If you don’t already know this, I hate to break it to you: “Parks and Recreation” is coming to an end. The final episode of its final seventh season airs tonight, and in tribute, its biggest fans on The Playlist staff/in the world have tried to wrestle our infinite love for the show into just ten episodes.
It’s not an easy task. ‘Parks’ went from a slow, hiccuppy first season to a consistently excellent run from its second season on (season 3, with 4 entries below is probably our favorite, while season 6 felt like the most disappointing overall), so there are many episodes it hurt us to exclude and many many more, no doubt, that other fans will be aghast we didn’t mention.
For once, however, we do not fear death threats amid a fan backlash in the comments, because the special alchemy of ‘Parks’ was it managed to be funny without cynicism, to find actual humor in stories of kindness and sweetness and people being good to one another and good at their jobs. Anyway, in being one of the nicest shows on TV, it also has the nicest fans — we should know, we’re just a few of the people who’ve been made better, if rather more sentimental, by continued exposure to the lovely folk at the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana. We will miss them and the warm smushy feeling they’ve given us week in and week out immensely, but when it gets to be too much, good to know we can go back to the well anytime, most probably starting with one of these ten episodes.
“Hunting Trip” (Season 2, Episode 10)
Famously, “Parks & Rec” didn’t come flying out of the gate. It began with an uneven, rushed, truncated first season that saw the writers visibly struggling with how to make Leslie Knope work, and finding it tricky to stand apart from “The Office.” Ironically, “The Office” had virtually the same issues, and as in the case of that show, season two saw things massively improve almost from the start, with opener “Pawnee Zoo” becoming an almost markedly different show. The seeds of greatness were laid throughout, and “Ron & Tammy” might be the first perfect episode of the series (though we’ve left it out in favor of its sequel, which you can find below), but “Hunting Trip,” a few installments later, is probably the first to really take advantage of one of the show’s greatest weapons: its killer ensemble. Pivoting around the heart of the show, in the relationship between Amy Poehler‘s Leslie and Nick Offerman‘s Ron Swanson, the hard-drinking, woodworking libertarian who became the show’s most iconic breakout character, it sees the former forcing the latter to let her and the other women in the office accompany him on his annual boys-day-out hunting retreat. Already having his favorite day of the year ruined, things go much worse when Ron is winged by a bullet, which Leslie ends up taking responsibility for. Aside from Paul Schneider‘s Mark Brendanawicz, who never quite fit in and departed at the end of the second season, everyone gets a moment in the spotlight, from Aziz Ansari‘s Tom’s fear that they’re being hunted by the Predator to Retta‘s Donna howl of grief as she realizes her beloved Mercedes has been hit by a stray bullet. But it’s really a Leslie and Ron episode, and the way that his anger turns into grudging respect as he realizes that she’s been covering for someone else is one of the first great demonstrations of the big beating heart of the show. Plus you get some killer Poehler improv as she throws off the suspicions of a park ranger by playing into his condescending stereotyping of women, and the first flourishings of the show’s best love story, between Aubrey Plaza‘s April and Chris Pratt‘s Andy.
“Telethon” (Season 2, Episode 22)
When an episode opens with a puppy licking Ron Swanson’s moustache, you know you’re in for a treat, and even among the strong run of episodes that ended the second season (and built towards the totally stellar third), “Telethon” was a real highlight. Penned by Amy Poehler herself, it sees Leslie spearheading the graveyard slot of Pawnee’s annual anti-obesity telethon (sponsored, of course, by the town’s vaguely sinister, sugar-pushing local corporation, Sweetums). The show’s the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to a live-action “Simpsons” (Golden Age writers like Mike Scully worked on ‘Parks’ too), with Pawnee growing ever stranger and bigger with each passing season, and more and more characters appearing to embellish the ranks over time, each one as memorably strange and hilarious as Comic Book Guy, Gil, Bumblebee Man et al. “Telethon” has several of them popping up to brilliant effect: Mo Collins‘ wonderfully demented talk show host Joan Callamezzo, the first appearance of the appropriately filthy Joe from Sewage (Kirk Fox), and best of all, plain-talking news anchor Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) doing the worm. But the focus here is on the main cast, as it should be, and you really sense the writers and the performers start to hit their stride: a sleep-deprived Leslie tries to battle through, Ron sleep-fights and bores viewers so much with his chair-making workshop that the telethon counter starts going backwards (one of those surreal touches that could risk breaking the show, but still somehow works tonally), Tom getting hammered with NBA star Detleft Schrempf (who became a regular guest star), Gerry being the butt of everyone’s jokes, April and Andy’s burgeoning romance, etc. Even Paul Schneider gets some material for once, as he attempts to propose live on air to Rashida Jones‘ Ann. The show was about to evolve: Schneider would leave two episodes later, and in the very next one, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott joined the cast, helping the show reach its perfect form. But even before them, it was clear from an episode like “Telethon” that this was going to be a series for the ages. It also features one of Mouserat’s finest hours, with the performance of their anthem “Sex Hair,” a song title that Spinal Tap would be proud of.
