In a Standout Final Season Episode, ‘Parks and Rec’ Became ‘The Johnny Karate Show’
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“Welcome to the only show that’s all about learning, music, animals, fireworks, water skis, and above all, ice cream, pizza, ninjas, getting stronger, sharks vs. bears, and above all, karate!”
Parks and Recreation was a show about the power of community, the beauty of friendship, and good guys getting to win. It’s a comedy that lived and died by its characters and over the course of seven seasons it would manage to take the inhabitants of Pawnee to some incredible places. The show also frequently re-jiggered its focus — the fourth season focused on an election storyline, which is a far cry from its humble beginnings of a parks department trying to fill a hole. The series’ final season was equally ambitious, featuring a time jump that took them into the future of 2017. The show’s last year felt like a triumphant checklist of milestones and character moments, a big love letter to the fans.
The three-year time jump that Parks and Recreation took saw many of its characters becoming successful, larger than life versions of themselves. Andy, for example, became the host and creator of a popular children’s television show, in a move that felt almost too perfect for the giant labrador of a man. Accordingly, “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” is an episode of Parks and Recreation that is really a full-length episode of Andy’s show, right down to featuring an opening credits sequence for the fake show.
Andy is such a source of joy throughout Parks and Recreation’s run, getting an episode that just celebrates his passionate innocence — as well as how much he’s grown — holds a lot of potential. The episode more than rises to the challenge, and it’s kind of beautiful to see all of Andy’s staples, like Burt Maclin, get seamlessly integrated into the program. Not to mention that the “script” for the Johnny Karate episode is very much in Andy’s voice, constantly referencing things like Batman, James Bond, and other fascinations of a nine-year-old.
The episode is wise to play into a very Pee-Wee’s Playhouse vibe and a lot of the fun here is seeing how Pawnee’s cast of characters (plus John Cena) fit into this world. Meeting Carpenter Ron and Mailman Barry are great moments, as is the time in April’s Animal Corner and its sister segment, Loose Animal in the Studio. We even get Duke Silver and Donna performing a jazzy rendition of “Kung Fu Fighting,” which is really all that you can ask for. Interestingly enough it’s the only episode of Parks and Recreation that Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford doesn’t appear in, with the absence being excusable in a construct like this. It also allows more time for Ben’s awkward inclusion in the production as Dr. Smartbrain (and the glorious gag of the one fan he has in the audience).
Johnny Karate preaches a creed to his audience that says to: Make Something, Learn Something, Try Something New, and Do Something Nice for Somebody (and Karate Chop Something, too, if you can). It’s a template that’s typical for a piece of kids’ programming, but “Johnny Karate” cleverly uses this story structure and belief system to tie up April and Andy’s loose ends in an organic, beautiful way. Johnny tells his audience of children that “Nothing is impossible,” and by the end of what we’ve seen with Andy and April, we simultaneously believe the same thing.
The episode is careful to let you see April freaking out over the fact that this is the final taping of “Johnny Karate,” even if she might be trying to hide her reaction from the cameras. The artifice that’s present for this episode is never forgotten and the structure even pushes April to open up and unburden herself. The format becomes powerfully anachronistic in the end, as this “fake” filter being put over everything forces this burst of honesty out of April.
We looked at 30 Rock’s similar attempt at such a thing in “Queen of Jordan,” but “Johnny Karate’s” impetus is almost the complete opposite of the former. While this silly departure might feel deeply gratuitous, it couldn’t be further from the case. The reason that we’re getting an episode of Andy’s show rather than our regularly scheduled business is made to be the entire point of this endeavor. Rather than just being indulgent and final season frivolity, Parks and Rec uses Johnny Karate and his show as the conduit for Andy’s final rung of evolution. This catalyst is being presented as an episode of his show because that’s the most articulate way of underscoring the point that they’re trying to make.
Parks and Rec easily could have cheated by doing an episode that was mostly Johnny Karate with a B-story going on elsewhere, but the episode’s insistence on not breaking the format is what’s important. There are even fake Pawnee commercials (like series staple, Paunch Burger) used before act breaks, pushing the simulacrum even further, while expanding Pawnee’s world in the process.
Another crucial detail is that all of this hinges on the fact that this is the final episode of Andy’s show, which is why we’re seeing this particular installment. It’s not just some random episode of “Johnny Karate,” we get to be privy to the most important one. There’s even some welcome reflexivity as “Johnny Karate” says goodbye just as Parks simultaneously is, with both sharing the same emotional undertone. All of this makes for a smart, layered way of sending off a series, and “Johnny Karate” is a stylistic standout from an exceptional final year. This episode acts as a reminder that having fun and making something that’s powerful are not mutually exclusive.