In the most recent episode of “Parks and Recreation,” Jerry/Larry/Terry/Gary Gergich, the sitcom’s multi-named all-around nice guy and punching bag, became mayor of his hometown – showing just about anything can happen in Pawnee, IN.
The twist proved typical of a show whose seven-season run provided a gentle comic endorsement of public service during a period of national partisan bickering and general disdain for politicians. “Parks and Recreation,” which began with a quest to turn a hole in the ground into a playground, will say goodbye with a one-hour finale Tuesday on NBC, having filled its role as TV’s modest, modern-day answer to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
That’s thanks, in large part, to show star Amy Poehler, whose indefatigable small-town bureaucrat Leslie Knope never took her last name for an answer. Leslie wasn’t a big fish in a small pond as much as a small fish unafraid of any waters and unable to stop swimming – save for waffle breaks.
Over the last nearly six years, we’ve seen Leslie grow from a local parks department official to a put upon city councilwoman to a National Parks Service bigshot. Along the way, she’s maintained the same intense devotion to her friends (making personalized scrapbooks and banners) and to her jobs. Even dirty politics – like being forced to trade a private bathroom for a vote to approve extending pool hours for kids – couldn’t break her spirit.
The final season, set in 2017 and packed into seven weeks, took on a Leslie-like breathless pace, brimming with future-shock jokes (involving delivery drones and Shia LaBeouf’s new career designing wedding dresses), cameos (including Leslie’s new BFF, Madeleine Albright, and Bill Murray, primarily as a corpse) and big changes for the characters.
Leslie is headed to Washington for a Department of the Interior leadership training program. Her husband and soul mate in wonkdom, Ben, is running for Congress. Her once-slacker protégé April is moving to Washington with husband Andy to take a job at the American Service Foundation. Donna is relocating to another Washington – Seattle – while self-styled party king Tom is getting married. The only one staying in place is mustachioed, meat-eating Ron Swanson, a macho throwback who detests change – likely including living under the Gergich regime.
The show, which mixes quirk and substance better than any current TV program, is buoyed by strong writing and a cast that’s thrived since “Parks and Recreation” debuted. Aziz Ansari’s standup act recently sold out Madison Square Garden. Chris Pratt’s starring role in “Guardians of the Galaxy” made him one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading men. Nick Offerman’s Swanson flourishes in Internet memes, built on Ron-isms like “Keep your tears in your eyes where they belong.”
The show has earned comparisons to Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith” and to classic office-set ensemble TV comedies like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” even if it never reached that level of stature or viewership. The sendoff hasn't generated major hoopla, though the cast is set to appear on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” Tuesday. The understated title of the one-hour series finale, “One Last Ride,” doesn’t tell fans much, though it’s a good bet some guest appearances are on tap, along with some bittersweet farewells.
The end of “Parks and Recreation” isn’t as sad as, say, the loss of Li’l Sebastian. But like the devotees of Pawnee’s favorite miniature horse, we’ll miss a little show that could, a singular sitcom that launched what we’ve dubbed the Audacity of Knope – a comedy-coated spirit of optimism worth celebrating from Pawnee to Washington.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.