Summary: One of NBC’s staple sitcoms goes out in appropriately sappy fashion, and it works wonders.
There’s been a striking amount of writing about Parks and Recreation over the last few months, most all of it celebrating how its surprise final season has been the show’s most consistent. It’s up for debate whether season 7 is the best season, or just better than the last couple of years preceding, or simply defied expectations. It could very well be all of the above, but the truth is, it’s gotten a lot of people (at least on the internet) talking and thinking about the show as a whole, even people who may not have previously been into the show. AV Club did a good compilation of some of the best interviews, retrospectives, and thinkpieces out there (and I’m not going to try to copy any of them here), and a quick Google search of the finale shows the variety of elements that had people talking.
Compare to something like, say, the ratings giant Two and a Half Men, which had its finale last week; pretty much any of the writing found in a quick Google search isn’t much more than “Did Charlie Sheen come back?” That’s not a rag on that show, necessarily, but it puts in perspective just how easy it was/is to get invested in Parks and Rec in a way some other sitcoms haven’t captured, even in their successes. Parks and Rec isn’t built on just its central character or one overarching story, it’s the myriad gags, characters, storylines, and themes in Parks and Rec as a whole. This show has notoriously been on the periphery for a lot of people for years, building a steady following that, while it never hit big in the ratings, has permeated pop culture across all age groups in a way fewer and fewer sitcoms are able to do these days.
The series finale, “One Last Ride,” seems to recognize this, but manages to indulge a bit without becoming overly self-indulgent. This isn’t a finale that tries to milk or recycle old gags, at least not unless it’s vital or just a damn perfect moment (“Ah, f***, a library” may be the episode’s biggest laugh.) This episode isn’t really that focused on the laughs at all, actually, of which there are only a scattered handful. Instead, the indulgence comes from the characters and their niceness; they get nice things, they say nice things, they do nice things for each other. It’s sappy and sentimental, and the abject lack of tragedy in virtually everyone’s lives is a big, unrealistic cheat.
The thing is, that’s pretty much been Parks and Rec since day one. This is a show about optimism, that even in a place like the government – which seems so wrapped in unfeeling bureaucratic BS and corruption – getting a group of genuinely good people together can change things for the better. “What makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people you love,” Leslie says, and the Pawnee Parks Department exemplified that.
We see this sense of unrelenting optimism more blatantly in this hour-long finale, where 30+ years are condensed to only show the greatest moments of bliss. That ups the sappiness factor way more than we’ve ever seen before, but it’s still not all that different from what the show has already done. Throughout the series, even the darkest moments have yielded bigger, better successes. Tom’s entire arc throughout the show has been a series of ups and downs, with each new successes exceeding the last, even continuing into his flashfowards. More appropriately, perhaps, consider Leslie’s recall in season 6, a ballsy and depressing move to almost literally rip Leslie’s dream from her by no fault of her own. But it led to the most triumphant win for Leslie yet in the season finale, “Moving Up,” where it allowed Leslie to accept a federal Director of National Parks position and fulfill a better dream she didn’t know she had. That’s what Parks and Rec became about: good people who work hard eventually achieving what’s best for them, even if they didn’t know they wanted it.
Honestly, “Moving Up” is probably a better, funnier, and more satisfying episode than “One Last Ride.” At the time, it was a perfect would-be cap to the show, the best of the many faux-nales Parks did in its constantly on-the-bubble existence. But season 7 is less of an ending for the show in the way “Moving Up” was, and closer to an epilogue. In fact, this final episode is a literal epilogue in every sense of the word, but the season as a whole spent time neatly tying and adding a cherry on top of the longterm arcs, while setting up the final bow.
Much of this finale only works because of what was set-up in the preceding eleven episodes. The overarching work to get most of the characters moving away from Pawnee is the biggest, of course, and the episode plays every string of that it can. We get the usual “moving out to represent finality” finale tropes, but then the show delightfully subverts this by also flashing forward to the 2025 reunion – including Ann and Chris in the reunion, too!
But then we see the individual character stories. We see Garry’s interim mayorship, which turns into the greatest and most celebrated achievement of his life (next to his hilariously unaging wife Gayle), still marked by a misspelling on his tombstone. There’s Craig and Typhoon, a pair of characters that, frankly, only got paired together because they were the two most notable gay characters on the show. Yet, it still draws out perhaps the biggest emotional wallop; they have the farthest flash into the future, where we see them as a complaining, but still totally loving, old couple right up until the end.
