Grading the Season Finales 2014: Parks and Recreation

This is the first of my regular shows that I review to have its finale this year, so I just want to say thanks to all of you who’ve read and commented on my Parks and Rec posts this season. It’s been a pleasure spending the season in Pawnee with all of you! 

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

Title Moving Up (6.21/6.22)

Written By Aisha Muharrar & Alan Yang

What Happens? Leslie attends a National Parks conference in San Francisco, where some advice from Michelle Obama and Ben help her see that she needs to accept the job she was offered with the National Parks Department to head up their branch in Chicago. While in California, Ben discovers that his board game, The Cones of Dunshire, has taken off in popularity, and he’s later given the copyright to the game as a gift from the Pawnee accounting firm he keeps having to turn down.

Leslie’s decision to take the National Parks job is complicated by the experience of others in similar positions to hers in terms of the Pawnee-Eagleton merger, people who tell her it could take a decade of close involvement with both towns to make the merger work. In addition, her team at the Parks Department has her love for Pawnee commemorated on a statue.

Leslie must put aside her difficult decision to help finalize the Unity Concert, which Andy leads surprisingly without difficulty. The same can’t be said for the soft opening of Tom’s Bistro, which is disastrous, but April, Ron, Donna, and Craig inspire Tom to give it another try with an after party following the Unity Concert. The concert itself not only features performances from major musical acts (including Donna’s cousin Ginuwine), it reunites Mouse Rat and introduces all of Pawnee to Ron’s saxophone-playing alter ego, Duke Silver. That success is followed by another—Tom’s after party is a huge hit with national and Pawnee celebrities alike.

Feeling more torn than ever after such a successful event in the town she loves, Leslie seeks out Ron’s advice and finds him on the third floor of City Hall, which he completely restored over the course of the year. He tells Leslie that her ambition deserves more than what Pawnee can give her, and she can’t have everything she wants. However, Leslie is inspired to find a way to do exactly that. She convinces the National Parks Service to open their Midwest branch in Pawnee instead of Chicago.

The final moments of the finale flash forward three years into the future, where Leslie is running the National Parks Department branch in Pawnee, heading to an event for Ben (that requires him to wear a tuxedo), and leaving her young triplets with Auntie April and Uncle Andy for the evening.

Game-Changing Moment For six seasons, Leslie Knope has worked as an employee of the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana. Even when she was a city councilwoman, she never stopped being connected to that Parks Department. Heck, it’s the title of the show! Therefore, if Leslie leaving that Parks Department to take a job for the National Parks Service doesn’t qualify as a game-changing moment, then I’m not sure what does. Yes, she still lives and works in Pawnee. Yes, she still seems to be close to her friends. But the fundamental makeup of the show—a workplace comedy about local government—has been dramatically altered thanks to the events of “Moving Up.” And after a season that had many—myself included—feeling restless about the direction of the series, this game-changing moment was a breath of fresh air, a necessary step in the real story this show is trying to tell. Because at its heart, Parks and Recreation isn’t a story about local government; it’s a story about Leslie Knope, and Leslie’s story needed this change.

That could have been enough to change the foundation of Parks and Rec, but the show went one step further with the final-minute time jump. Taking these characters three years into the future opened up new avenues of storytelling that would have taken too long to develop any other way. It shook up the sense of stasis that existed for most of this season in a major way, and it created a sense of eager anticipation for next season.

Finale M.V.P. Parks and Rec is Leslie Knope’s story, and, as such, it’s Amy Poehler’s show. While it may have one of the best supporting ensembles on television, this show lives and dies by its leading lady. And with every episode that passes and every season that ends, Poehler shows us again and again that she’s not only able to live up to the expectations she sets for herself by her work on the show, she can repeatedly exceed them. I’m often left wonderstruck at the balance Poehler manages to find between Leslie’s more broadly comedic characteristics and her incredibly realistic vulnerabilities. No other actress can make me cry from laughter and then cry from pure emotion all within the course of one episode like Poehler can.

