Series finale review: 'Parks and Recreation' - 'One Last Ride': End of the line
And so "Parks and Recreation" has come to an end. We published many stories about the show over the last week, including an Amy Poehler interview, an essay on the show's greatness, and a whole lot more, and I have a review of the series finale coming up just as soon as you give me a pair of your gym socks...
"Yes. I'm ready." -Leslie Knope
A few years ago, Mike Schur and I had a very long discussion of finales — not only the many times he had written "Parks" episodes that could function as series finales if NBC canceled them, but of the many sitcom and drama finales he had admired over the years. He talked about how once upon a time, he was convinced that the show would end with the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the park Leslie built on Lot 48. He talked, as he so often does, about his admiration for the final 15 minutes of "Cheers," which is just the characters sitting around the bar talking to each other. We got into drama at various points (some in parts that didn't make the final transcript), mentioning "The Sopranos," "The Shield" and "The Wire."
One show that somehow never came up, even though its finale is among the most universally acclaimed in TV history: "Six Feet Under." I was the one conducting the interview, but Schur was also steering it in directions he wanted to go, and I wonder(*) if he knew then that if the show stuck around long enough (past at least two other In Case of Emergency finales), he might want to model the actual conclusion of the series on the final six minutes of "Six Feet."
(*) Under ordinary circumstances, Schur and I would have done our usual post-finale interview. These are not ordinary circumstances, and between all the ceremony surrounding the finale (which included Schur appearing with the cast on a taping of tonight's "Late Night with Seth Meyers") and everyone's grief over the death of Harris Wittels, it didn't make sense to do it now. Schur did answer the one question I posed him — in an intentionally vague way — which we'll get to in a bit, and maybe we'll do a longer interview down the road.
The finale, directed by Schur and written by him and Poehler, only shows one major character dying (plus another one faking his death), and it stretches out that flash forward conceit until it takes up nearly the whole episode, using a thin connective tissue of the group working together one last time to set up all these glimpses of the future. It's a little awkward at times, and makes one marvel even more at the economy with which "Six Feet" accomplished the same thing, but on the whole, this was a gorgeous, touching and, on occasion, very funny way for "Parks" to say goodbye to all its characters, and to us.
As Leslie moved from co-worker to co-worker, friend to friend — and, at one point, to Jean-Ralphio — we got glimpses of their futures, intertwined with the futures of Leslie, Ben and everybody else. In that very "Parks and Rec" way, not only does everybody get exactly what they want — Garry a long life full of love and family (and a mayoral tenure about as long as Gunderson's), Ron a peaceful job in the great outdoors, Andy and April with kids (the first one named after a Jack O'Lantern, as any kid whose mom majored in Halloween Studies should be), etc. — but in a way in which they remain involved in each other's lives. April helps Donna set up the Teach Yo' Self foundation, Leslie gives April advice on having kids (but in a way that only re-frames the decision, rather than telling her what to do), Leslie and Ben go to Tom's big book launch, Ron goes to Leslie for career advice when he retires from his building company, the whole gang makes it to the ceremony where Leslie gets her honorary doctorate (and the much less-desired honor of having a library named after her), and Leslie and Ben are there for Garry's funeral, accompanied by a bevy of guards who look like Secret Service agents(**). They've succeeded separately, but they're still connected by the time they spent in that tiny municipal office. Which is at it should be.
(**) So this is the one question I asked Schur: Is Leslie the president in 2048? (Or, for that matter, is Ben?) He wrote back, "That is our 'cut to black' Sopranos finale detail. There are many interpretations, involving the career paths of both Leslie and Ben. As Chase said, (paraphrasing), everything you need to know is in the show. I think viewers can decide for themselves what that glimpse of 2048 means." I think it makes more sense that Leslie is POTUS, both because the lead agent looks to her first, then Ben, as he tells them they need to leave, and because the graduation ceremony, at the end of her two terms as Indiana governor, implies she's about to embark on a great new adventure. Ben certainly could become president with his resume — assuming the success of Cones of Dunshire and its spin-offs didn't put too much nerd stink on him — and I like the idea of the two of them as the Clintons in reverse, with her becoming president first and him running later. It's entirely possible that neither of them has the gig — POTUS isn't the only American official accompanied everywhere by bodyguards — but given the dreams Leslie described for herself early in the series, it seems like a logical conclusion for her story.
