My wife and I just finished bingeing Parks & Recreation. It was her first time seeing the show and my second, but the first since watching it live. We started with season 2 as, like The Office, it’s where it finally gets going and I didn’t want her to lose interest in the sluggish first block of episodes.
We flew through the final batch of episodes last night. Just like the first time around I felt some light dread about finishing the show, knowing the journey with these characters would end. This is the problem with rewatching great TV: during the long journey through it, you dredge up all the love you had for the show, and when you’re back at peak love it just straight-up ends. Again. In the same place it ended last time.
There were little recurrent bits I appreciated even more this heartbreaking/-warming time around. Andy’s elaborate non-sequitur digressions, usually involving Burt Macklin’s misadventures. Leslie’s penchant for dictating long, punny headlines to Shauna the reporter. Ron’s unexpected, giggling delight for intricate scavenger hunts. The guy at the public forums (whose name apparently is Chance Frenlm) always starting nonsensical chants.
Knowing a show’s full scope and context after the first run, during the rewatch you can see how it evolves from its nascent, awkward beginnings to the well-run machine it would become. The turning point for Parks & Rec, I think, is “Greg Pikitis”, the seventh episode of season two. It’s the first appearance of Burt Macklin, which helped usher Andy away from being Ann’s lazy, kinda-creep ex and toward the hapless goofball he’d become. It’s also when Tom-as-wannabe-playboy emerges. Leslie hasn’t quite turned into the ubercompetent lovable maniac she would be later on, but the blend of her tenderness toward Dave and her animus toward Pikitis was an early sign of future Leslie — especially the one who’d end up with Ben.
In a show that’s ridiculously funny throughout, I cherished seeing a few key moments the second time through not for their humor necessarily, but for their unexpected and soulful sentiment:
- Leslie decides to run for city council and the Parks & Rec gang surprise her with a gingerbread city hall and an offer to be her campaign staff. “Guys, it’s so much work. I can’t ask you to put your lives on hold,” she says, to which Ron replies: “Find one person here who you haven’t helped by putting your life on hold.”
- Leslie fulfills a lifelong dream of voting for herself in an election. The brief, teary moment to herself in the booth, though quickly interrupted by Andy, grounded the show’s antics in something real and slaying.
- Ben drops a surprise proposal after a spell of long-distance dating. I guess I should have seen it coming as it happened in an episode called “Halloween Surprise”, but I didn’t, and it was great.
- Ben and Leslie’s actual, non-crashed wedding. I’m a sucker for retrospective montages playing beneath heartfelt dialogue.
- Ann leaves. (Reaction to which pictured above.) It felt like the finale of another TV show, but instead it was just another pause, a breath in the middle of the action to take stock of the humanity that seeps through the show’s humor.
- The whole of season 7’s fourth episode (“Leslie and Ron”), when Leslie and Ron are forced to hash it out over Morningstar. The entire last season is built using the flash-forward conceit, and it pays off here when we can contrast Ron and Leslie’s 2017, post-Morningstar acrimony with their tender reconciliation. They both needed humbling, but Leslie’s a-ha moment, triggered by Ron’s telling of his side of the story, was beautifully rendered.
- Series finale moment #1: April doesn’t want to have kids but Andy does, so she asks Leslie for advice. It’s not really a sentimental moment, but I like her perspective on how having kids isn’t about perfecting your life but about adding new members to your team.
- Series finale moment #2: Ben and Leslie can’t decide which of them should run for governor of Indiana and are going to flip a coin for it; instead, with the Parks & Rec gang gathered one last time, Ben decides for them: “Leslie’s running for governor of Indiana.” Similar to when Leslie decided to run for city council, Leslie’s face does the talking for her. The entire “Pie-mary” episode focused on the gender dynamics of political candidates and Ben & Leslie’s dedication to upending them, so this governor moment was the perfect vessel for acting it out in their typically loving way.
The through-line for all of these is Amy Poehler. Every moment I’ve highlighted here involves her and the wide range of talent she deploys. Whether in comedy or drama, accuracy is key. Making just the right choice for any given line or scene is hard enough once, but in Parks and Rec she does it accurately and beautifully to a stunning degree.
Even though we can rewatch it whenever we want, I’m really gonna miss this show (again). Having a show end is like an emotional death in the family, and having it happen repeatedly and inevitably is a definite downside of great TV. But like playing “5000 Candles In The Wind” one more time for Lil Sebastian, being able to resurrect it on-demand and laugh with its stories and people again is a modern privilege I’m grateful to have.
Bye bye, Parks & Recreation. Miss you in the saddest fashion.