“Ron & Tammy: Part 2” (Season 3, Episode 4)
It may have taken a season or so to figure out exactly how to write Leslie, but Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson arrived fully formed and instantly iconic. Terse of manner, right of wing, Selleckian of ‘tache, Ron is to ‘Parks’ what Jack Donaghy was to “30 Rock,” though obviously he’d be horrified at the comparison to the urbane, corporate NBC honcho. Swanson’s appeal, so perfectly encapsulated by Offerman, is largely down to how you just know that he’s the guy whose politics and worldview least resemble those of the writers of the show (Emily Kapnek on this episode), yet he’s also the one whom they love the most. And when you create such a pillar of strength, manliness and libertarian ideals, the essential Randian/Nietzschean Superman of Pawnee, the most illuminating thing you can do with him is introduce him to his Kryptonite. Enter Tammy 2, played by Offerman’s real-life main squeeze Megan Mullally (their genuine chemistry and comedic synergy is palpable) as Ron’s psychotic horndog librarian ex-wife, whom we’d already encountered in Season 2 but who gets her greatest moment here. Mullally, best known as the best thing in “Will & Grace,” doesn’t actually have that much screen time (though her intro, as she seductively slaps a strip of beef jerky against her face, is one for the ages), but the effect of her is everywhere, as Ron is sucked into her orbit (and other parts) again. Remarried, incarcerated, sporting gangsta cornrows and entirely emasculated (we see it all happen via one of those classic ‘Parks’ montages), Ron has to be rescued by Leslie, who again shows us how committed she is to her friends, even above the job she adores, by using up the favor she needs for her career-making Harvest Festival to get Ron out of prison instead. As is the way when Tammy 2 shows up, subplots are kind of blasted off the screen, but the introduction of Ben’s thing for calzones (and everyone’s absolute disgust at that) is a nice little sparkly bit. Still, the full-beam glare goes to Ron and Tammy 2, the ultimate addictive-but-bad-for-you hookup.
“April & Andy’s Fancy Party” (Season 3, Episode 9)
TV weddings are usually big deals: people love weddings, and network executives doubly so, promo-ing the hell out of any episode that features two characters in a church for weeks in advance. ‘Parks’ did weddings better than most (Leslie and Ben’s in season 5 was great, and this season’s “Donna & Joe” equally so), but its finest matrimonial moment was a stealth one, going mostly unheralded in advance, and at a decidedly odd time in the relationship being celebrated. April and Chris Pratt‘s Andy spent most of the second season in a will-they-or-won’t-they situation, but finally got it together early in season three. And only a handful of episodes later, they invite the rest of the cast to a party at their house, before letting slip that it’s actually their secret, spontaneous, foolhardy wedding ceremony. The result is the single most romantic episode of a show that, while it wasn’t ever driven by dating and love lives the way that, say, “How I Met Your Mother” was, could be swooningly sweet in its finest moments: despite Leslie’s fears, and the sheer impulsiveness of the decision (“I cannot emphasize how little we’ve thought about this,” Andy says in his speech), it’s clear that the pair are perfect for each other, and their marriage has smartly remained one of the strongest on television ever since. But this also isn’t some saccharine tissue-fest either: for all its big-heartedness, this also remains one of the funniest episodes of ‘Parks,’ from Ron’s DIY-dentistry fake-out in the cold open (complete with gleeful giggle at having made Tom faint), to an always-welcome appearance from Ben Schwartz‘s Jean-Ralphio, to April’s morbidly weird friend Orin, and even a worthy sub-plot for Ann, as she awkwardly returns to the dating world (“Are you Nell? From the movie Nell?” Donna asks her, after seeing some of the worst small talk in history). It’s almost impossible to pick out the absolute best half-hour of the show, but this makes a very, very good argument.
