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5 reasons the final season of 'Parks and Rec' is underdelivering

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Ben Cohen/NBC

The last two weeks of Parks and Recreation’s compact, 13-episode final season are upon us, and I couldn’t be more ambivalent.

This is not what I wanted to be feeling right here, right now, as I prepare to say goodbye to what has been, for most of its seven-year run, the sitcom I’ve loved the most. The endgame stakes aren’t terribly high—at least not for Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the deliriously driven, infectiously inspired defender-redeemer of Pawnee, the best damn little microcosm of America the Ugly-Beautiful on television this side of Springfield. She began the season faced with a challenge worthy of her moxie: battling tech giant Gryzzl for control over many acres of local virgin land that she wanted preserved for a national park. At stake, it seemed, was the soul of Pawnee. It resolved with Leslie convincing Gryzzl to be a good corporate citizen by actually living as a corporate citizen, making a home for itself inside the city and rehabbing a squalid industrial sector of Pawnee for its new corporate campus—instead of residing outside the city, safely removed from the mess of humanity. This solution made the usual Parks statement about the necessity of community and togetherness and shared-destiny interdependence… and it all culminated two weeks ago, in way-too-easy, all-of-a-sudden fashion.

Now, with five episodes left, two of which air tonight, Leslie’s remaining story is… supporting hubby Ben’s (Adam Scott) run for Congress? I can’t say it excites me much. What can Parks do with an election campaign that is hasn’t done before? The plot affirms the ensemble nature and it’s-all-about-team ethos of the show. But if there was ever a time when I wanted Parks to be Leslie-centric and focused on its best relationship—Leslie’s unlikely friendship with her ideological opposite, the manly-man libertarian and carnivorous human mustache with a heart of golden cholesterol Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman)—it’s now.

In its last season, Parks has been playing not to lose rather than playing to win. Bold moves have been executed timidly. Familiar tropes and dynamics abound. It’s typical of shows in their final stages to return characters or relationships to something close to their original factory settings for the sake of making a closing statement. But there’s a vigorous, vital way to do that, and there’s a safe, stale way to do that.

I can’t say Parks is letting me down; it owns my heart. I do have grace for it. But I can’t say it’s living up to its standards—and certainly my expectations—either. I see flaws, I feel dissatisfaction. Like:

Future Shock Shrug. At the start of the year, I wondered if—and worried that—leaping ahead to 2017 might subvert the show, not energize it. The good news/bad news is that the gambit neither subverted nor energized the final season. The writers have been conspicuously underplaying the future gags—perhaps fearing the same disruption I was fretting—to the point that it’s become easy to forget we ever jumped at all.

I don’t think this is a good thing. When the premise does express itself in the sporadic, casual ways that it has — holographic cell phones, bits like Gryzzl drone delivery, throwaway lines about pop culture (Kevin James now anchors the Bourne franchise) – the effects ring odd and distracting, not funny and nifty. Fast-forwarding has allowed Parks to bypass story it has no interest or imagination for, like watching new parents Leslie and Ben juggle baby triplets.* But it hasn’t stepped into story you thought it would, like sinking deep into Leslie’s new job as a regional director of the National Parks Service. She remains narrowly focused on Pawnee. Which, yes, is the way it should be, but still, my point: Why was skipping into the future a good idea again? Bottom line: The jump—so far—has been a net loss.

*I always kinda resent it when shows ask you to care about and invest in big new character ideas – like Leslie and Ben wanting kids — then asks you not to care about them because they can’t make it work. Like it’s our fault we fell for the story they told us. Sheesh. And what’s wrong with babies, anyway? Baby-haters.

What’s the rush? One of my biggest complaints has nothing to do with the quality of Parks but how the scheduling of the final season has affected my experience of it. By airing two episodes a week, NBC is burning through the season so fast that several storylines have felt hurried, including Leslie’s land war with Gryzzl. Perhaps the fact that we only have 13 episodes—half the allotment we’re accustomed to—is equally to blame. That said, the weekly double-trucking did yield one benefit: making quick work of my least favorite future development…

The Leslie-Ron feud fizzled. For the most part, nothing has happened in this 2017-set season that couldn’t have happened in a 2015-set season. The most significant exception: starting the season with the revelation that Leslie and Ron became enemies at some point during the three-year jump.

