TV Top 10s: “Parks and Recreation”

Written by Television

A look back at ten essential episodes of “Parks and Recreation” before next week’s series finale.

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On February 25, the television landscape will have a chasm in its schedule. The night before, NBC’s Parks and Recreation will have faded to black one last time. The series finale of Parks and Rec (as it is called by its fervent fans) has been anticipated for nearly a year, with the final thirteen episodes strung together as one six and half hour final show. Old characters have popped up with cameos, and we’ve had an opportunity to see the future of the individuals we fell in love with over seven seasons. There was even a Mayor Gunderson sighting, and he was played by a comedy legend!

Never a ratings hit (due in part to NBC moving it around its schedule and delaying premieres or putting it on unexpected hiatuses), Parks and Rec was a critical darling (it was named one of AFI’s top TV shows in 2011 and it won a Peabody in 2012) and gained a cult status thanks to word of mouth, binge watching on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and  the emergence of one of the funniest ensembles in the past decade. Like Monty Python, various incarnations of SNL, and the members of The State, I can see the troupe from Parks and Rec getting together in films for years to come (at least, I hope). Their comedic timing and chemistry is impeccable and hard to match.

When all is said and done, Parks and Rec should not only be mentioned as one of the finest television series of the 2010s, but also one of the all time great workplace comedies, right up there with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers and 30 Rock. Despite my misgivings about NBC’s handling of the show, I do commend them for giving Parks and Rec a new lease on life after a shaky, six-episode first season. Bringing it back for year two allowed creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, their staff of writers and the cast to hone in on the show’s strengths, plus distance itself from The Office, the series on which it was modeled. Early in season two, the show clicked and the overall tone became optimistic and heartfelt rather than cynical and mean spirited. It was a unique comedy series in the 21st Century, when so many sitcoms relied on vicious insults to create laughs.

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Parks and Rec holds a special place in my heart, as it became a bonding experience between my daughter and me. Last summer, after she’d burned through How I Met Your Mother, I implored her to watch Parks and Rec. If ever there was a character that is an example for young women, it’s Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, the eager, independent and determined Deputy Parks Director of Pawnee, Indiana. I always loved how human Leslie was, warts and all, and how willing she was to work across the aisle with her ideological opposite, Ron Swanson (the brilliant Nick Offerman). That these two managed to compromise and come to an understanding with each other is not only an example for my daughter, but for the real government, as well.

My daughter gave season one a try and nearly quit.

“It’s not that funny,”  she said.

“Just get to season two,” I replied. “Get to the episode with the hunting trip; watch the one with Tammy 2; witness Andy fall in love with April; wait until you meet Ben and Chris. I guarantee you’ll love it.”

For once, the old man was right. She devoured seasons two through five in a matter of weeks. She became so impatient when season six wasn’t available on Netflix that we subscribed to Hulu Plus for a month just to watch it.

If television was meant to bring people together – whether it’s breaking news, a live sporting event, or just entertainment –  Parks and Rec did just that by creating  a communal experience between us.  As she speeds through adolescence, it’s the little things like sitting down to watch the lives of a group of hopeful government workers in an Indiana small town that I will hold on to.

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Compiling this list of episodes was literally one of the most difficult tasks I’ve done. It was hard enough to pare 122 episodes down to twenty, but to get it to ten? That took weeks. And I can’t even claim that these are the “best,” but I do think they are essential to the series itself. What I tried to do was consider the episodes that stuck with me and made me laugh just thinking about them. If you have a favorite that I left off, please feel free to add it to the comments section.

Before we begin, let’s meet the cast:

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins, Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford, Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate, Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer, Paul Schneider as Mark Brendanawicz, Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt, Jim O’Heir as Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry Gergich, Retta as Donna Meagle and introducing Rob Lowe as Chris Traeger.

Shall we begin? Please and thank you.