“The Fight” (Season 3, Episode 13)
Even lesser seasons of ‘Parks’ could open big and close big, but a show’s real proving ground is the in-between episodes, the ones that don’t have a big gap to fill in retrospectively, or a big bombshell to leave us hanging cliffside. And this episode is just such a case. Like so many of the best moments of ‘Parks,’ “The Fight” has a centerpiece “event” at which all the members of this epic ensemble get to interact and intersect in combinations new and familiar. Here it’s the launch of Tom’s newest venture Snake Juice, a dubiously potent alcoholic beverage that gets the entire gang nutso drunk, and contributes to a fabulously well-observed passive/aggressive, then aggressive/aggressive spat between Leslie and Ann. Of the forest of subplots, the best is April and Andy’s roleplay, as Janet Snakehole and Bert Macklin respectively, though irregular cast members like The Douche and the invaluable Jean-Ralphio also get some love, particularly the latter with his inability to end his spontaneous raps on the obvious rhyme (“Gonna turn that frizz-own upside-diddidy!”). The epic night culminates in one of the funniest montages ‘Parks’ would ever do, as each cast member talks to the invisible “documentary crew” in their extreme inebriation, ending with Ron, for once more dimple than ‘tache, wearing Janet Snakehole’s fascinator hat and dancing on the spot. But if anything the episode gets even better afterward, (unlike Snake Juice), as the gang try to work through the issues and the monumental hangovers that the night brought up. Ben knits himself further into Leslie’s heart by provoking the mending of fences between her and Ann; Andy and April continue to be the greatest screen couple of the age; even Jerry, for perhaps the only time in the whole show, gets to not be a doormat for one hot second. Still, it’s the image of Ron dancing in the hat that lives forever in the mind’s eye. That and Chris Pratt’s running vomit moment.
“Li’l Sebastian” (Season 3, Episode 16)
The Dan Goor-scripted Season 3 finale is remarkable for how almost every single character gets at least one of their best jokes, that furthers plot, deepens characterization, plants seeds and picks up callbacks, often all at once. Its 22 minutes, and unlike some episodes that can feel like they blister past just too quickly, this has the strangest TARDIS-like effect of being longer than its clock-in time, because of the care and brilliance with which so many levels are layered on top of each other, all centered around one of the best-observed, silliest but most touching side characters — Li’l Sebastian himself. The miniature horse/mascot, unquestioningly worshipped by every Pawneean, dies; Tom persuades Ron and Leslie to let his brainchild company Entertainment 720, formed by Jean-Ralphio, handle the memorial; Andy is asked to write a memorial song “5000 times better than ‘Candle in the Wind'”; Chris embraces his mortality; Jerry fucks up again; Tom resigns from the Parks department; we finally discover the only thing Tammy 2 is afraid of (Tammy 1); and as the cliffhanger, Leslie is offered the chance to run for office. And all of those strands are B-plots to the main, gorgeous A-plot of Leslie and Ben trying to keep their relationship secret while growing ever more attracted to each other. Probably the whole show’s most oddly romantic episode too, it’s where we really understand the stakes Leslie has in their affair, as most uncharacteristically, she even risks the smooth running of the memorial (for Li’l Sebastian no less!) to protect it, and neither Poehler nor Scott were ever more adorable than they are here. It’s the type of episode that fills your heart up repeatedly and then bursts it with a ridiculous exchange or two (personal favorite: Jean-Ralphio: “You gotta live your life like that cow from the video.” Tom: “He’s a horse.” J-R: “Yeah, because he followed his dreams!”) And frankly, Andy’s song is 5000 times better than “Candle in the Wind,” and not just because it’s called “5000 Candles in the Wind.”