Having given us a lot of crazy hijinks earlier this season — Leslie's Tammy 2 impression, the whole Johnny Karate episode, Bill Murray as Gunderson — "One Last Ride" is by design fairly light on jokes. I laughed a lot at Leslie shoving Ben aside so she could hug Beautiful Ann, and at Garry in the coffee pot costume, but for the most part, the finale favored sentiment over comedy, exploring the characters figuring out what to do in the next phases of their lives. And all of it continued the show's themes of working hard to improve the lives of others — which Leslie again articulated with the Teddy Roosevelt quote — and of how the relationships we form become more important than the things we wanted on our own.
I don't think it's a coincidence that nearly all the flashforwards — save Ron's, which was conspicuous in the absence of Diane, but I guess Lucy Lawless just was busy this season — involve couples, even the regrettable twosome of Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa, and usually involve one half of a couple sacrificing for the other. Craig and Typhoon get married, Donna decides she can live with a little less bling and fewer vacations if it means helping Joe's school and ones like it, Jerry gets a lifetime with Gail (who looks as good in 2048 as she did in 2014, much to Ben's delight and Leslie's annoyance), and even Tom's latest rise from failure is inspired by a big heart-to-heart from Lucy. April ultimately decides to have the kids Andy wants, in part because of Leslie's advice about adding to the team, in part because she ultimately seems to realize she can stay who she is even with kids, as we see when she puts on the zombie makeup before giving birth.
And in the finale's biggest lump-in-throat moment (it's that or Ron smiling on the canoe as we again hear Willie Nelson's "Buddy"), Ben decides — as he has for so many points of the series, because he's a man comfortable with his own limitations and delighted with his wife's relative lack of them — to pass on the coin flip in favor of simply letting her be the one to run for governor. Poehler told me that Adam Scott made her a better actor, and I think she did the same for him; both of them say so much with slight changes of expression in that sequence, first with him making the decision on his own, then with her truly appreciating the sacrifice he's making. Just fantastic.
Really, though, the entire reunion sequence at the parks office — featuring not only these people who used to work together, but all their kids, plus the return of Beautiful Ann and Chris — was beautiful. Nothing complicated, but very much in the spirit of those concluding minutes of "Cheers" that Schur loves so much, and something that was good to see before their final moments in 2017, so we know they'll all get back together and continue celebrating the big moments in each other's lives.
Was it all sappy? Yes. But that's "Parks and Recreation," always believing in the best of, and for, its characters, all the way to the end. As episodes of television, some of the previous would-be series finales (say, "Win, Lose or Draw" or "Li'l Sebastian") are probably stronger all-around. But as the conclusion of our relationship with Leslie, Ron and the rest, this was about perfect.
In the show's final moment, Leslie says she's ready for what's next. After this great final season, and this wonderful final episode, I remain very much not ready for a future without "Parks and Recreation," even though it ended so definitively, and so well.
Some other thoughts:
* The man seeking Leslie's help in replacing the park swing was played by Jon Daly from "Kroll Show," who played the drunk Leslie chased out of the slide in the pilot (glimpsed briefly in the finale's montage of the parks staff hard at work, Teddy Roosevelt-style). The idea is that this is the same guy a decade later, having cleaned himself up after hitting rock bottom in front of Leslie, with neither character realizing who the other is. Not something most people would notice (Daly's all but unrecognizable in the pilot cameo), but a stealth piece of full-circle casting.
* The credits ended with an on-air tribute to "Parks" writer and occasional guest star Harris Wittels, who died way too young last week. If you haven't already, go read Aziz Ansari's tribute to his friend and longtime collaborator.