A perfect example of this dichotomy came in the first half of “Moving Up.” Leslie’s reaction to meeting Michelle Obama was characteristically overzealous, and it had me laughing through the entire commercial break afterwards. It was just different enough from her meeting with Joe Biden to generate new laughs from a similar situation. But the comedy of that moment was contrasted brilliantly with the understated performance Poehler gave in the scene between Leslie and Ben in the taxi. Staring out the window with tears in her eyes but not streaming down her face, Leslie felt more real to me in that moment than she has throughout almost this whole season. I felt the crushing weight of the conflict between her ambition and her love for Pawnee, and it made her struggle more believable. I spent so much time in the last few weeks going on and on about how Leslie would have to be an idiot not to take the National Parks job, but in that one moment, I finally understood just how difficult that would be for this character, who has been defined for nearly her whole life by her dedication to her hometown. Poehler never overplays emotion, and that’s such an important (and too often ignored) part of what makes her a great actress. She makes it easy for me to root for this woman because it never feels like she’s trying to get me to root for her, and that made all of the important moments of this episode resonate beautifully.

Most Memorable Line “I agree with you on all things throughout history until the end of time forever.” (Leslie, to Michelle Obama)

What Didn’t Work I was literally (said in my best Chris Traeger voice) happy with everything that happened in this episode. I didn’t love that Jerry/Larry/Terry ended up changing his name again, but that was really my only complaint. I don’t find that running joke to be all that funny, so to extend it once again was annoying. Otherwise, I have absolutely no complaints. I can understand that some people would be frustrated with the time jump or with how neatly Leslie’s dilemma was resolved. However, I loved the way those two elements of the finale were handled because they eliminated some huge concerns of mine regarding the future of the show. Yes, this felt like a series finale (which is strange considering how many “could-be finales” this show has actually aired), but I didn’t mind that feeling at all. Knowing this next season will probably be the show’s last, this finale set up what looks to be a season-long coda that I’m very much looking forward to watching when fall comes around.

What Worked I was so worried about this finale, more worried than I’ve been for perhaps any other Parks and Rec episode. So much could have gone wrong, and I saw no way for it to end in a manner that left me feeling 100% happy. Leslie had to choose—stay in Pawnee or chase her dreams in Chicago—and neither seemed like a completely satisfying option. I knew from a practical standpoint that Leslie couldn’t take the Chicago job; as much as I love Leslie and Ben, the show couldn’t function without its supporting cast and its Pawnee setting. But having Leslie turn down the job would be a blow to her ambitious, driven character that I would have trouble recovering from. Why set up an entire season of showing that Leslie deserves to dream bigger only to have her turn down a chance to go after those dreams? And I wasn’t shy about my skepticism about the triplets and Leslie’s pregnancy turning into sitcom clichés.

Imagine my surprise when this episode ended, and all of my concerns were addressed and handled in a way that left me feeling satisfied, hopeful, and unspeakably happy. I don’t know how they did it, but the team at Parks and Rec managed to get everything right in “Moving Up”—every joke landed, every major character grew, every recurring character or detail was used just enough, and every plot development made sense.

Parks and Rec may do an exceptional job of hitting emotional beats, but this show is first and foremost a comedy. To succeed, it needs to make people laugh. And “Moving Up” was really funny. I laughed out loud at numerous points throughout the episode, with many moments coming courtesy of Chris Pratt (“The treasure was love all along,” Andy pushing the skateboard down the hill without him on it, “You’re so good at reminding me where pizza is…”). I also loved that many of the jokes came from details that have developed throughout the course of the show; there were so many little inside jokes for long-time fans to appreciate (like Ben’s continued confusion over everyone’s obsession with Li’l Sebastian and his love for Letters to Cleo).

“Moving Up” used Parks and Rec history not only to make us laugh; it used it to further emphasize just how unique Pawnee really is when we needed to remember that for Leslie’s decision to hold weight. The parade of recurring characters gave us just enough time to remember why each one is great without letting us grow tired of them (especially Jamm and the Sappersteins). And it was fun to watch the guest stars interact with the town as well—from The Decemberists and their love for Pawnee burgers (with pizza buns) to Ginuwine performing “Pony” as a tribute to Li’l Sebastian. (Although I’m sure some Pawnee citizen pointed out that he was actually a miniature horse.) The sing-along to “5,000 Candles in the Wind” was a perfect moment, harkening back to the other times when that song has been used on the show to highlight something important for the audience and Leslie: Pawnee is too special to leave behind. There are too many memories there to just walk away.

