I briefly told this story last night on Tumblr but when Parks and Recreation began its run in April 2009, I couldn’t have been less interested. I absolutely worshiped Amy Poehler from her Upright Citizen’s Brigade and Saturday Night Live days but I knew the show was specifically designed to be a companion piece for The Office, one of the few shows that I’ve ever actually just flat out given up on watching. (I loved it intensely for about three years and as the quality waned, so did my interest and eventually I just had to abandon ship. To protect my fond memories. The show produced OVER 100 MORE EPISODES after I stopped watching.) The pilot of Parks was made available on iTunes before it aired and I decided to give it a shot. It was exactly what I thought it was going to be (just like The Office but not The Office that I fell for. The current, cartoony Office). I felt like I gave it a fair chance but it wasn’t for me and I moved on.
When the show returned that fall, I was surprised to hear friends and critics say that there had been a clear uptick in quality. I saw the fourth episode of the second season, “Practice Date,” literally by accident: Community was set to record but somehow the recording ran long and also picked up Parks. As soon as Community ended, the cold open of Parks started (Councilman Dexhart’s birthday cave sex press conference) and my brother and I couldn’t help but giggle. We didn’t know the entire episode had recorded so we kept watching and giggling and before we knew it, the entire half hour had passed! I caught a few more episodes here and there that season and ended up Netflix-binging both seasons later that year.
And here we are roughly 5 years later. I would’ve loved to have had the time (not to mention emotional tenacity) to do a proper series retrospective (in the vein of my OC send-off that I bring up way too often) but perhaps someday. (I owe 30 Rock and Parenthood tribute posts as well.) For now, I’ve made a list of my 10 favorite episodes. And I’ll just say this: there were definitely peaks and valleys but from the moment I got onboard, Parks and Recreation never failed to make me smile. I’m a TV fanatic, I couldn’t begin to estimate how many shows I’ve seen through to the end, and yet Parks always felt special. For some reason, it feels rare to see a TV show where everyone gets along, everyone likes each other, everyone just wants everyone to have everything they want and that’s the driving force of the show. Parks and Rec was like a ray of sunshine in a dark TV world and that positivity is what I’m going to miss; that positivity is what made Pawnee feel like home.
Crystal’s 10 Favorite Parks and Recreation Episodes
My brother & I are planning a series re-watch (hopefully soon) so this list may be radically different months from now. There’s not really a representation of the last couple seasons, which isn’t necessarily a reflection of their quality, I’m just not as familiar with those as the earlier years because A) I had way more time for re-watching and obsessing in the early days and B) the recent seasons just recently made it into syndication, where I can be reminded of their greatness. And I decided that I’m far too close and far too emotional to even begin considering where the final season’s episodes fall in the pantheon so I’ve left those out of the running entirely. (Although it’s a pretty safe bet to say that “Leslie & Ron” is going to end up an all-time great. And my vote for funniest episode this year is “Pie-Mary.”) Even with that limited scope, it was difficult picking just 10. But these are the episodes that make me laugh until I cry and sometimes cry through my tears. These are the episodes that if I pass them on TV, I immediately drop whatever I’m doing and watch. These are the episodes that are running through my mind when I talk about how much I’m going to miss this show. These are my favorites (in chronological, not ranked order because again, we’re emotionally unstable right now):
“Practice Date” (Season 2)
As mentioned above, this was the first episode I saw that was truly indicative of what the show would become. Councilman Dexhart’s bizarre and hilarious sex scandal is what caught my attention but it was the titular “Practice Date” of Ann coaching Leslie for an upcoming date that sealed the deal for me. One word, guys: Torple. One phrase: “I’m fart and I’m smunny.” All these shenanigans PLUS this is the introduction of Duke Silver and the first inkling of the inexplicable loving torture Jerry would endure for the next 4 seasons.
“Flu Season” (Season 3)
As this list will indicate, I consider Season 3 to be not only Parks and Recreation at its best but one of the greatest modern sitcom seasons of all time. (Up there with The Office Season 2 and the first few seasons of How I Met Your Mother.) “Flu Season” is not just a laugh riot, not only a great physical comedy showcase for Rob Lowe and Amy Poehler but it’s also a preview of the sweetness that was to come from the pairings of Ben & Leslie and April & Andy. PLUS two all-time great lines: “I’m Leslie Monster and this is Nightline” and “I typed your symptoms into this thing up here and it says you could have ‘network connectivity problems’.” (A Chris Pratt original!)