The cause of the tension—presented as a mystery in the first three episodes—was revealed in the fourth episode: After busybusybusy Leslie hurt his feelings by forgetting about a friendly breakfast meet at their fave waffle house, Ron—already feeling distant from Leslie because they no longer worked together—retreated emotionally and relationally. Then, after quitting Pawnee’s parks department to start a construction business, Ron hurt Leslie’s feelings by taking a job to demolish Ann’s old house and build the “Morning Star” apartment complex across from the Pawnee Commons, the major project of the show’s first few seasons.

Again, I get it: We should expect final seasons to contrive scenarios designed to give us potent reminders of why we love certain characters and relationships, bringing us full circle in some way. Ripping Leslie and Ron apart, watching them fight and then reconcile, was all in service of making us celebrate the friendship of these ideological and temperamental opposites. But understanding the strategy didn’t make it any more enjoyable to watch. At no point was I intrigued, amused, or moved by the Leslie-Ron tension. The reason for their falling out was especially hard to believe—they couldn’t have worked things out sooner? Seriously? I was, however, entertained by the bottle episode in which Ron and Leslie make nice, in part because Poehler and Offerman rocked their acting duet, and in part because it indicated that the wheel-spinning storyline was finally coming to an end.

In general, Parks has a Ron problem. Severing Ron from Leslie’s work life put him on an island, risking disconnection from the core of the show. Parks has worked hard to find legit ways to keep him in the mix, but the strain is evident. If not for an ironic deus ex machina—all-knowing Gryzzl sent an unwanted gift via drone to Ron’s child; Ron shot said flying machine out of the sky—Ron never would have defected to Leslie’s side in the Gryzzl fight.

In fact, Ron seems weirdly disconnected from his own life, too. It bothers me that we actually haven’t seen Ron’s wife Diane (Lucy Lawless), his son, or his stepdaughters this season. You’d think Ron would have brought Diane to Donna’s (Retta) wedding.* Nope.

Dinging Parks for Ron’s MIA family might be unfair. Perhaps Lawless was unavailable (Lawless recently joined the cast of WGN America’s Salem); perhaps the show couldn’t afford her (final seasons often operate with less money than usual). But I do wish Parks would creatively address her absence rather than ignoring it. I think we can all agree that things could be better if the situation were different. A significant, true part of Ron that we’ve come to care about isn’t being expressed because these key relationships aren’t represented. (What has happened to Ron this season is partial proof for the argument that last season made for a better final statement than this one.)

And what was Ron doing meddling in Tom’s love life last week? I love and accept Ron as an “I love weddings” romantic, but playing interventionist Cupid for Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Lucy (Natalie Morales) seemed out of character with his mind-your-own-damn-business political and personal philosophy.

*I wanted more out of Donna’s wedding, too. More build-up, more drama, more Keegan-Michael Key. 

April and Andy are dull. Which is ironic. The season began with trying to make comedy out of watching the one-time drunk-in-love iconoclastic slackers renounce the surplus of stultifying maturity and respectability they had acquired over the course of Events Not Seen. But a promising bit of business—buying a haunted house from a creepy Werner Herzog—has since been tabled, and the whole project of living life with wantonly random abandon has been… well, abandoned.

It was set-up, really, for something we’ve seen before. April (Aubrey Plaza) is repeating in compressed form an old arc (searching for purpose and career), while Andy is just being Andy, endearingly sweet and silly, dumb and fun. They appear to be getting major love in upcoming episodes, beginning with tonight’s “Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer Goes To Washington” outing. Perhaps it marks the start of bolder approach to both characters—and a grander grand finale for Parks and Recreation.

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