Setting the final season of Parks and Recreation two years in the future was both a creatively genius and a cruel move. Unlike time jumps on many other shows before, the fast forward in time was a creative reset on a show that seemed, by design, stubbornly immune to such jolts. How much can you really do to spice up storylines in a TV show about a city parks department?
But as awesome, surprising, and heartwarming as the two-part Parks and Rec season premiere was, that unshakable bit of cruelty underlied it. Watching Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, Aubrey Plaza’s April, Chris Pratt’s Andy, and the rest of the Parks crew living their lives in 2017 was a tease. When 2017 comes around in our real lives, this batty, sweet, close-as-it-comes-to-perfectly-written sitcom will be gone—as will an entire comedy era.
To that regard, the premiere of Parks and Recreation was both wonderful and epically sad.
First, the positive, of which there is just so, so much. It’s a blast seeing Leslie in the future, frantic as ever but now channeling her manic ambition into a position with actual power: running the National Parks Department. She’s got some pretty sweet power bangs, too.
A delightful little Where Are They Know? sequence reveals that everyone seems to be doing just fine: Tom is a successful entrepreneur, Donna is engaged, and Andy and April are doing so well they even hate themselves.
“We’ve held out as long as we could, but it’s finally happened,” April says. “We’re boring.” She and Andy spend the rest of the first of the two-part premiere trying to prove they haven’t lost their hot-mess mojo. “Want to do a shot?” Andy asks, as the two are in black-tie attire at a fancy gala. “Yeah, I wold love to do a shot. Because wine makes me sleepy now.”
The most startling revelation of the two-year fast-forward, however, was what has become of Nick Offerman’s Ron. He’s left the Parks Department to run a development and building company characteristically called Very Good Building and Development Company. Not only that, he and Leslie, who have maybe and the most delightful on-screen Odd Couple friendship of the past decade or so, have fallen out. The best friends are now vicious enemies—something that surely won’t last for long, but which provides fodder for some excellent comedy interplay between Poehler and Offerman in these first few episodes.
The two will be at odds bidding on a parcel of land that he hopes to commercialize with his development company and she wants to turn into a beautiful national park. He has a rich backer offering a massive multi-millionaire dollar bid. She has nothing but a request for the land to be donated and relentless gumption to offer. Your guess who will win.
“I have the most powerful currency in America,” Leslie says. “The blind, stubborn belief that what I am doing is 100 percent right.”
The premiere brings back some of Parks most beloved guest stars, including Mo Collins’s boozy talk show host Joan, Jon Glaser’s petulant adversary Jeremy Jamm, and Megan Mullally’s cringe-inducing femme fatale Tammy (the latter two actors giving two of their funniest performances yet on the show in the second half of the premiere)—a sort of best-of parade that drives home the idea that this season is a swan song and making these episodes bittersweet.
Because not only is this a swan song for Parks and Recreation, one of those many fantastic shows these days that are watched by a passionate and loyal few, but its departure from the NBC lineup marks the end of a very specific, very important, very good era in comedy.
When Parks debuted in 2009, NBC’s comedy lineup was anchored by one very strong and, at the time, very popular comedy, The Office. When it premiered, Amy Poehler hadn’t quite honed what she was doing with Leslie Knope. She was still pretty bumbling and hapless and delusional, and not yet grounded enough in her good-natured wild ambition to differentiate her enough from Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. Filmed in the same documentary style as The Office, people couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a blander copycat version of the hit sitcom.
But then NBC allowed Parks to do something few new series are afforded the opportunity to do anymore: grow and find itself.
Quickly the series found its own identity and proved its worth not as an Office rip-off, but as an invaluable part of one of the strongest and most creatively distinct NBC lineups in recent memory. Joined by 30 Rock and Community, these were series that invested stock in smart writing over broad gags, embraced the single-camera format as a showcase for the sharpest and fastest minds in comedy (the likes of Tina Fey, Michael Schur, Greg Daniels, and Dan Harmon), and respected the intelligence of its audience to keep up with the whole thing.
These shows were biting and sarcastic, but proved that mean-spiritedness or unnecessary crudeness didn’t have to accompany either of those things in order for them to be funny. They showed the value in casting genuine comedic talent over movie-star looks or familiar names. (To boot, look at how the careers of then-relative unknowns Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, and Aziz Ansari have blossomed since Parks began—not to mention the careers of Mindy Kaling, John Krasinski, Allison Brie, or Joel McHale on those other series.)
But the state of network comedy now is depressing. The continued existence of Parks and Recreation in this, its final season, is important because it represents the last time that network comedy was actually good—when those four shows were all putting forth some of the best sitcom writing in recent memory all at the same time.
Sure, Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory are popular, but those distinctive comedy minds that made The Office and Parks and 30 Rock so great now have fled to cable, where they can develop their humor without broadcast oversight. There are some network gems left—The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine—but a look at this past fall’s depressing new comedy slate hints that the renaissance of network comedy we all were so giddy about not even 10 years ago is over.
Who knows what the comedy landscape will look like in 2017. But it’s been a nice fantasy experience to imagine that our cherished Parks and Rec clan will still be in it.