From the beginning, Parks and Recreation has really been a show about optimism. This generation of television has been filled with quite a lot of darkness and cynicism, both in drama and comedies. We have shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad where the main character is a horrible person doing terrible things. Then there’s comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office and even Community to a certain extent, where a lot of humor is derived from people being awful to each other. Multiple episodes of Community are dedicated to the idea that this group of friends may actually be kind of toxic. In the same way many of this century’s blockbusters like The Dark Knight and the Daniel Craig Bond films have embraced being dark, gritty and realistic, a lot of the century’s television has followed suit. Let’s not forget how utterly depressing the How I Met Your Mother ending was.
Parks and Recreation was a show that dared to be hopeful in a television landscape full of this bleakness. Coming along right after the 2008 election, it took all the hopefulness about government that was in the air to its logical conclusion, showing us a world full of good people doing government work who truly cared, not only about the work but about each other. It may have been work that wasn’t as sexy or seemingly important as working in Washington, but Leslie Knope was a character who truly valued it and who absolutely refused to give up.
The show has always been like the West Wing of comedy, and not just because both shows are about government. The West Wing, like most of Aaron Sorkin’s work, was overwhelmingly idealistic, presenting us with a group of characters all striving to do the right thing. They can fiercely disagree, but just about everyone on the show is a fundamentally good person doing what they believe is right, and it imagines a world where that’s what government and life is all about.
The series finale of Parks and Recreation, “One Last Ride,” is a perfect sendoff to this generation’s best sitcom, fulfilling everything this show has been about since the beginning. Leading up to the final episode, I wondered what could possibly be the driving force of the finale. The main plot of a lot of this season was setting up a national park, but that had been accomplished already. In the past the gang has come together for major projects like the Harvest Festival or the Unity Concert, but there obviously wasn’t enough time for anything major like that.
As it turns out, the last project is fixing a swing in the park because a guy came in to complain about it. I really couldn’t imagine a more perfect plot for the final episode than this. The parks department has put together some major projects and accomplished huge things, but from the beginning, their work was really about helping individual people with small, relatively insignificant problems. But Parks showed us a world where we could bring a sense of purpose and joy to even the smallest of tasks. Leslie treats helping one individual, fixing one single swing, with as much importance as setting up a national park, and there’s something really inspirational about that.
As the gang comes together to do this task, there’s the knowledge that this is the last time they will be together for quite a while, with everyone going their separate ways. But the finale gives us a tremendous sense of closure, not stopping at just letting us wonder about where everyone ends up. That’s what a lot of finales do, ending the characters in a place that feels right but relying on us to imagine that they all end up okay. Here, we skip ahead over the years to see where everyone ends up, and in spirit with the show, it’s such a positive outlook on the future, and it’s impossible to watch this finale without a giant smile on your face.
The positivity of Parks shouldn’t be mistaken for naivety, though. It would have been possible for this series to be positive to a dumb degree, where everything goes perfectly for everyone to an unrealistic level. That’s not the case here. In these flashforwards, we see not everything going quite to plan. Tom’s restaurant business fails, which is pretty sad to see given how much failure we’ve seen Tom endure over the years. But Tom is able to bounce back, writing a best selling book about coming back from failure. That is such a great encapsulation of the Parks mindset. Things might not always work out the way we would want or expect them to, but if we keep a positive mindset, everything is going to be okay.
April and Andy have a particularly great flashforward, showing their decision to have kids. Thankfully though, the show is able to justify this, not just giving them kids because in the TV world everyone has to have kids to lead a fulfilling life. Leslie tells April that her and Andy are a team, and that having kids is just adding more people to that team. But the show doesn’t shy away from their weirdness, having April give birth on Halloween in full makeup (that she put on after she went into labor) and debating naming the child Demon Spawn Baby Satan Dwyer.
We also get to see the future of some more minor characters like Craig, who ends up happily married to Typhoon, and Jean-Ralphio, who even manages to botch faking his own death by showing up at the funeral and catching everyone’s attention. What a perfect ending for him.
Then there’s Jerry (Garry), who after years of being the butt of the joke in the show gets the absolute most happy and sweet ending we could have imagined. After serving as the interim mayor he is elected mayor for real, serving for decades and living to be 100 years old. He dies a happy old man surrounded by tons of kids and grandkids who love him. A lot of shows have the whipping boy, the character that everyone else makes fun of (Toby on The Office, Meg on Family Guy). But Parks’ treatment of Jerry is such a testament to what makes this show great and unique, being mean to him in the office but outside of the office giving him the absolute perfect life, and maybe the happiest ending for a character ever on television.
My favorite of these flashforward wrap-ups has to go to Ron, though. Earlier in this season, we saw a side of Ron we had never seen before as he abandoned his principles and attempted to reach out to Leslie, missing his friends and wanting to work with them again. After Ron is extremely successful with his Very Good company, he seems to realize that there is indeed more to life, and while he still maintains his set of beliefs, he has learned too much from Leslie to settle for a job that doesn’t completely fulfil him. Thanks to Leslie’s help he becomes the superintendent for the Pawnee national park, essentially getting paid to walk around the park by himself and protecting the land. I really couldn’t imagine a more perfect future for Ron, and seeing him paddling his canoe on the lake with a big smile on his face is the perfect note for this character to go out on. Ron is still the Ron we’ve always known, but he’s experienced tremendous change since the beginning of this show, coming to yearn for a greater sense of fulfillment from his work thanks to Leslie.
As for Leslie herself, we flash forward to see an incredible career for her in government, eventually serving as governor of Indiana. It’s the ideal ending for her, and yet one that feels like it makes complete sense within the world of the show. Leslie is such a hard worker who has made such an impression on everyone she’s met, slowly progressing from a small government office in Indiana to Washington DC. And in a brief moment at Jerry’s funeral where we see a secret service agent telling Leslie and Ben it’s time to go, a much greater future for Leslie is hinted at. It might have been too much to actually show Leslie in the White House, but there’s no way I’ll ever stop believing in President Knope as being where this show ends up.
We do also get to see the return of Chris and Ann, though unfortunately they don’t get the same flashforward treatment as everyone else. Still, seeing their kids making friends with Leslie’s kids is such a beautifully sweet moment that Leslie has no doubt been dreaming about since she met Ann in Season 1.
In the final moments of the episode, we flash back to early clips from the show and are reminded that this all started with Leslie trying to get a grown man out of a slide in the park. Yet Leslie Knope treated even the most simple, sometimes demeaning tasks with complete joy and enthusiasm. Public service, as she tells us at the end of this episode, is about small, incremental change. Though Leslie does end up pursuing a much greater future as governor, not all government work is this momentous. Sometimes it’s just helping fix a swing in the park. Even that is work worth doing, and throughout Parks and Recreation, we’ve seen a team of people form around doing this work alongside a group of people they love.
This doesn’t just apply to government work; it’s a message about life in general. Parks is a show that portrays life, not just life in government, as silly and often ridiculous, but filled with love and optimism. It suggests that life is full of small moments – trying to fill in a pit, attending a town hall meeting about a park, fixing a swing – that add up to so much more. It’s about facing this weird world, full of all its quirks and characters, with a smile on our face and the belief that everything will be okay if we stay strong and have a positive attitude. Life is about finding a team of people to surround yourself with who you love.
Now go find your team.