Parks and Recreation10. “Boy’s Club” (Season 1)  The first season was uneven, at best. The characters were underdeveloped and poorly conceived. Leslie was needy, Tom was a douche, Andy was a dick, and Ron was a two dimensional curmudgeon. So why include “The Boys Club”? Because in it, you see the direction the show will take, whether the producers knew it or not. After Leslie and Ann crash a weekly get together of Mark and some of the government men sharing beers, we get to see Leslie cut loose and have fun, something missing from most of season one. In those scenes, the friendship between Leslie and Ann begins to blossom. We also witness Leslie regroup from violating government policy by opening a gift basket. At a disciplinary hearing, Ron defends Leslie, therefore broadening the friendship between Leslie and Ron, what would become the core dynamic of the show. The look of surprise and respect on Leslie’s face as they leave the hearing hints at what is to come. Elsewhere, Chris Pratt gets to shine when Andy, still in two leg casts and living off of the kindness of Ann, decides to take a bubble bath in a kiddie pool, something he learned by watching his parents wash the dog. A pissed off neighbor steals Andy’s boom box and Andy gives chase, in the nude, on crutches. The sight of a pixelated Pratt struggling to get down the street may be the funniest moment from season one.

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9. “Leslie and Ron” (Season 7) When season seven leaped forward to the year 2017, one of the surprises was learning that Leslie and Ron had a falling out. We all knew the feud couldn’t last, and it took just four episodes for the conflict to get resolved. Leslie and Ron get locked in their old Parks and Rec office for a night to hash out their differences and restore their friendship. Of course, stubborn old Ron isn’t willing to open up, and relentless Leslie does everything she can, from blowing a fan on his head to singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (sheer torture) over and over to get Ron to open up. Time, whiskey and a shower from the fire sprinklers eventually bring out the truth. Ron felt left out and missed his family of friends, in particular Leslie. It sounds trite, but Offerman’s delivery is poignant and funny, a trademark for Parks and Rec’s best dramatic scenes. This leads to an exceptional montage between Leslie and Ron, as they clean the office and relive old memories, all set to the beautiful Willie Nelson obscurity, “Buddy.” In a wonderful final scene to the episode, Ron escorts Leslie to the elevator for a hearty hangover breakfast – just the two of them. She hugs him the entire walk to the elevator and Ron asks, “Why does anybody in the world ever eat anything but breakfast food?” Leslie replies, “People are idiots.” A fine ending to an instant classic.

Parks and Recreation8. “The Debate” (Season 4) Paul Rudd provided a shot of star power when he guest starred as Bobby Newport, the dim bulb heir to the Sweetums Candy fortune. Bobby is Leslie’s chief rival in the run for city council and their race culminates in this episode that garnered Poehler an Emmy nomination for writing (she also directed this one). Leslie takes the stage to discuss real issues, but has no answer when Bobby spouts out broad and nonspecific answers to the questions posed by talk show hosts, Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) and Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson). The debate also includes other Pawnee citizens running for the city council seat, porn star Brandii Maxxx (Mara Marina), who models herself after Leslie, and Fester Trim (Friday Night Light’s Brad Leland), a fanatic who wants to put guns in vending machines. The best moment may be when Perd interrupts Leslie to tell her she only has twenty seconds left to answer, and then he proceeds to talk over her remaining time. Elsewhere, Ron, Donna, Jerry, Andy and April host potential donors at Andy and April’s house to watch the debate. But Andy didn’t pay the cable bill, so there is no debate to watch, and he winds up acting out his favorite movies, such as  Roadhouse and Babe (Pratt really shines in this one). When Bobby goes dirty and threatens to close the Sweetums factory if he doesn’t get elected, Leslie must think fast to win back votes. Rudd slipped in perfectly with the zaniness of the cast and played a perfect foil to Leslie. The Debate is one of the pivotal episodes in Leslie’s career and in the series.

