Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.
After seven seasons, NBC's gently acerbic, lovingly rendered Parks and Recreation ended its run Tuesday night with an extension of the final season's voyage to 2017. In further flashes to a few years or even decades later, we learned about April and Andy's kids, Garry's future as a beloved eternal mayor with an ageless wife, Tom's many hustles to come, Donna's educational foundation, the park Ron will run, Leslie's brilliant career and the true partnership of equals that is her marriage to Ben.
Parks didn't seem to start out as a show about love; it seemed to be a show about the mundane frustrations of the public servant, and it never stopped believing that much of the work people do will go unappreciated and those people will go unthanked. In the finale in 2017, the old Parks Department crew rallies, even though they no longer work there, to fix a swing in the park, only to find that the man who wanted it fixed thinks of their work as nothing more than what was owed to him as a citizen. Which, in a sense, after all ... it is. As Leslie once told the departed Mark Brendanawicz when he felt no satisfaction at having gotten a troubled speed bump lowered, in what may be the show's guiding principle in a nutshell: "You fixed a problem. That's what we're supposed to do."
There aren't many shows that could get away with so many big final victories, with so much happiness for everyone that it sloshed over the rim of the show's world and felt even more like augmented reality than it usually does. But what distinguished the brand of happiness the writers delivered in this final pass was that it was specific to the characters and true to who they were. This was wish fulfillment as character exploration. Writers are always told that the engine of all fiction is that someone wants something; rarely has a show so thoroughly understood what the people it's brought to life really, genuinely want.
Ron, for instance, doesn't want what Leslie wants, despite the fact that they're close friends. He learned a lot from an office full of people who became friends, but he doesn't want another one now that his first one has scattered. What he wants is solitude, nature, silence and meaning. Meaning. Ron's distrust of sentimentality and closely held cards, we now know, were never signs of emotional emptiness or a vacuous heart. He had his own definition of meaning, and Leslie learned to respect it — and she understood in the end what it was he really wanted. Telling him about the job she had already accepted on his behalf running Pawnee National Park, she says, "You'd work outside. You'd talk to bears."
Tom writes a book about failure, but he gets back his girlfriend Lucy, the only really right woman he ever dated (bringing back Lucy is one of the best decisions they made this season, after seemingly dropping the thread of her story back in the fourth season). Tom with Lucy was the best Tom, and he gets to both keep her and be a hustler forever, because he is a hustler. Forever. He's okay without an empire. He just needs to have his next idea. He always wanted success, but even more, he wanted to live inside the promise of the next success.
Garry wanted to be embraced. Donna wanted to live comfortably, in the company of her darling husband, as a philanthropist. Chris Traeger wanted new toys to beep comfortingly at him to reassure him of good health. Ann wanted her kids, as she always had, and to hug Leslie until they were both about to burst.
Maybe the most surprising storyline to anyone who last watched the show in the second season or so is that years later, April and Andy are happy and have a son, to whom April gave birth while listening to "Monster Mash" in Halloween makeup. Andy entered Parks as a freeloading bad boyfriend and goes out as an adoring dad and devoted husband. April entered as a cynical student and leaves as a skeptical but loving mom who's learned to trust not only her husband but her tight circle of friends.
As for Ben, in a very rare move in American television, a man is shown as admirable, romantic, desirable, brave and good in part because the thing that matters most in his life is his marriage — not merely in the sense of having it rather than endangering it, but in the sense of being able to make a frictionless sacrifice of his own ideal individual future to allow her to have hers — something many, many spouses do at some moment or another. And, critically, he makes that choice not reluctantly but joyfully. He has other ambitions: He became a congressman, after all, and had there been an opportunity to be governor, he might have taken it. But it all matters less than recognizing that his wife — who considers them to have equal claims to entering the governor's race and is willing to leave it to chance — is more ambitious than he is, wants to be governor more, has wanted to be governor longer and is going to be happier than he is with the opportunity. And, perhaps, will be a better governor.
This dance between Leslie and Ben has been going on as long as they've been together; in fact, they broke up early in their relationship because it might have interfered with her running for Pawnee City Council. They've had to navigate these waters a few times, and sometimes one of them has stepped forward and sometimes the other has. But in the end, it is Leslie whose dreams of politics are grander, stickier and more vital to who she is, at least for this moment.
We learn what happens next: Leslie becomes governor, and after two terms, she's off to some unnamed new adventure — one that eventually means that decades later, at Garry's funeral, guys in dark suits are accompanying her and Ben. Is she being protected as a former two-term governor?
Maybe she's an ambassador. Maybe she's in the cabinet.
But maybe, of course, Leslie Knope is president.
Or first lady.
They don't actually say. This, perhaps, was a bridge too far and a tease better left as a tease. Better to suggest than to try to show anyone being sworn in by a member of the Supreme Court. After all, she got to play charades at Joe Biden's parties. Shouldn't that be enough?
This kind of ambiguity can be maddening when it feels cute, but here, it feels thematically appropriate. It leaves space for hope; it leaves space to choose between the least audacious, dreamy outcome you could imagine for Leslie and the greatest one. In a lot of ways, this is what Parks has been about: one radically optimistic woman who chooses the dreamiest outcome, who believes that you start by solving a problem because that's what you're supposed to do and maybe end up as president.
If Parks has a single identifiable theme, it's this, loosely paraphrased from Leslie's own words in the finale: People get a sense of meaning in life from love and work. All these people got to be happy because they committed to allowing space for love and work, in one way or another, and thus for meaning.
We went through a period in the '80s and early '90s when comedies were asked to choose between being really funny and being emotionally rich, and they often wound up with neither. This was the era of the Very Special Episode, and it led directly to the welcome arrival of Seinfeld and its "no hugging, no learning" motto. But to say a comedy needs neither hugging nor learning to matter is not the same thing as saying it has to be unrelentingly arch. Hugging is part of life. So is learning. Parks has been equally skeptical — equally, always — of maudlin sentimentality on one hand and the reflexive deployment of ironic detachment as a guard against accusations that you're corny on the other. When it was feelings-y, it was effectively feelings-y, and when it was pointed, it was very pointed. When it was funny, it was hilarious, and when it was silly, it was blissfully silly.
In fact, it has been itself, pretty clearly, work done with love.