An even better example of the brilliant set-up is in that flashforward, which takes a very simple one-off gag from last week’s “Two Funerals,” Ron bonding with Typhoon as his new barber, and turns it into one of the most heartwarming bits in the finale. Ron as Typhoon’s best man is a perfect encapsulation of this show’s capacity for the character growth, and the ability to ground all humor in genuine love and emotion. Aside from that, Ron finally manages to let his strict code lax and swallows his pride just a teeny bit, enough to turn to his best “workplace acquaintance” Leslie, and accept what turns out to be the perfect job for him, even if it’s for the federal government. There’s nothing so serene as seeing Ron paddle out onto the water while Nick Offerman cracks a very slight, but hugely revelatory, little smile.
There’s April and Andy, who fought against normal adulthood all season, learning how to remain who they are while doing the adult things they both need and want to do. It seemed a little troublesome that April’s ending would be something as bland as “have a baby,” but it ends up being a brilliant representation of where Leslie stands in April and Andy’s lives – she relays the idea of thinking of everything in terms of being on a team and adding members to it, which is brilliant. And, more importantly, it showcases how April and Andy can still be perfect weirdos in even the most normal human situations (“I put the make-up on after I went into labor!”)
And there’s Jean-Ralphio, who expresses his love for Leslie (to which her perfect response is “I know”) and continues getting in the utmost ridiculous, death-faking shenanigans with Mona Lisa, as he should. Donna goes the charitable route while still being able to treat herself. Tom continues his cycle of failure and success (and even makes his own documentary about it!) until it culminates in a book called Failure all about success.
And of course, Leslie and Ben, who continue to work as a perfect team to a point where they’re both reasonable candidates for Governor. Leslie ends up being the obvious choice in the end, because there really wasn’t ever a question there. But unlike those early episodes of the show with a single Leslie pushing all her apathetic workers to uncomfortable places, she’ll never have to go it alone ever again. After all, she’s got a pretty damn big team behind her at all times.
“One Last Ride” isn’t the quintessential Parks and Rec episode, because it definitely substitutes more “awws” than laughs. And it wouldn’t have the resonance with anyone unfamiliar with the show checking it out here. But it isn’t a departure from what Parks and Rec is, either. It’s an embrace, really, of that side of us we lose as we grow older and sacrifice our naiveté. It’s an optimism that Leslie Knope has carried since day one, that you can make a difference, you can make things better, and you can help people become the best they can be. Even though “One Last Ride” is very much about the ensemble, Leslie Knope and Amy Poehler’s charming and enthusiastic portrayal of her has never stopped being the heart and the catalyst. It’s appropriately her touch or embrace that sparks each flashforward, after all.
For all the laughs and gags and cultural touchstones this show brought in its seven years on the air, its greatest accomplishment is the creation of a lead that’s more inspirational than most dramatic protagonists. As flawed as Leslie’s overenthusiasm and often controlling tendencies get, she turns them into methods to keep fighting for good and pushing people to do and be better, because the world can and should be a better place. The political and bureaucratic storylines in Parks found humor in how serious the most benign problems could be, but it made Pawnee a microcosm of the world at large, through the lens of Leslie Knope.
At that, “One Last Ride,” and the quest to fix the swing in a park one last time, is just another example of a group of good people doing good things together and making things better. And even when they don’t get much gratitude for it immediately, we see very clearly that they get to reap those sweet rewards in the long term. Be a Leslie, and try your damndest to make the world better. Like the Gloria Estefan song Leslie used for her campaign, get on your feet and make it happen, because you can and you should. And if you’re ever doubting the work you’re doing, make sure you’re getting to do it with the people you love.
Odds and Ends
- There’s supposed to be a Producer’s Cut coming out (if it hasn’t already), which may include even more flashfoward bits. Should be fun!
- Much as I loved the return of Ann and Chris – which includes Leslie pushing Ben out of the way to hug Ann, Andy completely not remembering Chris’s name, and Leslie reading off a long list of exuberant nonsensical Ann-compliments – it’s sad they didn’t get their own flashforward. Perhaps it was because of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe’s availability, but it’d have been nice to give them the same epilogue everyone else got. Their original farewell episode still holds up, though, so that will have to suffice.
- Poor Mark Brendanawicz is basically the only person in all of Pawnee without a happy ending. Not sure where a Paul Schneider cameo would have worked even if he wanted to come back, though.
- Great use of cameos scattered throughout. And absolutely adore that Brandi Maxxxx becomes a City Councilwoman, and continues to make her thousands of films.
- The Bidens are so adorable.
- If nothing else in the episode didn’t have you well up at least slightly (you inhuman monster), then the cast embracing on their last day at the end of the credits, followed by a message to the recently deceased producer Harris Wittels, certainly should have.
- “I got a terminal case of get me to the front of the line at Six Flags!”
- “Don’t get emotional Vaughn, you’re embarrassing yourself.”
- There are tons more quotes from this episode and the show as a whole to keep us referencing for a lifetime, so I’m not even going to try to grab any more than I already have.