Season Six of Parks and Rec has been all about growth for so many characters beyond just Leslie, and “Moving Up” saw so many of those character arcs reach pinnacles just as Leslie was about to make a huge decision regarding her own growth. Tom’s storyline built on the sense of responsibility he’s been developing all season (and last season, too). April’s role in this episode was to support the people around her instead of just appearing apathetic, which has been a huge point of growth for her this season. Andy got one final moment in the sun with Mouse Rat and helped run the whole Unity Concert. And Ron discovered that true happiness comes not from total privacy but from sharing all of yourself with the people who love you. Every character experienced growth in this episode, but it was growth that had been slowly and believably developing all season.

Leslie’s entire arc this season was summed up by Jennifer Barkley in “Second Chunce” when she told her to “Dream bigger.” This season was a struggle at times because we watched Leslie serve a town that didn’t love her the way she loved it, and we watched her floundering for a purpose in a life that seemed too confining for the ambitious woman we know her to be. It turns out all that struggle was building toward this payoff, this moment of Leslie using her own resourcefulness and drive as well as the support of her loved ones to find a way to strike the ultimate balance between the career and the people she loves.

The scene between Leslie and Ben in the redwood forest was brilliant for so many reasons—and not just because of Ben’s Endor freak-out (once again proving he is the fictional representation of my dream man). Ben was the voice of all of us (just as Ron would be later on in his scene with Leslie), telling Leslie that she deserved to go after this dream, to chase her ambitions in a world where her efforts might finally be appreciated. But the pull of a hometown is a strong one, and it’s a pull that is often overlooked in the media. It’s not “cool” to stay in the town where you grew up, but Leslie and Pawnee are intrinsically connected. By deciding to use her passion for her town (and her binder skills) to convince the National Parks Service to move to Pawnee, Leslie dreamed bigger than ever before. Jennifer Barkley would have been proud.

What I loved the most about Leslie’s efforts towards bringing the National Parks Service to Pawnee is that she worked hard for both of those things—that job and Pawnee’s “rising” reputation—and her hard work was rewarded. Leslie doesn’t just get to have it all; we see her work for it, so we want her to have it all. The message of Parks and Rec has always been that working hard and doing something you care about leads to good things, and Leslie’s life is a testament to that. We’ve watched her work for her friendships, her family, and her career—so for her to succeed at all of those things feels earned instead of unbelievable. Leslie Knope is a female character who is celebrated instead of punished for wanting to have it all and making it happen through both hard work and genuine kindness. I know I’m getting a little sentimental here, but as a young woman who is very career-driven but also hopes for a family of my own someday, I’m just really happy that Leslie exists.

The final minute of the episode was a shocker, but I actually anticipated some kind of time jump when I heard the ending was not to be missed. I thought there was no way to realistically portray Leslie’s pregnancy while still keeping her as the focus of the show throughout the whole seventh season, so I imagined they’d go a year ahead in the show’s timeline. I was surprised they chose to skip ahead three years, but I loved that decision. It makes the triplets old enough to use in small amounts, and it allows for new stories to be ready to tell about all of the characters. There were times this season when it felt like Parks and Rec was going in circles, but now it seems they’ve found the open road again. I’m more than ready to go along for the ride.

Questions Left Unanswered What is this black-tie event for Ben that he and Leslie are going to? What have all of the other characters been doing in the last three years?

Finale Grade A+. From a plot, character, and comedic perspective, “Moving Up” was a perfect season finale. It built on the themes established throughout the season, included nods to the show’s storied past, and changed the show’s future in a major way. This is the rare finale that managed to put into new perspective the entire season that preceded it—even the less than perfect parts. Bravo, Parks and Rec, you outdid yourself yet again.