Parks and Recreation7. “Lil’ Sebastian” (Season 3) Episodes devoted to a festival or some community wide ceremony held on public grounds were a hallmark of Parks and Rec. The first, “Harvest Festival,” introduced Pawnee’s most beloved celebrity, a miniature horse named Lil’ Sebastian. This demure little horse is so treasured; even Ron gets giddy in his presence. “Lil’ Sebastian” opens with the announcement that the horse has died and, with the flags in town at half mast, Leslie organizes a public funeral service that will include a torch lit in his honor, an Italian poem that Jerry chose, and an original song written by Andy that is 5,000 time better than “Candle in the Wind.” That song, as any fan of the show knows, became one of the themes of the series. It would be sung two more times, including an all-star edition featuring the Decembrists done at the end of season six. Leslie’s perfectly organized event is derailed when her love affair with Ben is discovered by one of the crew. Bribes are made, favors are traded and the night ends with Donna stumbling through Jerry’s poem and Ron lighting an eternal flame for Lil’ Sebastian. That backfires, as well; Ron gets his hair singed and mustached nearly burned off. As far as season finales go, this one had it all: Leslie getting approached to run for city council, Chris reconsidering his feelings for Ann, an appearance by Tammy 2, and a cliffhanger with Ron’s first ex-wife Tammy waiting in his office. Add to this an appearance by Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) and you have a classic.

Parks & Recreation6. “How a Bill Becomes a Law” (Season 5) Newly elected to city council, Leslie quickly proves to be the smartest and most qualified person in the room. Her first order of business is to help extend the pool hours for a children’s swim club. Immediately, she butts heads with Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser), an ineffectual lifer on the council. Jamm refuses to help Leslie unless she gives up her office and its private bathroom, thus setting up the greatest rivalry in Parks and Rec. Jamm is an unapologetic douche bag and Glaser plays him pitch perfect. Elsewhere, Chris starts a 3-1-1 program and has Ron, Jerry and Donna answer calls. The only good to come from the service is Ron meeting a single mother with two young daughters. Her name is Diane (Lucy Lawless) and when Ron personally fixes a pothole in front of her driveway, there is an instant attraction. So much so that Ron sits and plays princess with the girls and Andy. He even wears makeup and a tiara. Offerman in rouge and eye shadow is priceless, as is Pratt acting like a child and chasing the girls. Ron and Diane would eventually settle down and have a son, proving to be the only stable woman he ever marries.

Parks and Recreation5. “The Comeback Kid” (Season 4) After Leslie reveals that she and Ben were dating, her reputation is damaged by the ensuing scandal. In “The Comeback Kid,” she decides to revive her image and start campaigning in earnest for the open city council seat. Her first action is hiring Ann for her campaign manager, one that Ann reluctantly accepts, even though an out-of-work Ben (who resigned as Assistant City Manager over the scandal) would be the ideal person for the job. Nothing goes right when Ann and Leslie plan a campaign rally at the Pawnee Sports Building. The platform Ron builds is too small, the red carpet that Tom gets is too short, the basketball court has been covered with ice, and it doesn’t look like local basketball legend, “Pistol” Pete Disellio (Tuc Watkins) will show up to endorse Leslie. The rally must go on, though, and the sight gag of the parks and rec staff walking across ice to get Leslie up on the platform is one of the greatest moments in the show’s run. As great as Parks and Rec was at witty wordplay, it also excelled at some of the best slapstick humor in its era.

Ron and Tammy 24. “Ron & Tammy: Part 2” (Season 3) In an attempt to make Ron jealous, Tom begins dating Ron’s second ex-wife named Tammy. But Tom is in over his head, and soon realizes that Tammy is pure evil. The only one who can save him is Ron, who tries to make amends with the woman he hates by escorting her out of a crowded bar for a civilized conversation. The next morning, we find Ron with his hair in cornrows, wearing a kimono, locked up in jail and remarried to Tammy! This leaves Leslie to bring Ron to his senses and rescue him from the clutches of Tammy 2. It was always sheer lunacy when Tammy (played by Offerman’s wife, Megan Mullaly) showed up to wreak havoc on Ron’s life. Offerman and Mullaly always went for broke in these episodes, pushing the boundaries of good taste and what you can get away with on network television. Their work together was inspired and provided some of the greatest laughs on the show. Seeing Offerman in a robe, grinding against Mullaly and then cutting to the reactions of the rest of the cast still makes me laugh.