* We had final cameos from two "Parks" writers, with Joe Mande returning as Morris, the guy who used to brag about illegally downloading movies and music, and who's somehow head of city council for one of Garry's inaugurations, and Dave King as the rabbi — named, of course, Kurt Lerpiss, because Lerpisses are everywhere in Pawnee (I believe Morris is also a Lerpiss) — presiding over Jean-Ralphio's fake funeral.
* Also of note, city council-wise: Brandi Maxxxx continues her quest to imitate Leslie by getting elected to the council (and surpasses her by becoming head of it). Does this mean she's also destined to become president one day?
* Shauna Malwae-Tweep was one of the show's few notable characters who had yet to appear in this final season (other than Mark "He Who Must Not Be Named" Brendanawicz), so it was good to have her back to cover the story of the swing — and to have Leslie trying to suggest headlines to her one last time.
* Kyle! Haven't seen much of him since Andy stopped working at the shoeshine stand, but nice to see the return of the one man in City Hall who even Garry/Jerry could look down on.
* When I interviewed Ben Schwartz, he suggested that Jean-Ralphio's type was "all of the above," but it appears Leslie was always the one he loved. Also liked that his singing is what exposes the faking of his own death.
* The use of the Traveling Wilburys "End of the Line" as the closing music continued a trend of the show using Tom Petty songs (or, in this case, songs from supergroups featuring Tom Petty) to cap huge moments: "American Girl" plays at the end of "Harvest Festival," while "Wildflowers" plays as Ann and Chris drive out of town together.
* More music: I liked hearing several Mouse Rat songs playing in the background of the parks department reunion. As imitators of Dave Matthews and Hootie and the Blowfish go, those guys weren't so bad.
* I have to mention Ron in the canoe again, because Offerman's smile was so marvelous, especially in contrast to the "smile" he claimed to be sporting when Garry wanted everyone to pose for one last picture. I'm sure Nick Offerman has other things in mind, but I would watch the hell out of a spin-off (or, at least, a webseries) where Ron runs his park, tries not to get to know his subordinates, occasionally jets off to Scotland to check out his new Lagavulin holdings, and frequently talks to bears.
* Horatio Sanz becomes the final one of Poehler's "SNL" buddies to guest on "Parks," playing the clergymen officiating at Craig and Typhoon's wedding. (A nice touch: Ron is not only Typhoon's best man, but clearly seems very close to his new barber. I wonder if, in the future, he even gets over his no-tipping policy.)
* The show did a lot of fun digital effects work this season — and in this episode — to depict the future, but am I being greedy for wishing we had gotten a glimpse of the Space Haystack being built around the Space Needle?
* Leslie awarding five points to Hufflepuff for Garry suggesting a requisition form raises the question of which houses the different characters should be in. April is obviously Slytherin, Ben is Ravenclaw, and Leslie is Gryffindor, but what about the others?
* Ethel Beavers does not get a flash-forward, but I'm hoping that's only because that will be the very first scene of the "Better Call Saul"-esque Beavers spin-off Schur says he might do as his next project.
* Anyone else sad we never really got to know Sgt. Thunderfist, MD? And do you agree with Donna that Macklin is the hottest of all Andy's alter egos? And now that the show is over, where does Sandra Dee O'Connor rank among the many Halloween costumes the characters wore? Is Janet Snakehole #1? Ron's only costume? Something else?
* Excellent comic timing from Joe and Jill Biden. Maybe NBC can sign Jill to a holding deal while they wait for Joe to be done with his current job?
* I now need to take Tom's quiz, before he recalibrates it in disgust over Ben being told he's a Tom. As a writer, I also like the show's optimism that books will continue to exist in the future.
What did everybody else think? Was this too happy an ending, or just the right amount for this show? Were there characters you hoped to see in either this episode or at any point in the final season who never showed up? And how do you think "One Last Ride" stacked up to all the show's previous finale-type finales?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org