“Harvest Festival” (Season 3)
One of the aspects that made Parks so great was Leslie Knope’s endless supply of hope and ambition. No matter the task, no matter the obstacle, she never doubted that she would achieve her goals and she pursued them happily. That quality is what makes “Harvest Festival” such a rewarding episode; it’s enjoyable not just as a fitting narrative climax to a story arc but we enjoy it because we get to see our pal Leslie hit a home run. It’s almost a cliche to talk about at this point but that closing shot of Leslie standing in the midst of this gigantic great thing that she made happen – I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it. (And on a lighter note, Li’l Sebastian’s debut!)
“Andy & April’s Fancy Party” (Season 3)
It’s not often that TV can pull one over on me. The pairing of Andy, the human equivalent of a golden retriever, and April, one of TV’s greatest snarkers who ever snarked, was a sweetly pleasant mid-Season 2 surprise but one that any rational TV fan would’ve assumed would follow the age-old tradition of “will they or won’t they?” break-ups and make-ups. So the reveal that “Andy & April’s Fancy Party” was actually Andy & April’s wedding was as shocking for the audience as it was for the characters. The whole event is just so Parks, so weirdly sweet and heart-warming. There’s a lot of great stuff here from Tom and Jean-Ralphio’s break-down of what a best man speech needs to be, to the introduction of Orin, to Ben and Leslie’s sadly quiet flirtation. But I always come back to the episode for a few reasons: 1) It’s such a great character choice and story choice to subvert the audience’s expectations by having Leslie be the one opposed to the wedding and Ron be the one to sell her on it. 2) April pulling Leslie aside and telling her she loves her. 3) “I guess I kind of hate most things. But I never really seem to hate you. So I want to spend the rest of my life with you, is that cool?” That is romance.
“The Fight” (Season 3)
Superbly written by Amy Poehler, “The Fight” might be the funniest episode of Parks now that I think about it. From the introduction of Janet Snakehole, to Jean-Ralphio’s inability to properly compose a rap, to Leslie and Ann’s fight, to the montage of everyone blasted on Snake Juice, to the aftermath the next morning – I spend most of this episode cry-laughing, gasping for air. And on top of all the fun, it’s also an important episode in the Leslie/Ann relationship along with the Leslie/Ben relationship. “Jean-Ralphio, dance up on me!” has long been an exclamation repeated in my household and forever will be.
“Road Trip” (Season 3)
I’ll mention again: I watch a lot of TV. And in my experience, it’s exceedingly rare to actually believe a TV couple is in love; there’s a lot of telling and not showing, which can work sometimes but there’s nothing like when a TV couple has actual chemistry. Ben and Leslie’s slow flirtation was torture in Season 3 not because (like most shows) it dragged on and on but because we could feel how badly they wanted to be together. It was painful for them and it was painful for us. “Road Trip” has some great comic beats like Ron tutoring a 4th grade girl on why government doesn’t matter and Chris joyously air-banjoing in the backseat after crashing Ben and Leslie’s getaway. But when I think of this episode, I think of DAT KISS. And again, like Andy and April, this was not a relationship I expected to see any movement on anytime soon so this development caused me to leap off of my couch. And the button on the scene, “Uh-oh.” is so perfect.
“Li’l Sebastian” (Season 3)
Oh Li’l Sebastian, we hardly knew ye. The miniature horse is sent off to the big stable in the sky with an episode that is a rollercoaster of emotions. Comedic highlights include: the botched moment of silence, the debut of Entertainment 720, Ron discovering Ben and Leslie’s affair (dat voicemail!), Ben discovering Ron discovering Ben and Leslie’s affair, Chris’ emotional spiral about having tendonitis and of course, “5000 Candles In The Wind.” But the moment that makes this episode for me comes at the very end, the cliffhanger that never fails to leave my heart in my throat: Leslie is approached to run for City Council. But does she have any secrets, any potential scandals? Pan to Ben through the window, pan to my HEART AND SOUL DYING AND A SUMMER OF PAIN.