Parks and Recreation3. “Flu Season 2” (Season 6) Tom heads to a vineyard, hoping to land a sommelier for his restaurant, Tom’s Bistro. Despite his misgivings, he brings along Donna, April, Ben, Ron and high strung Craig (Billy Eichner), one parks and rec employees from rival city, Eagleton, who transferred to Pawnee after the two cities merged. While wine tasting, Ben suffers an existential crisis and seeks Ron’s advice. You can imagine how that goes. So Ben consumes mass quantities of a high octane blueberry wine and gets stupid drunk. Where are Leslie and Andy? They’re off trying to woo a teenage country star to perform at the upcoming Pawnee/Eagleton Unity Concert.  It’s while they’re at this punk kid’s house that Leslie learns that she’s pregnant. She tries to share the news with her husband, but Ben is too far gone (plus he dropped his phone in a puddle). “Flu Season 2” features great moments from everyone in the cast, in particular Eichner, whose instantaneous mood swings from irritated to rage provided many of the greatest moments throughout season six. As Craig auditions to be Tom’s wine connoisseur, try keeping a straight face when he screams “What kind of MONSTER orders red (wine) with fish?!” Better yet, try not to laugh at Retta’s reaction. Everything about this episode is perfect, including a return appearance by Sam Elliott, as the nature loving, hippie, vegan Ron Dunn, plus a cameo by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as a Pawnee music legend. This one is for the ages.

Parks and Recreation2. “The Hunting Trip” (Season 2) Leslie, Ann, Tom and Donna join the annual hunting trip Ron and the boys hold at the Park Rangers’ cabin in the woods. Ron gets shot in the head, Jerry gets pantsed, and Leslie proves to be a “stand-up guy.” With this episode, Parks and Rec discovered its comedic voice, producing one of the funniest episodes of television in the past decade. Retta and Jim O’Heir come into their own as cast members (when Donna tackles Leslie because she thinks Leslie shot her car, I peed my pants) and we get to see the entire ensemble work together to create perfection. Equally impressive is Poehler’s string of excuses as to why she shot Ron by accident. Although Schneider begins to slip into the background (he would leave the show at the end of the season), the show is not affected. Leslie and Ron began moving past the mere co-workers stage and into a partnership and by mid-season two, Poehler and Offerman will have developed into an on- screen duo akin to Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner. When the two of them are in a scene together, you know there will either be huge laughs, or potential tears. That, my friends, is something special when it comes to TV, and we are all the better because of it.

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1. “Leslie and Ben” (Season 5) Throughout the series, there were four weddings. None were as sentimental and funny as Leslie and Ben’s. After the success of a fundraising gala, one that featured lookalikes of Indiana celebrities like David Letterman, Axl Rose, Orville Redenbacher and, yes, Lil’ Sebastian (the latter causes Jerry to pee his pants in excitement), Ben and Leslie decide to forego an elaborate wedding and get married that night. A two hour mad scramble ensues. Ann creates a wedding dress out of Leslie’s old newspaper clippings, Ron fashions wedding rings out a light fixture, and April and Andy must get a wedding license signed. It’s all coming together, until Jamm shows up to ruin the ceremony. Drunk and pissed off at Leslie, he throws stink bombs, chasing everyone out. Ron retaliates by punching Jamm in the mouth. This winds him up in jail, and the wedding is on ice. He tells Leslie to carry on without him, but Leslie refuses. “Ron, listen to me very carefully. I lost my father when I was ten, I don’t have any brothers, and Ken Burns never wrote me back. So I am not getting married without you there to walk me down the aisle. End of discussion.” Later, after the gala has been torn down, and Leslie and Ron are in city hall where she is about to be surprised with an impromptu wedding in the Parks and Rec office, he returns an equally wonderful compliment. “You are a wonderful person. Your friendship means a lot to me. And you look very beautiful.”

The episodes final act finds the entire cast singing “5,000 Candles in the Wind” and drinking aged Scotch. Like one of those perfect evenings spent with your closest friends, everyone is passed out except the newlyweds, who slip past Ron, still alert and seemingly doing paperwork with a drink in his hand. Leslie says, “I love Ben, I love my job, and I love my friends.” And we, the fans of Parks and Recreation, loved you, Leslie Knope, and all that you brought to our lives for seven years.