'Parks and Recreation' series finale review: Sorry, 'Two and A Half Men,' but this is how you make a 'Winning!' finale
To appreciate what Parks and Recreation did right with its series finale, let’s first talk about all the ways in which Two and Half Men totally blew its own bow-out last week. It was an exceptionally peculiar thing with a risky strategy for audience satisfaction. Chuck Lorre, the CBS sitcom impresario, a writer capable of producing sincere, humane, quality television (see: Mom), decided the best way to honor Men’s characters, actors, and fans was to tell a mean-spirited, gonzo-meta “story” that attacked Charlie Sheen, fired in 2011 during a stretch of spectacular self-destructive behavior in which he bit weirdly and wildly at the hands that fed him. “Of Course He’s Dead (Parts One and Two)” was vendetta pop—revenge porn without the sex—with a self-reflexive vengeance plot. Turns out presumed dead Charlie Harper, jingle writing lothario, wasn’t dead; he’d been abducted, held prisoner, drugged and raped for years by psycho ex-lover. But now he was on the loose—he crawled out of a well, like the furious ghoul in The Ring—and bent on reclaiming his life and settle scores with his roomie brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), his mother, Evelyn (Holland Taylor), and the Internet mogul who replaced him, Walden (Ashton Kutcher). It was I Spit On Your Grave: The Tiger Blood Follies.
But it was Lorre who did all the spitting. Viewers got the usual battery of low brow ribald one-liners (because I’m secretly forever 13, I laughed), but they also got a bunch of barely veiled potshots at Sheen and bizarre passive-aggressive winks and pokes at critics who’ve panned this Odd Couple retread throughout its 12 season run. The shenanigans asked for Cryer and Kutcher to subvert their characters and themselves by delivering knowing lines and executing fourth wall-breaking gags that either apologized for the show’s brand of humor or defended it. The episode was certainly watchable for being WTH? bold. Watching it, you could easily make the mistake of calling it “inspired.” The animation sequence alone—recapping Charlie’s ordeal and escape and culminating with… Porky Pig in a bra?!—was bonkers bravura. But the spirited effect quickly dissipated, and all that remained was a bitter aftertaste.
Lorre had other options. He could’ve chosen to reward the fans and respond to his haters by working harder than he’s ever worked to make the finale the funniest thing he’s ever written. Or he could’ve settled for the most cliché series finale plot there is, the everyone-is-moving-on plot, a play that allows for some warmth and catharsis for viewers. He could’ve written an equally explicit self-referential episode that wasn’t about hating on Charlie, but about lavishing love on Cryer for his loyalty or Kutcher for helping prolong the lifespan of the franchise. But no: Lorre decided to entertain his audience one last time by focusing on his catharsis, letting his wounded ego hog the spotlight, by basically stepping through the screen and putting on a show of picking at his scabs and playing with the gore.
The closing scene of Two and Half Men—the last declaration of meaning; the legacy moment—wasn’t given to Alan and Walden but the show’s long-departed phantom menace and its man behind the curtain. We got a gag in which a helicopter dropped a piano on a body double playing Charlie, followed immediately by another gag in which Lorre, sitting in a director’s chair and watching Fake Sheen get squished, turned to the camera and got the last word (“Winning!”), then got squished himself by a falling piano, as if acknowledging and punishing himself for his masturbatory self-indulgence made it excusable or forgivable. Gag, indeed. But even this wasn’t enough for Lorre! His last vanity card—final words upon a final word!—explained that he tried to convince Sheen to appear in that sign-off scene, but to no avail. His participation might have changed the tone of the finale and suggested a different reading of those falling pianos; it might have played as a mea culpa from both men to the fans for letting behind-the-scenes drama and public feuding disrupt the show. But Sheen refused, and Lorre foolishly went ahead with an idea he apparently felt was too good not to do. It made for a worthless, joyless production—an hour-long vanity card written with a poisoned pen. Lorre made it very easy for all of us who perhaps too easily dismissed Men to say, “No regrets.”
The Parks and Recreation finale couldn’t have been more different in philosophy and execution. No pranks, no provocations, no po-mo hijinks, although it didn’t lack for slyness. It honored the characters, actors, and the fans in the inspired, inventive ways that both played to what we expect from TV finales and challenged conventions, all while being Parks to the core. Showrunner Mike Schur and exec producer/star Amy Poehler, who co-wrote the series capper together, celebrated their creation not by looking back in sadness or anger, but looking ahead to the future with the same sincerity, optimism, and hope that has always defined the series.
