Has Parks and Recreation written itself into a corner?
Last week's episode was meant to be a possible series finale. And yet, the show goes on
"Leslie and Ben," the first of two episodes that NBC's Parks and Recreation aired last week, might have been the perfect way to end the beloved comedy series. After a tumultuous, multi-season courtship, protagonist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) finally married Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) — the geeky, supportive love of her life — after she stopped the devious Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) from turning her beloved Lot 48 into a fast food restaurant. The rest of her allies in the Parks Department also seemed to be on the path to fulfillment, from Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and his Rent-A-Swag business to Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and her impending motherhood. Everything seemed perfect — until "The Correspondents' Lunch," the second episode of the evening, began with Ben and Leslie returning from their honeymoon and the craziness of life in Pawnee continuing.
In fact, "Leslie & Ben" was the third perfect ending Parks has had, along with season three's "Lil' Sebastian" and season four's "Win, Lose, Or Draw." Each of those episodes was originally designed as a potential series finale.
In an interview with HitFix's Alan Sepinwall that ran after "Leslie and Ben" aired, Parks co-creator Michael Schur said that when the show's writers found out that Parks and Recreation's third season would air as a midseason replacement with a reduced number of episodes, the end of each episode order has been written explicitly as a series finale. There was just no guarantee NBC would renew the show, and the creators wanted to make sure they tied up all the loose ends. Indeed, last week's "Leslie & Ben" would have been the end of the series... if NBC hadn't eventually ordered nine more episodes.
Now, these three series finales that weren't have each made for undeniably terrific episodes — but their seemingly conclusive plot developments might come back to haunt the show in the long term.
Parks is built on two pillars: Leslie's blossoming personal and professional life, and the loveable, bizarre people who populate the town of Pawnee, Indiana. As Leslie has come into her own — both as Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation department and then as a councilwoman — the writers have given her endless opportunities to explore Pawnee's particular brand of water-fountain-sucking, miniature-horse-loving, calzone-hating weirdness. But if Parks expects Leslie to continue on the path to becoming president of the United States (a goal she has stated since the beginning of the series), Leslie has to leave Pawnee at some point. If the hyper-ambitious character spends too long in her beloved hometown, she'll stagnate professionally, unable to use her prodigious optimism and faith in public service to fix the Lot 48s all over the country. But if Leslie leaves Pawnee, the show will lose the other source of its strength.
Parks and Recreation also runs the risk of reaching the point at which future "finales" will simply become unmanageable. Each of the three possible endings for the show has effectively reinforced Parks' particular brand of optimism, moved the story to a satisfactory conclusion, and found satisfying endings for the show's many characters. But each of the three possible endings has also escalated noticeably in scale. Lil' Sebastian's elaborate funeral ceremony at the end of season three appears positively plain in comparison to the city council election at the end of season four, which was still less spectacular than the Knope/Wyatt wedding in last week's "Leslie and Ben." At this point, it would be difficult for a Parks and Recreation finale to pull back and be smaller in scope — especially if a similar episode in the future might actually turn out be the end of the series. So far, the writers have done a fantastic job, but there comes a point where bigger isn't better, and the show as a whole would suffer for it.
Given NBC's continuing struggle to get ratings for its Thursday comedies — as well as Parks' ability to consistently draw the middling ratings that are, sadly, above-average for The Peacock — it's not hard to see the show bouncing back from possible cancelation to run for many more years. Parks and Recreation is still one of the best half-hours on television, and we should be excited that any hypothetical future seasons are a way for fans to get more Parks, right?
Not necessarily. One might have said the same thing of Parks' sister show, The Office. The Office has had a bit of a comeback in its final season (depending on your tolerance for Brian the Boom Mic Guy), but it has also suffered a long, painful downward spiral for years. The show declined faster and more dramatically after original boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) left, robbing The Office of its central character. Leslie leaving Pawnee or the Parks Department to continue her political career wouldn't be as drastic as losing Amy Poehler altogether, as The Office lost Steve Carrell — but then again, it might be worse; The Office was at its best with Michael, but it never needed to be about him in the same way Parks is fundamentally about both Leslie and Pawnee.
The natural course of Leslie Knope's life might (and probably should) take she and Ben away from Pawnee — but that's not a part of her life that would fit into Parks and Recreation, in the same way Monica and Chandler being married in the suburbs doesn't fit into Friends, or Liz Lemon's work on Grizz & Herz doesn't fit into 30 Rock. Like the show's writers, we don't know how much longer we'll have Parks and Recreation on the air, or just how far the series' story will go, but the bar has been set very high with the show's three hypothetical "endings." Thankfully, Parks and Recreation's creative team hasn't given us a reason to doubt them on the ending yet. Here's hoping they never do.