Small Town, Big Laughs: An Appreciation of 'Parks and Recreation'

A great sitcom goes out strong after coming in so weakly years ago
NBC

There's something glorious about the fading end of NBC's Parks and Recreation. There's a redemptive spirit to it, some morality to it and some nostalgia.

Tuesday night finds the last two episodes of the series going out into the ether. They will air, people will watch or not, another hour will be available on Hulu after the fact and the great buzz saw of network television will continue to cut across the grain, muscle and blade working harder than they probably need to.

But it will be in the books. And that's what really matters.

There are a lot of ways to look at the passing of a television series in 2015. And we can — and I will — recall some of the many Parks and Recreation glory days. But we may not witness the trials and tribulations from this kind of show on that kind of network again. The new model is being forced, late, into place. It doesn't really allow for anything like Parks and Recreation. Certainly not how Parks became Parks.

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But looking at it closely in this late hour of its existence, isn't it kind of beautiful? A little miracle of funny.

And here's how it started: No matter how the history books or the National Broadcasting Company want to paint it (and revamp said history), Parks and Rec was supposed to be a spinoff from The Office, and somewhere along the line that idea got scuttled. But there were still so many patently obvious stylistic comparisons in the look and feel of the show that a negative reaction was almost guaranteed (especially because NBC was adamant that it wasn't a spinoff — follow the money on that one), so it just looked and felt like a bad copy that was rushed onto the air and would run mere weeks before NBC was to announce next season's schedule.

The future — it didn't look good.

And, frankly, the entire first season wasn't good. Not good at all. Of the six episodes that aired, a generous soul would count the first five as blandly pointless and the sixth as maybe holding a glimmer of a hope, which really offered no hope of the show returning.

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But Parks and Recreation did return, and the second season was another series entirely, it seemed — and brilliantly funny at that. Looking back now and knowing that 30 Rock (and other great sitcoms) had a similar rough patch (four not very good episodes and then, like a revolution, a march to greatness), it almost makes you nostalgic for patience. Did NBC's once-vaunted Thursday night comedy block ultimately become a low-rated, critically acclaimed ghetto? Sure. And though it might have been a sore point for a company that wanted hits, those shows kept people at least partially aware of NBC come awards time and fans were super loyal (although season finale numbers grew lower each year after the second season, which is not completely surprising given more options available, viewer laziness and fatigue).

And yet, coming into this current season, the comedy landscape at NBC is so unfertile that it cut a deal with Netflix to air the Tina Fey comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on the streaming platform. When you can't launch a Fey comedy on NBC, something is really wrong. So maybe we should all be happy that a seventh and final season of Parks and Recreation even happened in the first place.

Besides, knowing the end game has left the Parks and Rec writers and creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur plenty of time to go out like a Roman candle creatively. The show has been a wonderful mixture of fearless chance-taking, on-point comedy and sentimental send-off. To be able to stick the landing and make people want more is a proud accomplishment. The series has been freed from the often-paralyzing "series finale" shackles in the best possible way. Parks and Recreation seems to have plotted out its final season by taking notes from Andy (Chris Pratt), one of its best characters, who is not known for planning things out with detail. He's a let's-just-do-it kind of guy and though the series clearly put a lot of effort into making the end resonate, it feels as loose and playful as ever.

I'll miss all of these characters — the zealously optimistic Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), who loved working as much as life itself; Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), arguably one of the best sitcom characters ever, with his love of breakfast foods, meat, woodworking and ignoring the small talk of everyday people. Plus Ben (Adam Scott), who brought a wonderful outsider mentality to Pawnee, gave Leslie a real love life (and vice versa) and worked/suffered so well with Chris (Rob Lowe) that you wanted him to succeed. I'll miss April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Pratt), she of the jadedness, he of the cluelessness, (and two fantastic comic actors who went on to big-screen success), because they were such a great couple.

Same goes for Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta), easily the least expected fun-friends on a sitcom, whose outlandishness lies (his) and brusque truisms (hers) proved what a deep bench of fine actors and characters were on this show. And, among so many others, there was one of my favorite comic conceptions of all — Jerry "Garry" Gergich (Jim O'Heir), aka Jerry, Larry and Terry. Superbly and sweetly incompetent, the lightning rod of everyone's blame and rage, a beacon of averageness. I'd be fine with a Jerry/Terry spinoff. Just don't call it a spinoff, to keep the joke going.

What Daniels and Schur managed to do throughout so many rewarding and hilarious seasons was make a show about small-time government bureaucracy and big-time dreams of betterment. They gave us all shades of the politician, all manner of the small-town resident. It magically veered away from overt cynicism (especially after that first season, when the show didn't know what it wanted to be or could be). It embraced positivity and American ingenuity and small-town weirdness. It was a show that had a lot of love in it — and all the hugging going on in this final season seems at least a nod in the direction of what viewers are certainly feeling.

Parks and Recreation, starting with its full second season, was simply great. Smart, thoughtful, funny and creative no matter if it had the macro or micro view of America, politics, community and people. It had, memorably, too many exceptionally hilarious episodes to remember.

That's an achievement.

But as it goes out, let's also remember that seven miraculous seasons (OK, six) point to a different time in the history of television. Chances might not be taken quite like this in the future (they could be shipped off to Netflix instead). But allowing a show to find its voice and its audience over time was — even if NBC didn't always savor the process — the smart long view that paid off.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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