The last few episodes of this seventh season set us up for a “moving on” story and a supersized remembrance of plot points past. The opening sequence even teased us for a sentimental nostalgia fest, with Washington D.C.-bound Leslie gathering together her Parks department pals—or “proximity workplace acquaintances” if you’re Ron—on her last day in the office for an early workday goodbye, for which she had produced flyers and a title, “Walk Down Memory Lane: A Journey Through Our Past.” With a stack of notecards in hand (and her cohorts yawning and begging for expediency), Leslie announced that she had planned “comprehensive retrospective” of their adventures together. But then one last mission presented itself—a request to fix a busted swing-set at a local park. It was a full-circle moment for Parks—the pilot back in 2009 had Leslie solving a playground problem of a different sort, shooing away a homeless man squatting inside a covered slide—and stood in stark contrast to recent seasons whose climaxes hinged on Leslie and the gang pulling off major events like the Harvest Festival. With typical joi de vivre, Leslie issued a call to adventure to her comrades and us: “Forget about these old stories. Let’s make a new one. Let’s fix a swing. One last ride for the Parks and Recreation gang. Who’s in?” They all were, and so was I: It was the first of many moments the finale made me misty with Leslie’s idealism.
From this small assignment bloomed big vision and tremendous entertainment. As the gang assayed the steps of their shared heroic journey, we got moments in which Leslie got to say goodbye to each member of her team—“team” being the operative thematic word of the finale. Each encounter culminated with a touch from Leslie and flash-forwards that peeked into the future of the featured character. We’re not talking tiny peeks, either. We’re talking chunky sequences, many of them with complete emotional arcs, that showed us that Team Parks continued support each other, continued to find ways to remain involved in each other’s lives, even when they weren’t living life together. In fact, the latter half of the episode was dominated by an extended stay in the year 2025, centered around Leslie and Ben (Adam Scott), and saw this scattered community (including Rashida Jones’ Ann and Rob Lowe’s Chris) reconvene in Pawnee and reaffirm their bond, another emotional high-point.
My biggest fear coming into “One Last Ride” was that the “moving on”—the fraying of the community, the disassembling of the team—would undermine the worldview of the show, a worldview that I dare call counter-cultural: Parks played out during a time in TV history trendy with lone nut anti-heroes chasing self-fulfillment by any means necessary and narratives about decline, disaster, and dystopia. The beauty—and the comedy—of Parks was located in the striving of flawed folks capable of choosing good, that routinely put aside self-interest to invest in each other and fix a broken culture, that came to recognize the importance of interdependence, that “team” was more than a way of doing business but a way of life. This fear wasn’t realized. The storytelling blew up the usual “moving on” plot and reassembled it (with supplemental fragments) into a complex mosaic that reaffirmed everything that Parks has always represented, that doubled down on it, actually, in a way that some might find wishful and manipulative, but I found inspiring and earned.
The micro narratives within the Parks finale were, for the most part, as inspired as its macro structure. My favorite: We watched manly man libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) wrestle with a mid-life existential crisis in which he realized that turning his Very Good Building & Development Company into a very fine success—complete with a board staffed with beefy mustachioed doppelgangers like himself—but it wasn’t enough; he felt he was wasting his life in an office, felt a pang to be “useful.” He turned to Leslie for help, and she responded by giving Ron a job caring for her legacy project, the vast tract of virgin Sweetums acreage she won from Gryzzl and turned into a protected park. Subtle, lovely ironies abounded. Ron had originally sided with Gryzzl in the fight over this land, and stood to profit greatly from helping the company raze it and develop it into a corporate campus. Now, at the end, he was given the charge to protect it, preserve it. The arc quickly clicked through it beats yet made you feel the depth of every step, because Poehler and Offerman are, like, f—ing awesome. Here was Ron, this fierce individualist, humbled by epiphany, humbling himself further yet without shame by seeking counsel from Leslie, submitting to her wisdom, and gaining richly from it. Somewhere in there, I think, Leslie quietly won the political/philosophical battle that she long waged with Ron, by proving that government—a big one—can collaborate productively, efficiently, and meaningfully with its citizens to achieve mutually beneficial results, but Leslie being Leslie, she let the victory go unsaid, and delight in the happiness for her friend.
I enjoyed every flash-forward. I was thrilled they even found time and space for minor players, like Craig Middlebrooks (Billy Eichner) and Jean-Ralphio (Ben Shwartz). Donna (Retta) going from “Treat Yo’ Self” consumerist to “Teach Yo’ Self” philanthropist; Mayor-for-life Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) died blissful at the age of 100 surrounded by his own community of family, buried under a tablet that mangled his name (natch) but sent out with a traditional “21 stamp salute” from an honor guard; Tom (Aziz Ansari) losing his riches when his restaurant empire went bust (“Who would predict the country would run out of beef?”) and getting it back by becoming a life coach/business guru to three, four, and five-time losers (“Failure: An American Success Story”) with models for success inspired by each of his friends; Ben moving deeper into geekdom as an RPG auteur/franchise maker (Cones of Dunshire: The Adventure Continues: Winds of Tremorrah—“Punishingly intricate” rave the critics!)—all of this was wonderfully winning. Forced to pick a weak runt in the litter, I’d choose April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt). Their ongoing struggles with conformity, maturity, and purpose found poignant new expression in a disagreement over having kids. Andy, big kid that he is, wanted them. April wasn’t sure she should. Could she do right by them? It was a strong, complicated challenge for the duo, and I liked it a lot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if fans today are debating whether or not she made the correct choice for herself. She gave birth to her first child in Pawnee, nourishing the notion that for these characters, Pawnee = life. My two quibbles: 1. Murky storytelling. Did April and Andy stay in Washington D.C. or did they return to Pawnee? 2. Individual resolution. Did Andy ever find a career for himself after giving up Johnny Karate? Did April stay with the American Service Foundation? Is she forever to be searching for satisfying vocation?