“The Comeback Kid” (Season 4)
I always enjoyed episodes where the whole gang was involved in the storyline and Leslie’s City Council campaign provided plenty of opportunities for that. “The Comeback Kid” doesn’t just feature the comic follies of the gang trying to put together a rally for Leslie, it features some of the best physical comedy I’ve ever seen on TV, especially by such a large ensemble. To this day, I cannot hear “Get On Your Feet” by Gloria Estefan without collapsing into a fit of giggles. The episode B-story is also a favorite of mine: Ben has become but a shadow of himself in his unemployment, living in a Letters to Cleo t-shirt, living on Cal-Zones and devoting all his time to making a claymation short film. His elation at showing Chris his film, quickly followed by his horror at discovering he spent three weeks on a 5 second movie (“Did you pause it?”) is a sight to behold.
“The Debate” (Season 4)
It was always a treat when Amy Poehler wrote an episode. Yes, it was great because she’s a brilliant comic mind but her affection for the characters was always so apparent. She loved the characters, she understood the characters and she loved and understood the love and understanding that the characters had for each other. She also wasn’t afraid to give her castmates the spotlight and her scripts provided them with some great showcases. “The Debate” is very much a Leslie story but there’s also great moments for everyone from guest stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Rudd, to Tom, Chris and Ann handling the “spin room,” to Andy reenacting his favorite movies when the cable goes out at the debate viewing party. And of course, one of Leslie Knope’s most shining moments in the entire series comes at the end of the debate, with her declaring her unconditional love for Pawnee and vowing to stand by it no matter what.
“Leslie and Ben” (Season 5)
“I love you and I like you” – it’s such a simple sentiment but the first time I heard it, it was kind of a revelation to me. Isn’t that what love should be? “I love you and I like you” not only perfectly describes Leslie and Ben’s relationship, it’s indicative of every single relationship on this show, romantic or not. And that’s beautiful. Leslie and Ben’s wedding was everything the couple is: spontaneous, romantic, humorous, touching and made possible with a little help from their friends. Ron walking Leslie into her surprise wedding ceremony is a moment I will never forget. The final scene, with Leslie, in the wedding dress Ann made for her, proudly saying “I love my job, I love my husband and I love my friends” over footage of her cuddling with Ben on “their” bench – honestly, for me, the series could have ended right then and there. But I’m glad it didn’t.
“Pawnee Zoo” (Season 2)
The first real hint of Parks 2.0, this was also always one of my favorite examples of the great things this show could achieve when they playfully delved into the world of political satire. And also the episode opens with Leslie rapping “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” So obviously it’s on the list of greats.
“Media Blitz” (Season 3)
I was a fan of Adam Scott from Party Down and his involvement with Parks was one of the many factors that led to me giving this show a second chance. “Media Blitz” is a great showcase for the nervous, stammering comedy he so excels at, introduces us to Crazy Ira & The Douche and starts the Andy & April train rolling once and for all.
“Smallest Park” (Season 4)
Leslie and Ben were technically only broken up for six episodes but it felt like an eternity for them and for us. There’s a great subplot about Ron helping Andy decide which college courses to take but the reason why this episode is on this list is because of the scene where Leslie and Ben finally decide to “just say screw it and do this thing for real.” And again, DAT KISS.
“Ann’s Decision” (Season 5)
I wasn’t the biggest fan of the “Ann has a baby” storyline but “Ann’s Decision” is one of the better episodes from that arc. Not only do we get to see a softer side of The Douche but it features another example of some of the best physical comedy I’ve ever seen on TV.
“Ann and Chris” (Season 6)
How does one say goodbye to Beautiful Ann and Chris Treager, two characters who are literally part of the fabric of the show? In true Parks fashion, with just the right balance of shenanigans and tear-jerking. A prime example of this sentiment is the scene where Ben and Ann don’t so much as say goodbye but trade pointers on how to deal with their delightfully high-maintenance partners full-time. Ann and Chris leave Pawnee and the episode leaves us with this piece of life advice: “There has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food.”
Dear Parks and Recreation, I loved you and I liked you. I’ll miss you terribly but you’ll live on in syndication, on Netflix, on DVD. The memories listed above will forever be in my heart along with countless others. Tonight I’ll pour out some Snake Juice, drown my sorrows in some waffles or a meat tornado and treat myself to your final episode. Oh Parks and Recreation, you beautiful tropical fish. You are truly 5000 candles in the wind.