Spoilers for the “Parks and Recreation” finale, obviously.
“Parks and Recreation” has come a long way, starting as a clone of “The Office” and turning into the warmest, funniest political show on television. “Parks” has always been about people with deeply-rooted political and personal differences finding ways to come together; sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, but they were always able to regroup and find new ways to be happy. It’s an idealistic show that never fell into the smug sermonizing of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” or “The Newsroom.” It was able to balance optimism with a hint of dissatisfaction (like when Leslie Knope was recalled from her city council position), and it made all of the wins feel hard-won. More than anything, it never forgot to stay funny while staying heartfelt.
That careful balance tipped way over into the wish-fulfillment side in last night’s finale, “One Last Ride,” which jumped into the future several times to show each character’s dreams coming true. April and Andy find a place to settle down and have a kid. Donna moves to Seattle and uses her considerable wealth to pay for after-school programs for her educator husband. Ron retires from business and becomes a park ranger, getting paid to walk the land. Jerry/Garry/Larry becomes mayor several times over. The eternally short-tempered Craig finds love. Tom establishes a restaurant franchise, goes bankrupt and becomes a best-selling author writing about his failure. Leslie becomes good friends with Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., and is elected governor of Indiana.
Very few of these things sound too far-fetched, but “Parks” has always been a joy because it threw problems at its characters and had them work hard to figure out solutions. Here, the solutions come as quickly as the problems because the episode’s time-jumping conceit tries to cram in as many resolutions to new problems as possible. The happy endings feel mechanistic rather than earned as a result. Even expected callbacks, like the return of Ann Perkins and Chris Traeger, don’t get the warm-and-fuzzy feelings they’re going for because the episode’s herky-jerky rhythms never build to it.
It’s a sweetness overload (even for one of the sweetest shows on television), but it might have gone down a bit more easily had it been tempered with jokes. But with few exceptions (mostly from April, who insists she name her child “Demon Spawn Baby Liar” and delivering it wearing exorcist makeup), the episode is uncharacteristically light on humor in favor of scenes meant to give the characters and the audience exactly what they want, with no complications. Too many bits play on with minimal payoff (Tom becoming a huge success), and too many flash-forwards overreach, like a scene that sees Garry dying happy on his 100th birthday, which leads to Adam Scott and Amy Poehler being slathered in the worst old-age makeup put on screen in a few years; the hint that Leslie reached higher office (the Secret Service are at the funeral) only adds to the wish-fulfillment overload.
Watching the episode, I got the same nagging feeling that I got as a teenager reading the final “Harry Potter” book’s epilogue: that it was playing less like a real finale and more like fan-fiction. It has all of the characters and a clear love for the show, but the tone is never quite right, the rhythm erratic, the desire to see every possible happy ending years past the story’s logical conclusion. The episode is hardly a “Seinfeld”-esque disaster – there are some genuinely sweet moments (like Ben turning down a run for governor so Leslie can run instead). But the episode didn’t move me until the post-credits dedication to late writer and producer Harris Wittels. For a show that constantly felt like a warm, welcoming hug to go out on such a cloying note is a major disappointment.
And yet, the disappointment of the “Parks and Recreation” finale hasn’t lingered with me past last night. What has lingered is the overwhelming affection I have for the rest of the show, this season included. I was initially skeptical of the jump to 2017, but the show had so many indelible moments – Ron and Leslie patching up their broken relationship, Donna getting married, Tom finding true love, the always-bumbling Garry becoming mayor – that it swept away any reservations I had. Each of those happy endings felt like they’d been building for several episodes, if not several years. Each step the characters took felt uncertain but decisive, with a sense that even if they were scared of what might happen in the future, they’d ultimately be OK. That uncertainty, and the seriousness of the obstacles they encountered, was key to show’s success, and the episodes that remembered that matter a hell of a lot more to me than the finale that forgot it.
More reviews of “Parks and Recreation’s” “One Last Ride”
Linda Holmes, NPR
There aren’t many shows that could get away with so many big final victories, with so much happiness for everyone that it sloshed over the rim of the show’s world and felt even more like augmented reality than it usually does. But what distinguished the brand of happiness the writers delivered in this final pass was that it was specific to the characters and true to who they were. This was wish fulfillment as character exploration. Writers are always told that the engine of all fiction is that someone wants something; rarely has a show so thoroughly understood what the people it’s brought to life really, genuinely want. Read more.
Willa Paskin, Slate
“Parks and Recreation” isn’t such a sweet show because it lives in a vacuum where nastiness, selfishness, and stupidity don’t exist, as they more or less didn’t in the finale. It’s such a sweet show because it exists exactly in the midst of such things and its characters try to rise above the muck and their own natures anyway, even when they don’t succeed. The finale had no hint of that muck. Luckily, there are 123 other episodes of this great series to balance it out. Read more.
Joanna Robinson, Vanity Fair
But, more importantly, Leslie was surrounded by her loves in this emotional finale. And, really, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Whether it was just the right amount of time with Chris Traeger and Ann Perkins, or close, emotional moments with Ron, Donna, Tommy, and yes, even Jean Ralphio. This show, in the end, was about how many lives Leslie Knope touched (literally in the case of the finale gimmick), and how even the most frustrating, weighed-down-by-bureaucracy job can, in the world of “Parks,” effect change. Read more.
Pilot Viruet, Flavorwire
The thing is, no matter how cheesy or sickeningly sweet these futures are, the series finale is just about impossible to hate because it’s so in tune with the series itself. It’s an optimistic show where just about everyone ultimately gets what they want — and sometimes even more. Donna, for example, gets a great husband, a nice house, a job as a realtor in Seattle (where they are building a “space haystack around the space needle”). Instead of just treating herself, she wants to treat Joe, too, and uses some of their saved vacation funds for after school programs (“Teach Yo’ Self”). But even better, we learn more about Donna like how she served on a NASCAR pit crew and kicked out En Vogue (not to be confused with getting kicked out of En Vogue). Read more.
Alasdair Wilkins, The A.V. Club
This episode is the logical conclusion of the storytelling and the joke-making formulas that “Parks And Recreation” built for itself. Every sitcom finds itself in a race against time, trying to wring all the humor and all the pathos its premise that it can until the audience’s ever-increasing familiarity and the show’s constant need to top what came before threaten to create a show that is somewhere between a caricature and a shadow of its former self. Shows’ golden ages can be frighteningly short, especially when a show touches such greatness that even a step down to simply being reliably good feels like a crushing disappointment. Depending on who you ask, “Parks And Recreation’s” apex might not have been much more than three seasons, but the things that allowed the show to reach the summit in the first place—its genuine love for its characters, its ever-expanding survey of Pawnee’s particularly absurdity, its willingness to go from jokes to emotions and then right back again—were also the ideal building blocks for the show’s endgame. Read more.