This week, NBC’s Parks and Recreation wraps up its seventh and final season, and my heart is on the brink of shattering. You know how they say, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened?” Well, in a day or so, i will be ignoring that adage with aplomb as I dissolve into a puddle of sentimentality.
Parks and Recreation is a show that really gets me every time. It makes me laugh out loud and cry out loud at heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. It’s a hilarious and tender sitcom that’s focused on the humor and hardships of loving others unconditionally and striving tirelessly to make the places we live the best that they can be. It demonstrates how these two little things can truly make the whole world a slightly sweeter, kinder place. Pawnee is the home of some of the most selfless relationships and the most dedicated servanthood – even people as polar opposite as Ron and Leslie or Tom and April can cultivate friendships and facilitate the greater good despite drastic pesonal and ideological differences.
Parks and Rec rocks because, unlike so many other shows, it’s nice. Sure, there’s some raunchy humor, crude language, and the argument that all the characters are basically functioning alcoholics has been made. But it’s TV, and this is 2015, so who cares. The point is, the humor of Parks and Rec doesn’t arise from dysfunction or disaster or unkindness. The characters we root for are ambitious and loving. They want good things. They work together. Their goodness is never the butt of a joke or an obstacle to success. And, every time we watch these characters fall, it’s only a matter of time before they rise to a greater triumph. Even the caricatures are loving, even gentle satires – as much as we hate Marcia Langman, we know we all also kind of love Marcia Langman. Parks and Rec celebrates the indomitableness of the only things that really matter: friends, waffles, work.
Leslie Knope, of course, makes Parks and Recreation the perfection that it is. The Office went on (albeit less well) without Michael Scott, but Parks and Rec would have died without Leslie Knope. (I will just never get people who say that Parks is a worse, less funny Office knockoff. They’re both great but…so very different.) This sounds VERY inflated, but dang it, it’s the truth: I see myself in Leslie Knope. I really relate to her. Both her shortcomings and her strengths remind me of me. In Amy Poehler’s hilarious, warm, and wonderful book, Yes Please, Amy writes about a realization that she and Parks co-creator Michael Schur came to regarding the relationships the characters have with the single-camera “mockumentary” style. Around Season Two, Leslie kind of stopped acknowledging the cameras (aside from talking head scenes). Amy and Mike wondered if this was believable behavior from a bureaucrat, someone who always has to be hyper-conscious of public perception and reputation. This led to a breakthrough about Leslie Knope’s character: she is who she is no matter who’s around. The things she thinks and says in private are the things she thinks and says in public.
Basically, I like to think that Leslie Knope is me if I stopped worrying about the cameras. I know it may seem silly, but I’m forever grateful to everyone who had a hand in the development of Ms. Knope. She reminds me in so many ways of the person I know myself to be and the person I am when I let my insecurities take a hike. When I’m feeling very April Ludgate, I know I can watch an episode of Parks and Rec, and somehow, Leslie will add her voice to the chorus that reminds me what I really believe in.
I think the best way to put into writing everything Leslie and the rest of Pawnee have taught me is to make a list of every time Parks has made me cry, so grab some Kleenex and some NutriYums, because here we go.
1. S2, Ep24: “Freddy Spaghetti”
Back when Ben was still a bad guy, Pawnee had shut down. Ron Swanson’s wildest dreams were coming true: he was a member of a committee dedicated to slashing government expenditures, eliminating employees and programs, and cutting down on bureaucratic waste. Then, Chris announced his plan to fire Leslie Knope and Ron’s glee was gone. His comeback to Chris’ insistence that every department will lose a Leslie Knope gets me every time: “No they won’t, because the other departments don’t even have one to begin with.” Not only is this an awesome instance of a deeply loyal friend – as inflexible as Ron characteristically is, he puts aside his fundamental convictions to go to the mattresses for Leslie – it’s also a reminder of Leslie’s deep dedication to something she believes in. She works 10x harder than she has to for her department, and it’s because she loves the work she does and the people and the town it serves. That’s something to aspire to.
2. S3, Ep7: “Harvest Festival”
Not only is this one of the funniest and cleverest episodes of Parks and Rec, it’s far and away one of the most heartwarming. At the end of the episode, April and Andy love each other, we rejoice at knowing for sure that Li’l Sebastian is safe AND that there’s a li’l sumthin-sumthin between Leslie and Ben, and the Parks Department is safe and intact. When the camera pans out to show the beautiful Midwest day, Harvest Festival in full swing, I cry. Hard work, faith, pluck, and passion won the day. Believing in pipe dreams pays off sometimes.
3. S3, Ep9: “Fancy Party”
The freakin’ look on April’s face as she walks down the aisle. Love really awakens the softie and the believer in all of us. Oh, and Crying Bonus Round: April telling Leslie she loves her. I know it, you know it, we all know it, but hearing her say it…it’s such a beautiful moment of a person willingly leaving her comfort zone of expressing feelings to make sure that someone important to her feels loved.
4. S4, Ep8: “Smallest Park”
I feel like this episode should be an across-the-board tearjerker. We all are somewhat-to-extremely familiar with the crazed, sad desperation that Leslie feels regarding Ben. Unfortunately, in real life, when we love someone from afar but believe they don’t feel the same, we’re usually right. But Ben loves Leslie! YAY! Such a “love wins” moment. When Leslie chokes back tears as she tells Ben she misses him and thinks about him all the time, after apologizing to him in the most humble and honest way, I reach for the tissues. It’s hard and increasingly rare to be so genuine and raw with someone. This scene kind of nails what it feels like to do that. And the all-encompassing joy when Ben responds with a kiss is too much – it’s the best possible result of the most vulnerable, soul-baring declaration someone can make.