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10 thoughts on “Grading the Season Finales 2014: Parks and Recreation

  1. I sadly missed chunks of last night’s finale due to housewifely duties, but I’m sure I’ll catch up with the details soon. I missed the forest/Endor bit for one thing, and tear-welling Leslie in the cab, but I think I caught most of the other crucial moments – the fangirling, the Cones game, Lil Sebastian’s song, and the ending.
    It never occurred to me that they might time-jump – and certainly not 3 years. Assuming they start up again without flashbacks to those 3 years, it gives them a chance to show some interesting character development – maybe Tom’s Bistro is really successful? April and Andy might have gotten sick of divorcing and remarrying and be ready for a kid of their own soon? I was really surprised to hear that the show would be back this fall, because it really did feel like a happy ending to me, but maybe they will finally get that park that started the whole show? Maybe 3 more years is long enough for the local government to get its act together?
    As you said, it was important that they kept Pawnee the focus without taking away Leslie’s dream job, and moving away, or being pregnant with triplets was going to make that awfully difficult to achieve (for TV, or at least for this kind of TV). I think I have missed some of the stuff about the dream job, so I wasn’t aware of how perfect for Leslie it was, how much it was a fulfillment of her ambition.
    What I saw of the finale was very enjoyable and had lots of great bits for us long-watching fans. I’m more excited to see another season than I might have been if the triplets were still in utero. And if something happens network-wise or they screw up the last season, at least we have a happy ending here.

    • I definitely agree that I’m more excited for next season than I would have been without the time jump. It allows the story to move forward for all of the characters, and I can’t wait to see what everyone else has been up to in the last three years. I’m really hoping that no matter what happens with next season they bring it back in September and not January because I can’t imagine waiting that long—summer is going to be hard enough! 😉

  2. I agree, that was a great season finale. Suspense wuss me hates cliffhanger season finales, so this was a perfect mix of being satisfying but also intriguing enough for me to tune in next season to see where all the characters are in their lives. Yes I want to know why Ben was all dressed up, but I wont be losing any sleep over it, haha.

    The episode wasnt without some flaws, but they are minor. I still wasnt all that interested in the unity concert. I could care less about the Decembrists, but the Mouserat and Duke Silver duet, and the hologram lil sebastian was awesome. Everything was tied up a bit too easy, (I mean really the likelihood of this happening in real life is 0%) but it did what it had to do to give us what we want to watch, so I dont care. Also, Ben’s little speech at the marine headlands was a bit preachy to me, but I will forgive it for the greatness before (Endor!) and after (cab ride).

    Speaking of that cab ride, like you it was one of my favorite parts of the episode. There are many moments where I have identified with Leslie over the course of the show, but none as deeply as that moment. I wish I could find the quote where she was going back and forth on her choice and she said something about never being able to make a decision. Even my boyfriend turned to me and said “wow, that sounds familiar” implying that I freak out like that on a consistent basis (which is 100% true).

    And man this episode was funny. Really the past few episodes were all top notch on the humor front. I love how these characters have such strong personalities that most of the funniest moments for me are just their facial expressions. Leslie’s or Andy’s wide crazy excited eyes, Ben’s scared face, or Ron’s dopey smile. I laugh every time.

    I think overall I would give the whole season a B-, and the finale an A. The season got rough at time and Leslie’s character was kinda all over the place, and there is only so much berating I can watch her take. But there were moments of greatness too (anything with Anne, Ben, and April). And the finale did exactly what it needed to do. Made me happy, made me laugh, and made me interested in next season.

    • Every time you talk about being a suspense wuss, I smile because I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. Cliffhangers are major sources of stress for me, so this was a perfect remedy for the ones that I’m sure will be coming my way in the next few weeks.

      I love what you said about the characters’ facial expressions often being the funniest parts of the episodes because it’s so true. From Ben’s puzzled expression when he sees the Li’l Sebastian hologram to Donna’s unamused faces in the presence of her little cousin Ginuwine, this finale had some excellent reaction shots. But none were better than Leslie’s crazy eyes when she saw Michelle Obama.

      I think I have to agree with you about your overall season grade. As a whole, it wasn’t up to the standards the show has set for itself in the past, but it still had moments/episodes that reminded me of the excellence it can achieve. I’m hopeful that this last string of strong episodes means a true return to form for the show next season.

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  4. I definitely understand why “Tom’s Bistro” seems like a weird choice for Tom, but in another way, its super awesome continuity by the writers. Tom mentions, seasons ago, that one of his ideas is to own his own place called Tom’s Bistro, because the name “bistro” is classy as s***. He also thought of Club-a-Dub-Dub….but I think Tom’s Bistro has a better shot 🙂

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