The Legacy of Parks and Recreation

By  · Published on February 25th, 2015

Any dedicated fan of Parks and Recreation will tell you, the show changes. Originally imagined as a tonal counterpoint to The Office — both shows were created by Greg Daniels, along with Michael Schur, who produced and wrote episodes of the American Office, and both utilized the faux-documentary style to go inside a typical workplace – Parks and Recreation abandoned its somewhat snarky tone during the first season. By the second season, the NBC comedy felt and moved very differently than its original version, and the result was something oddly unique: a genuinely sweet sitcom with a big, beating heart.

That heart is, of course, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). That the show ended last night with a series finale that looked forward to the future for all our characters – as encouraged by Leslie literally reaching out to touch them – may have been a self-indulgent and cheesy, but there’s never been a modern comedy that did self-indulgent and cheesy so damn well. Parks and Recreation may be over, but its legacy – one of cornball charm and unabashed optimism – deserves to live on.

Once Parks and Recreation found its footing, it never balked at playing up the charm of its stacked cast. The first few episodes of Parks and Recreation are not exactly cruel to Leslie, but she’s styled as a bit of a weirdo dreamer that few actresses could portray with much sympathy. That Poehler pulls it off is a nod to her talent, but that – then! later! – she turns Leslie into one of television’s most lovely, funny, sweet, charming, and inspirational characters is, well, it’s something else. Parks and Recreation might have one of the most amiable casts in history, performers that we find charming and engaging both on and off the screen (from Adam Scott to Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza to Nick Offerman), and being led by Poehler only heightened their sweetness.

We need more sweet, good characters on television, because damn, this anti-hero thing starting to wear thin. Parks and Recreation was populated by an entire cast of these people. (Even the nuts, like Jean-Ralphio and Jeremy Jamm, were actually enjoyable and slightly redeemable throughout.)

The show’s own design seemed to work against it as it relates to optimism – after all, Parks and Recreation is about small-town government, and few things are as willfully unfunny and dire as government on any level. But Parks and Recreation twisted that plot point to show the good stuff that government is capable of, even if it’s relatively small in nature. The series finale even ended with the gang installing a new swing at a park, a grand journey eventually greeted with a mild thanks from a slightly concerned citizen, the perfect encapsulation of what the show stood for: small things done well, with love.

What kind of network sitcom is this?

One that subverted expectations and constructs, if only in service to, and there’s that word again, actual charm.

Most sitcoms struggle with their central romances – most sitcoms are at least partially built on “will they/won’t they” romances – feeling the push and pull between putting a pair of beloved characters together or holding out until the last possible moment (call it a Moonlighting problem, or a Cheers problem, or even a Friends problem). Parks and Recreation did something different, putting together not just one great couple, but two of them, and then allowing them to live their lives together, on the small screen, forever. What’s better, what’s sweeter than romance?

Sure, Leslie and Ben had some hurdles to get over (and, yes, Parks and Recreation did have some fun with an unrequited love plotline for awhile there), and April and Andy had their own issues to work through in order to be forever joined in a delightfully weird union, but Parks and Recreation’s decision to put its lovebirds together and go with it, with actually successful results, is the kind of thing we rarely see on network shows. It worked, because it was rooted in the kind of sweetness and optimism that marked the entire series. What’s more wildly optimistic than marrying someone?

Even when bad things happened on the show – and this is a show that killed off a beloved equine character, never forget, RIP, Li’l Sebastian – those tragedies were endured with kindness and respect (and, occasionally, the magic of song). People lost their jobs. People were publicly humiliated. People struck out. People broke up. People committed insurance fraud (like, a lot). But people never let go of hope.

The world of Parks and Recreation might not be immune to bad things, but it’s one that totally rejects bad attitudes. That might not be the world we actually live in, but it should be, or at least the one that we should be able to tune into every week.