5. S4, Ep10: “Citizen Knope”
When the Parks Department and Ann pull together to give Leslie the unforgettable present of a gingerbread city hall and tell her that they’re her new campaign squad, I can’t handle it. Friends help friends achieve their dreams – that’s what happens here, and that’s what Leslie does every day. When Leslie tells the gang that she won’t let them put their lives on hold to help her run for city council, and Ron asks her to name one person in that room for whom she hasn’t put her life on hold, Leslie holds it together better than I do. I love how, even though Leslie has an extremely busy life, she gives the most amazing and thoughtful gifts without expecting anything in return, but her friends show how much they appreciate her through reciprocal gestures anyway. Leslie’s friends sometimes feel smothered by her caring, but they don’t roll their eyes and push her away – they see the love that Leslie has for them and feel grateful for her. Being able to not put yourself first for one second, especially in the context of a friendship, is a super critical skill to learn. It’s so heartwarming to see a rad group of friends who’ve nailed it.
6. S4, Ep22: “Win, Lose, or Draw”
LESLIE KNOPE WINS! When Ann tells Leslie she won, Ann is so ecstatic, and it’s not even her victory. Happiness for another’s triumph, achieving a lifelong dream, being surrounded by loved ones and supporters – what’s not to cry about?
7. S5, Ep5: “Halloween Surprise”
If you don’t even feel a temptation to cry happy tears at this one, what’s the deal with you?!?!! Go thaw yourself out. This barely needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway. The proposal scene, from start to finish, is a cry fest. Two good people who have consistently been passed over as not sexy or cool (the Susans of the world) find each other and want to share a life together. Ben and Leslie = relationship goals.
8. S5, Ep14: “Leslie and Ben”
Basically, the same reasons as #7. “I love you and I like you.” SWOON.
9. S6, Ep6: “Filibuster”
An unlikely tear-inducing episode, but believe it or not, it is for me when Leslie realizes that even though her filibuster will result in her being recalled from City Counil – i.e. her dream will die – it will also prevent the disenfranchisement of many citizens. In her early `90s roller skate getup, she looks so determined as she points her finger and says “No one keeps people in my town from voting. Not on my watch,” and then Ben smiles so sweetly and proudly at her. I tear up! I do! A big fear of mine is people perceiving me as stupid or vapid because I’m nearly always going around in the equivalent of a themed birthday party outfit. Floral dresses, high pitched voice, lipstick – yep, it’s all there. Plus, I have a fun-loving, kind of silly personality. I’m afraid that this means I can’t be fierce and scrappy and courageously smart at the same time. Or if I try, that people won’t take me seriously. But, there’s Leslie Knope, defending democracy in roller skates.
10. S6, Ep12: “Ann and Chris”
This is not just sweet, soft tears. “Ann and Chris” means full. On. SOBBING. “Oh Ann, you beautiful sunflower. What am I gonna do without you?” I’m gone. This episode should have been called “Leslie and Ann” because they have one of the best television friendships of all time and seeing it end was PAINFUL. Ann and Leslie were perfect friends for each other. But, this episode gently reminds me of two things. First – “That one pinky promise launched a friendship so amazing that it takes 103 scrapbooks to capture it.” Friendships can happen when you least expect to find them. Keep an open heart and an open mind, and the angry stranger at your public forum could wind up being your soul sister. We never need to feel like we’re “done” making friends, or that there’s no one else out there who could know us and love us the way we long to be known and loved. Second – yeah, people go away and lives evolve. But that doesn’t have to change a thing. Love knows no distance or barrier. Even as our hearts are breaking, we can still enjoy a nice stack of waffles at JJ’s Diner.
11. S6, Ep19: “Flu Season 2”
“Well, I’ve got some good news for you, buddy.” Uh, Leslie and Ben are starting a family? Did you really think I wouldn’t cry? LOL you don’t know me at all!
12. S6, Ep22: “Moving Up: Part 2
I haven’t watched this episode for a while because it’s not on Amazon Prime yet. (Hey, some of us have to choose between Netflix and free shipping. I’ve made my choice.) But it definitely made me cry. That’s all I have to say about this for now, which is lame, but I would have felt dishonest leaving it out altogether so…moving up and moving on!
13. S7, Ep4: “Leslie and Ron”
To clarify: every episode of the Farewell Season has made me cry because I don’t want Parks and Rec to ever end. But this one in particular…oh wow. Nostalgia is like cry porn to me. I could watch a photo montage dedicated to a total stranger and I might tear up. Watching Leslie and Ron reconcile so beautifully and having one last hurrah in their old stomping grounds just kills me. The Camel! The stock photo of breakfast! The land mine! What a sweet reminder that no matter how much things change, we still have the memories and the opportunity to always keep the people with whom we made those memories involved in our lives.
Thanks, Parks and Recreation, for being something that made me laugh when nothing else could. Thanks for believing that being the best you can and doing the best you can is possible. Thanks for celebrating the possibility of going above and beyond. Thanks for making a show full of flawed and unlikely friends who do good things for each other and for the community. More than anything, thank you for reminding me time and again that I’m someone warm, positive, smart, and dedicated to idealism – and there’s nothing naïve or ineffective about being that way.
Leslie and Ben and Ann and Chris and April and Andy and Tom and Ron and Donna and Garry. How can I ever forget them?