The Ups and Downs of the Parks and Recreation Finale

27 Feb

Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation is a first-ballot hall of fame TV show, and while its final season wasn’t its peak, it was overall a very solid season, better than the one that preceded it, and did everything that the final season needed to do for the show to feel complete. Yet the series finale, while very true to the show itself, rubbed me somewhat the wrong way.

Composed of a series of flash-forwards where we see every major character’s future, it was just too much; everyone getting exactly what they’ve always dreamed, unadulterated happiness, emotional crack. At first, I was concerned if this was a problem with me and not with the show. I wondered if I was just too cynical or too pessimistic too handle this unrelenting optimism, and that I needed to just sit back and enjoy. And while those may still be personal problems, and I probably should simply enjoy more, after some thought I was able to reckon with my issues with the finale in more impersonal terms.

The emotional highs in the series finale were manipulative in a way that the many emotional highs throughout the series were not because they were unearned. Parks and Recreation was a very, very, funny series, but some of its best remembered and most canonical moments are notable because of the way they made you feel rather than laugh. Parks and Recreation handled emotional arcs better than any other contemporary sitcom. The show built investment over a long period of time in likeable and well-constructed characters, so when payoffs happened over the course of the series, they felt like the deserved fruits of years of labor and hard work.

There are many such moments, both personal and professional over the series’ run, but the pinnacle may be Leslie’s election to the Pawnee City Council. The goal was long-held and the process was excruciating and obstacle filled. We saw her work towards this goal over episodes and seasons, through ups and downs, though the agony of defeat before the ecstasy of victory. We were there with her every step of the way, and when she won, there was a wonderful euphoria.

This is the case for big personal moments as well. Ben’s proposal to Leslie was both tontally perfect and felt earned, as did Andy and April’s marriage, which was an inevitable triumph after they had struggled to get together for a long time.

This was the exactly opposite of Tom and Lucy’s proposal, which felt completely and totally out of nowhere. Didn’t Lucy just break up with her boyfriend and episode or two before Tom and her got engaged? It felt like there were episodes missing, as if Parks and Recreation forced the events just to make sure Tom was married by the end of the series.

In the finale, each character got to virtually live out their ideal fantasies with no sense of the road that took them there. Sure, Leslie gets to be governor, just like that, in five minutes. Tom is rich, and then broke, and then rich again.

The most clear example of the problems of these flash forwards may reside in April and Andy’s segments Andy and April are discussing having a child. Andy is super excited to have kids, but April is wary. Leslie wisely advises April that having kids is a tough decision, and one they need to make together and after much though. Then, 30 seconds later, without any of the discussion that was supposed to accompany this we see April, nine months later, giving birth. This is a major decision! This should be thought over and talked about, and then if and when they both agreed and eventually had the child, all the warm fuzzies would be well deserved. Here that’s fast-forwarded, an unfair cheat.

Parks and Recreation is a great series and the finale was certainly true to the show itself; relentlessly optimistic, both for its characters, and for the general idea of people of all stripes working together rather than against one another, maintaining friendships in the face of ideological differences. Still, the decision to branch forward into future outcomes without supporting the personal wins with carefully laid groundwork prevented the finale from being an all-time classic.

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