This may be sacrilege, uttered the day after its hourlong season finale, but nonetheless, I’ll risk it: “Parks And Recreation” was not a perfect show. It was a good show that did its thing really well, which was to make America seem a little better than it really is. The show started out as a biting commentary on public service in America and became a wish-fulfilling fantasy; as Jaime Weinman of Maclean’s said on Twitter, it’s “(deliberately) escapism for idealists.” A lot of marriages and babies attended “Parks And Rec”’s slow denouement, as the characters froze into poses that they would eventually be unable to move from. As consistently charming so much of the cast is—including the surprise central couple of the show, April and Andy (played by Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt) and breakout fan favorites Donna and Ron Swanson (played by Retta and Nick Offerman)—it smoothed out from sharp satire into goopy soap, as friendships were more asserted than acted upon, characters became caricatures, and certain gags, like the disdain for name-changing Jerry/Larry/Garry Gergich, were run into the ground.
And yet. That’s what happens to sitcoms; the characters become a little less pathetic, and as a result, a whole lot more boring. (Plus, the writers run out of jokes.) “Parks And Recreation” delivered some instant classics to our lexicon—like “Galentine’s Day” and “Treat Yo’Self.” Even when the show wasn’t quite sure where it was going, it always knew what it was saying—whether that was that friends matter, or the work matters, or simply that breakfast food is the best food (which it obviously is, I mean, hello).
The last season of the show, which ended last night, was a fantastic send-off for the show. A little silly, but in all the right places; a way to neatly tie off everyone’s stories in satisfying ways. There was a whole episode that was filmed and acted as if it were an episode of Andy’s kids’ show, “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion.” There was another episode that focused on data mining from corporations, centering around a tech company’s lobbying tactic of sending personalized gifts to politicians via drones. There was an episode, too, where April had to tell Leslie Knope, her boss and mentor, that no, she didn’t want to work for her anymore, and it was then that the show felt like it was finally ending.
The most fantastical element of “Parks And Recreation” was not, ultimately, that all these people managed to win elections against moneyed interests, or that they managed to be friends and coworkers for all these years. It was, instead, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope: The public servant we all wish were on our side, fighting for our parks, stumping for our government services, and throwing a party for everyone who needs a party (and some people who don’t) along the way. It was her energy and dedication that made “Parks and Rec” such a dream come true; she did the work of a dozen employees with a smile on her face, and she never, ever, gave up. Leslie was the soul of optimism, always able to find a way to appeal to the best in people, and asking so little in return.
As the show went on, Leslie’s competence and optimism became a storytelling problem: In 2013, during the show’s fifth season, Todd VanDerWerff made the argument that “Parks And Rec” had a “Leslie Knope problem,” where the protagonist’s upbeat cheeriness—and the show’s stated interest in keeping things nice—made for an increasingly easy path for Leslie to pursue her ambitions. She just never failed anymore, and at least partly that was because neither the writers or a good chunk of the audience wanted her to. Leslie is just too much of what we all want our politicians to be. We watched “Parks And Recreation” precisely to see Leslie Knope do the right thing and win; we watch “Scandal” for the messier stuff.
Viewed as a whole, the seventh and final season works to create an arc of difficulty for Leslie, starting with a five-year flash-forward that allowed them to reset a few conflicts off-screen. Leslie and Ron aren’t speaking in 2017. April wants a different job. Leslie and Ben are managing two careers and three kids, which isn’t easy. And as more and more of her coworkers and friends leave Pawnee, she’s faced with the toughest obstacle of all: the relentlessness of change. This is not something she can fix with a binder.
“One Last Ride” goes a long way towards outlining the entire ethos of “Parks And Recreation,” pegged to a quote by Teddy Roosevelt about doing work worth doing. Leslie adds her own twist to it, one that I imagine we can all appreciate: Do the work worth doing with a team of people you love. In the world that is not Leslie Knope’s Pawnee, politicians don’t love anyone, and sell out their teams, and most of the time, don’t do work worth doing. And they do all of this without even much of a twinge of conscience. Leslie is that spark of idealism and altruism and trust in government that encourages people everywhere to go into public service. Most other people lose that spark, or watch it die, in their first few years of public office. Leslie Knope lives that seed of inspiration and hope every day of her political life.
I was happy that Ben (Adam Scott) made way for Leslie to run for governor, even though he was also tapped; I was happy, too, that it was Leslie’s commencement speech at Indiana University that ended up delivering the final intonations of the show’s message. When the finale offered flash-forwards to the rest of the cast’s future, it was the touch of Leslie’s hand on their shoulder that prompted the time-shift. It is Leslie, at the center, who is their catalyst and their center. She tells the assembled students to find their own team, because she’s so grateful to have her own. What I see is a woman who would have found a team anywhere, and made it her own, because dammit, she had a job to do. I don’t know if I’ll miss “Parks And Recreation,” a good show that used up its material and found a way to bow out gracefully. But I will miss Leslie Knope, that spark of light and hope and optimism, America’s last great public servant, working tirelessly to keep the lights on.