“The Debate” (Season 4, Episode 20)
Set in the world of local government, “Parks And Recreation” was very much a political series, though perhaps not as obviously as shows like “The West Wing” or “Veep.” Despite its view that the citizens of Pawnee were often idiots, it had a real idealism about what can be done when people come together for the common good (and the difficulty of making it happen). Its engagement with politics reached a peak of a sort in season four with Leslie’s run for city council providing the show’s most prominent (and perhaps most successful) serialized plotline. It comes to a head near the end of episode twenty with the terrific “The Debate” (both written and directed by Amy Poehler), which sees Leslie confronting her fellow candidates in a live TV debate: a gun nut who wants to see “concussion grenades in our movie theaters,” Knope doppleganger porn star Brandi Maxxx, a hardcore animal rights activist, and dim-witted rich-kid Bush analogy Bobby Newport, played to dumb perfection by Paul Rudd. Edited to comic precision and full of brilliant asides (including Andy re-enacting “Road House” including its climactic throat-rip), it’s more importantly one of the show’s most incisive pieces of political satire. Making fun of silly local concerns and oddball candidates, but also of cynical Washington showmanship and big-business interests, the episode concludes with a rousing speech from Leslie that Aaron Sorkin would be proud of, and that wins over her donors, and even her biggest opponent Bobby (“Holy fuck, Leslie, that was awesome!” he hilariously explodes as she wraps up).
“Leslie V. April” (Season 5, Episode 7)
It would have been so easy for Aubrey Plaza‘s April to have become the deadpan one-note opposite of Leslie, and she wasn’t exactly the richest of the characters in the show’s early years. But more than almost anyone else, she proved to be full of surprises: Plaza had a secret range that she’d kept hidden, and her character subtly became more and more engaged and quietly idealistic over time, thanks to the twin influences of both Leslie, and of her sunny, upbeat husband Andy. Perhaps the best example of this was in season 5’s “Leslie V. April,” which centers on the relationship between the title characters, but perfectly juggles rich subplots for every major character on the show to a dizzyingly deft degree. Penned by the late Harris Wittels (it’s just one of a number of classics the writer wrote: tonight’s finale will be all the more tear-jerking coming less than a week after the comic/writer/producer, one of the show’s key figures, passed away at age 30), it sees Knope feuding with Ludgate-Dwyer over the issue of the plot of land that the series initially revolved around, which animal-loving April wants to turn into a dog park (only for Jon Glaser‘s villainous Councilman Jamm to attempt to sell it to fast-food chain Paunchburger). But along the way, Ben suddenly gets a ton of job offers, Tom attempts to launch his new company, and Andy prepares for his plan to become a cop by attempting to solve the mystery of who stole his computer. There are no gimmicks, big events, or set-piece gags, but it’s a quiet and brilliant example of a show that, five seasons in, knew each character like the back of its hand, how to get the most out of them and pair them off, and could meld big laughs with finely-tuned character beats.
“Leslie And Ron” (Season 7, Episode 4)
In any other show, the announcement that the final season was going to take place after an unexplained shift into the near future would be cause for grave concern and accusations of shark-jumping. But while it was clearly a ploy to be able to shake up situations that had settled into delightful but well-worn grooves over the course of the previous six seasons, the writers also used it as an ingenious way to get back to the heart of the show’s greatness. Which is, make no mistake about it, the relationship between Leslie and Ron. A platonic love story for the ages (there was even less of a sexual agenda here than there was between the nearest comparable coupling of Liz and Jack on “30 Rock,”) a tale of small-town friendship somehow rendered epic, Leslie and Ron are just two of the best people that TV has ever made, and they need to be besties, always. But conflict creates comedy, and the skip forward enabled ‘Parks’ to break into the scary, uncharted waters of them being not just on the outs, but damn near mortal enemies. Of course this was the better to bring them back together again, with this focused episode, which sees them locked in their old office until they can work things out. One of the mysteries of ‘Parks’ is how the writers (here regular Michael Schur, who also wrote the pilot, to give you some idea of just how elemental this episode is to the DNA of the show) almost always go exactly where you want, exactly as you’d expect, yet they find new seams of warmth and humor in such well-mined territory. So we know Leslie will wear Ron down, but the manner in which she does it (singing along to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” while not knowing the words) is a new level of silly/brilliant. We know Ron will reveal the reason for the feud, but when he does it still manages to cut to the heart of everything that Leslie fears in herself. And we know there’ll be a reunion, but when it comes it’s even more giddily, drunkenly, bittersweet hilarious than imagined. Everything changes, beloved shows come to an end and fictional relationships we’re way too invested in dissolve away into so much TV history, but “Leslie and Ron” lets Leslie and Ron, and therefore us, recreate the happy past just for a little while, soundtracked to Willie Nelson’s “Buddy” and I’m sorry I’m crying again.