But to be honest, the only mistake the finale made was letting Rob Lowe say “literally” twice.
I’ve written about my frustrations with the final season, first at the start, then at the middle. They came from a place of deep love, and for the record, let me add my voice to the many critics who’ve spent the week hailing Parks and Recreation as one of TV’s great sitcoms—and who’ve also praised this season as one of its best. Here at the end, I stand by most of my criticisms that this season, as a whole, was good, not great. The season didn’t field its first truly outstanding episode until the penultimate outing, “Two Funerals,” a.k.a. the one with the Bill Murray cameo, and didn’t convince me until the very end that last season didn’t represent a better conclusion for the series. Many fans were engaged by the decision to skip ahead three years to 2017, including my colleague Darren Franich, who saw in the deftly played premise some smart satire and cultural commentary in exploring tech giant Gryzzl’s negative, dehumanizing impact on Pawnee. I wish I had his eyes. What I saw most of the time was a show more afraid of its own high concept than energized by it, as well as gags and jokes that either fell flat or distracted. The writers failed to make me care about the stakes in the land war between Leslie and Gryzzl. Leslie chasing personal legacy? Such a selfish anti-hero desire, and not Parks. The enmity between Leslie and Ron? I didn’t buy it, I totally resented it, and I thought it was a poor example of doing that thing of shattering something just to create story out of putting it back together again. Give Poehler and Offerman props (and hopefully Emmy nods) for their performances in that bottle episode duet, but the episode itself was a manipulative contrivance.
The second half of the season was stronger than the first. But please believe that I’m not purposely trying to be April-esque party-pooping curmudgeon when I confess my belief that giving an entire episode over to the series finale of “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” didn’t work. It was super meta-homage awesome in theory, but the experience was more cerebral fun than visceral fun. I wanted to feel the hyperactive energy that was so entertaining to Andy’s studio audience, but the layer of irony between us and the show robbed it of rip and zip. You know how some people think Community’s heady pop homages sabotage emotional engagement? That’s how I felt about “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Explosion Show.”
And yet, what I can’t deny is that the 11 episodes that preceded “One Last Ride” were necessary for that finale to be as satisfying and sublime as it was. Spreading out the work of wrapping up characters (and actors) minor and major across the course of the season—tapping out Jeremy Jam and Tammy in episode 2; resolving Tom and Donna by mid season; honoring Andy (and Pratt) with a late game showcase—lightened the obligations of the finale and allowed it to soar.
Parks left us with one mystery: Did Leslie Knope’s boundless ascension into the higher rungs of public service reach the highest office in the land? A cryptic moment at Gerry’s funeral, in which she and Ben were ushered away by bodyguards (Secret Service agents?), left us to wonder if Leslie was elected president (following two terms as governor of Indiana) at some point in the future. I can’t blame Parks for indulging the tease (I love the idea!), and by playing it fuzzy, this hint of Leslie’s ultimate destiny didn’t upstage the three other moments in the episode’s final act that deserve to be our last, lingering memories of Leslie. The first: Her final address to her friends. “When we worked here together we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about. Small, incremental change, every day.” The second: Her speech in the far future while accepting an honorary doctorate in public policy. “Go find your team and get to work.” And the third was the final moment, when Jerry snapped a photo of Team Parks in front of that swing they fixed. While Ron complained about the dawdling (“I can’t hold this smile forever”) and Andy auditioned a new persona (“Sgt. Thunderfist M.D.!”), Ben looked to Leslie and asked, “You ready?” “I’m ready,” she replied.
These final 15 minutes—though comprised of chronologically discontinuous scenes—built upon each other thematically and emotionally to sum up everything beautiful and resonant about Parks and Recreation, a little-engine-that-could of a sitcom that fought, scratched, and clawed beyond a rocky beginning seven seasons ago to finish was one of the best show of, about, and for our new century. In Leslie Hope and ragtag band of proximity workplace acquaintances, we are left with a portrait of—to borrow some words our president spoke shortly before Parks premiered—“a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.” And with the finale of Park, we saw what “Winning” really looks like from a truly great sitcom. Unlike Ron Swanson, I’ll be able to hold the smile forever.
Finale grade: A
Season grade: B
Series grade: A
Parks and Recreation