoptive grandmother, Ethel Beavers.
As for April’s quest to find a job that fulfills her as much as being a complete trainwreck fulfills Joan Callamezzo, this feels much like the business with Leslie and Ron or with Tom and Lucy: None of these stories feel burningly essential, as though the characters’ stories would be fatally incomplete if they had gone untold. If Parks And Recreation is going to be truly vital in its final year, it still hasn’t quite found that piece of story that’s going to get it there, if “2017” and “Ron And Jammy” are any indication. Instead, these plotlines will likely end up being defined less by how they wrap up the show and more by how they drive episode-specific plotlines, with April and Ben’s trip to the disturbingly sunny mortician suggesting there’s good comedic potential as long as Ben continues to find all of April’s dreams utterly horrifying. Seven seasons in, Parks And Recreation remains a reliable comedy machine, and there are flashes in tonight’s episodes—especially “Ron And Jammy”—or the show being ready to take a few bigger swings before its last inning. Sorry, sorry, the baseball’s creeping in again. Should probably change lawyers.
- There sure was a lot of nudity and bleeped swears tonight, both of which I heartily approve of. None of these were exactly firsts for the show, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen quite so much of it. But then, what’s NBC going to do, huh? Cancel the show?
- “If anyone wants to hang, I will be at Subway!” There goes Ed. The world was too beautiful for the likes of him.
- Maybe my favorite 2017 detail: Shia LeBeouf designs wedding dresses now. And by “designs,” I think we can safely assume “steals designs from others.”
- “Well I am sorry … that I attended a public event.”
- “This was a holding cell for people who went insane on the assembly line.” Werner Herzog, national treasure. And no, I don’t especially care which nation.
- “Thank you Commissioner Gordon, people of Gotham.”
- “Nah, that’s not it. Was she in Destiny’s Child?”
- All due respect to Tom Thibodeau, but I think Andy Dwyer would make an excellent coach of the Chicago Bulls. I just think he and Joakim Noah would get each other, you know?