“The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Music Explosion Show” (Season 7, Episode 7)
“Parks & Recreation” never lost its way like the “The Office” did, but season 5, and particularly season 6, saw some of the show’s comedic force lose its potency. But Season 7 has been a remarkable final run and the show’s two penultimate installments both proved to be classics: “Two Funerals” delivered a surprise Bill Murray cameo and a glorious payoff for Gerry/Larry/Garry, but it was the episode before that we cherished even more. Unlike former network Thursday-night-mate “Community,” ‘Parks’ has never really played with form, but the show shattered it with “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Music Explosion Show,” which exists ostensibly as the final episode of Andy’s public-access cable-TV kids show, which has made him a local celebrity. Chris Pratt, in the show’s dying days, suddenly became its biggest and most surprising breakout thanks to the smash-hit success of “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” and the episode functioned as a sort of perfect tribute to both him and the character he created (who began as a villain of sorts, and who was meant to be written out after the first season). As directed by one of the show’s most frequent helmers, Dean Holland, it does a good job of using a multi-cam format with surprising authenticity, and the show-within-a-show provided a day-glo glimpse into the endlessly enthusiastic, childlike mind of one of its funniest characters, and his alter-egos, particularly the great FBI agent Bert Macklin (“I don’t give a crap, Batman, you work for me. Increase the perimeter!”). Dragging in the rest of the cast for guest appearances (Donna as the police chief is perfect, Ron’s half-hearted woodworking appearance doubly so), including a cameo from John Cena as himself, and including plenty of Andy’s trademark Dave Matthews-ish compositions, it’s consistently funny stuff (especially with its various “commercial breaks,” including the proudly disgusting Paunchburger ad, and its imagination of a Verizon/Chipotle/Exxon merger that was “proud to be one of America’s seven companies”). But what’s more is that, as the show has always done, it’s grounded with real emotion, the episode pivoting around Andy and April’s upcoming Washington move, and his deep, abiding love for his wife. We’re sure the show will stick the landing in the finale, but this love-letter to a show-within-a-show provided a great goodbye anyway. Was it fan-service? Sure. But if only all fan-service were this good.
Honorable Mentions: Short answer: all of them (past the end of the first season, anyway). Long answer: there are a ton of other tremendous episodes of the show, and we could have made this list three or four times the length and still be leaving stuff out. Grom season 2: opener “The Practice Date” with the introduction of Duke Silver and Louis C.K.‘s guest run; the first “Ron & Tammy“; the introduction to the creepy “Fourth Floor“; the initial appearance of the titular corporation in “Sweetums“; the very sweet “Galentine’s Day” (a term that’s now entered the lexion properly); the Andy Samberg-featuring “Park Safety“; and season finale “Freddy Spaghetti.”
Season 3 (the show’s most consistently flawless) had opener “Go Big Or Go Home,” with the Swanson pyramid of greatness; “The Flu“; the Harris WIttels-penned “Media Blitz“; mini-plot closer “Harvest Festival“; “Soulmates,” which features the great burger cook-off; the Nicole Holofcener-directed “Eagleton,” guest-starring Parker Posey; and the gorgeous, painful “Road Trip.”
Season 4 had the introduction of Treat Yo’self in “Pawnee Rangers“; the gorgeous “Smallest Park” (also helmed by Holofcener); the campaign-centric “Citizen Knope” and “The Comeback Kid“; Louis C.K.‘s return with “Dave Returns“; the Bradley Whitford-featuring “Live Ammo“; and finale “Win Lose & Draw.” Season 5 left Indiana for “Ms. Knope Goes To Washington“; had one of TV’s most romantic proposals in “Halloween Surprise“; let us meet “Ben’s Parents“; married the pair off with “Leslie & Ben“; and made Ron a dad with “Are You Better Off?“
The Jamm-heavy Season 6 had the show starting to show its age, but there were still several great episodes, including double-length UK-set opener “London,” with a perfect Peter Serafinowicz as Andy’s Brit counterpart; the Eagleton-featuring “Doppelgangers“; the painful “Recall Vote“; the introduction to “The Cones Of Dunshire“; the farewell to Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe with “Ann and Chris“; and terrific finale “Moving Up.” Almost every Season 7 episode has been great, but opener “2017,” “Ron & Jammy,” Google-spoofing “Gryyzlebox,” and wedding episode “Donna & Joe” were particularly so. Farewell, “Parks & Recreation,” you were the best. As a poet once said, “Though we all miss you everyday/We know you’re up there eating heaven’s hay/And here’s the part that hurts the most/Humans cannot ride a ghost.”
— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang