Last night’s season finale of Parks and Rec is the most pivotal and important episode in the show's history. Showrunner Michael Schur and his writers have always kept their characters moving forward into new and exciting territory, but last night’s show brought about more change than ever before, as pretty much all of the main characters faced life-changing decisions in one way or another. Leslie has a line during her speech, “Let’s embark on a new journey together and see where it goes,” which could easily double for Parks and Recreation’s motto.
The action for the past four seasons of the show has centered on the titular Parks and Recreation Department. While Leslie’s City Council campaign shifted the focus a little bit this season, the Parks Department was still always the center of the show. After her City Council win, Leslie will be only working in the Parks Department part-time, and her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben will be departing Pawnee altogether for a six month stint working on a congressman's reelection bid. Spreading the characters out isn’t such a bad idea, though, as the writers have always adapted well to the show’s frequent plot changes and found strength in always keeping things in motion. Here’s a look at the various new plotlines each character will be facing in Season 5:
Parks and Rec fans have been waiting with bated breath, wondering whether Leslie would win or lose her City Council bid since last season’s finale when the storyline was introduced, and the season finale finally answered the question for us. Parks has always been an optimistic show, so Leslie's win fits in with this upbeat attitude nicely and was a little predictable, but the episode played out in a suspenseful way that quickly erased any preconceived notions I had about the election’s outcome. Leslie’s win brought about a feel-good end to the season, as well as the biggest challenge yet for the show as the writers continue these characters’ journeys into the great unknown.
Showrunner and co-creator Michael Schur, who wrote and directed this episode, spoke publicly about the creative team's hesitancy to decide an outcome for the election. They even shot three different episode endings to keep their options open:
"We shot actually three different endings, partially because we want to make sure that the one we are choosing is the right and we reserve the right to change our minds and also partly just to confuse people… "We wrote it in such a way that everything up until the moment we played that scene, it could go either way… We have the ability to choose Path A, Path B or Path C. We'll wait to edit it, see how it plays, see how we all feel about it and then we'll make our choice." – Michael Schur at PaleyFest in March.
Choosing for Leslie to win is a bold move, plunging the series forth into new directions, but the writers seem to have made the right choice by avoiding an election loss, which would have been super depressing. Whatever Season 5 looks like, these writers have shown they can weather change with ease. Season 5 promises change from every direction too, as Leslie’s new job as City Councilor should come with a whole slew of characters to populate her new world (other City Councilors, the Mayor, etc.)
Ben’s also headed down a new path with the job he’s accepted, agreeing to spend half-a-year in Washington, D.C, working on a Congressman's reelection bid. The offer for the job was surprising and came out of nowhere, echoing the proposition for a City Council run that Leslie received this time last year. I don’t know a lot about politics, but it feels unrealistic that mounting a successful City Council campaign in Indiana would catch the eye of anyone in Washington, D.C., let alone make someone qualified for a job on a congressional campaign; but I’m just nitpicking here and I’m excited to see where this new storyline takes Ben.
Leslie and Ben are so perfectly-matched that the writers can’t really break them up, so putting this long distance hurdle in their path is a nice way of keeping their relationship from becoming Jim and Pam stagnant. Speaking of The Office, Ben’s move to D.C. feels a lot like Jim’s move to the Stamford branch at the end of that show’s second season – a move that worked out well for The Office and introduced two great new characters to the cast: Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) and Karen Filippelli (then-future Parks and Rec star Rashida Jones). Here’s hoping that the new faces in Ben’s D.C. story arc work out for the show as well as those two did for The Office.
You wouldn’t think Ron Swanson would be the emotional core of Parks and Recreation, but Nick Offerman has found such a grounded way to play his ridiculous character that he’s able to transition between pathos and laughs with ease, often in the same scene. Offerman delivers two different pep talks during the episode, spilling out his pearls of Ron Swanson wisdom and being both funny and moving at the same time. It's a testament to Offerman's chops and how well his character is written that he can pull off this impressive tightrope act.
The episode’s tag delivers a couple of quick bombshells that indicate what the future might hold in store for Tom and Ann’s relationship, as well as Andy’s career. Tom and Ann drunkenly decide to not only get back together, but also to move in with one another. Their on-again, off-again relationship has provided some great laughs this season, and I’m shocked and excited to see it continue into the new one. Also in the tag, April seems to be nudging Andy towards a new career as a police officer after seeing that pretty much everything on his list of dreams jobs had to do with law enforcement. While it’s been nice seeing Andy around the Parks Department more the past couple seasons, the promise of him becoming a cop is too amazing a comedic opportunity to pass up. Here are Andy and April’s charts, for your amusement:
Looking back at the season finale, I’m struck by how full of powerful and earned emotional moments it is. In addition to the Ron Swanson speeches I mentioned above, Ben telling Leslie he believed in her so much that he never wrote a concession speech and Leslie being overcome with emotion in the voting booth stood out as the kinds of poignant moments most sitcoms can’t get away with.
It’ll be more than four months before Parks and Recreation’s fifth season resumes in the fall, but there’s a lot to look forward to as one of TV’s best comedies continues to challenge itself to grow and cover new ground. With all of the character shuffling as Leslie and Ben each entering new worlds, the introduction of new characters seems unavoidable, but I have faith that the Parks writers will continue to put most other sitcoms to shame with another season of new and exciting comedy.
- As reported here this week, NBC is renewing Parks and Rec, Community, and 30 Rock for abbreviated 13 episode seasons (although Parks isn't confirmed yet). This is an especially big shame in Parks’ case because the show has really only received a full season order two of the four years it’s been on the air:
Season 1: 6 episodes
Season 2: 24 episodes
Season 3: 16 episodes
Season 4: 22 episodes
Season 5: 13 episodes?
- It’s the season finale, so it’s time for a little character inventory. When Paul Schneider (who played Mark Brendanawicz) left Parks and Rec two years ago, Michael Schur told this to the press:
“Mark, is at least partially based on a real guy that [co-creator and executive producer Greg Daniels] and I met while we were doing research. His career had a very interesting trajectory, which is he worked for the government for a long time as a city planner and he got so fed up with the lifestyle and the red tape and the bureaucracy, that he … moved into the private sector. Then he got so fed up and tired of how gross corporations are that he moved back to the government. He oscillated back and forth multiple times.
When we first cast Paul, we told him that the idea would be Mark would leave and then ideally he would come back in a different capacity working for a different company. And then he would leave again and come back, and so on…He's going to remain in the world of the show in a way that not only allows but hopefully demands that he'll reenter it.”
It’s been two years since Brendanawicz’s departure. Not that the show needs it, but I’d love to see him come back for an episode or two, as we've been promised. I still think that it'd be strange to see Brendanawicz walking around City Hall next season though. The character’s been gone so long that he almost feels like part of a different show, especially given how much Parks has changed since Seasons 1 and 2.
- Note the last name of the Congressman that Ben is traveling to D.C. to work for: Murray. I'm assuming this is in reference to father of modern comedy Bill Murray, whom Amy Poehler offered $250 to guest star on Parks as Pawnee’s Mayor during an appearance on Jimmy Fallon last year. It’s highly unlikely, but here’s hoping that the writers named the character Congressman Murray because Bill Murray has finally agreed to do the show.
Bradford Evans is a writer in Los Angeles.