Whatever challenge was waiting for them at the bottom of their elevator ride was not exactly clear, which was the point. Ben and Leslie were really talking about an audacious three-year leap into the future the show had just taken, fast-forwarding to a moment when Leslie and Ben’s triplets are toddlers, and Leslie is fully entrenched as a regional director for the National Parks Service.
The change to the show is permanent. “We turned our minds toward doing something that would inject another season’s worth of story into the finale,” showrunner Mike Schur told Alan Sepinwall. “It’s a jolt of creative energy, and if you don’t jolt your show with a bolt of electricity every so often it can get stale.” Bolts like that can also fry a show. But in this case, I think “Parks and Recreation” has made a very promising move.
Yesterday, I posted a link to a piece by Libby Hill about the potential plot dangers of Leslie’s pregnancy for this exceptionally feminist sitcom. “What happens then, when those exploits and adventures, the struggles and successes of that character, are retconned into being merely preparation for having children?” Hill asked. Or worse, what if “Parks and Recreation” had devolved into a dreary meditation on whether Leslie, the ultimate overachiever, could have it all?
The show solved that problem by skipping a pregnancy and babies storyline. Schur told Sepinwall that the show made that choice to avoid repeating Ann’s (Rashida Jones) storyline. But that decision, made in service of storytelling, also makes an important feminist point.
When we see Leslie three years in the future, she does have it all. She is running a big, thriving office, even if she has to pause occasionally to fire Jon Hamm. Ben and Leslie’s children are growing into adorable tiny people, and April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) are on hand to help — and to stuff them with marshmallows. Sometimes the most powerful way to answer a question is to barrel straight through it, revealing a supposedly imposing controversy as an insubstantial puff of smoke.
Leslie’s leap into the future is not the only change for “Parks and Recreation.” Toward the end of the episode, Leslie, Ben and Tom (Aziz Ansari) persuaded Grant (Brady Smith) to relocate a regional NPS office from Chicago to Pawnee. The cost of living was cheaper, they argued, and Pawnee was closer to many of the parks Leslie would oversee than Chicago might have been. Plus Ben, through an epic “Cones of Dunshire” match, has just talked a start-up into giving Pawnee free WiFi.
Pawnee is not a perfect town. Leslie could improve it only so much during her tenure in the Parks Department. When she served on the City Council, her constituents rewarded her for her hard work by kicking her out of office, even as they accepted some of her changes. The merger with Eagleton bought her a culture clash that may go on for years. But Leslie has changed her beloved home town for the better.
After six years of beating up on Pawnee, the finale suggested a shift in attitude and maybe an expansion of the theories of public service and city renewal that have guided “Parks and Recreation” for so long. Pawnee is rising, Leslie told Grant with confidence, and “National Parks could get in on the ground floor.”
When Ben made the case to Leslie that she should take the job at the National Parks Service, he took her to see the Golden Gate Bridge.
“You’ve been thinking about this job in the abstract. Focus on what it actually means. We’re standing in a national park that stretches 50 miles,” he told her. “You take this job, places like this will be your office. When we got back from London, you said it’s a very big world, and you’ve seen very little of this. This is your chance.”
“Parks and Recreation” should give Leslie that chance next year. But the show seems ready to make another argument, too: that places like Pawnee do not exist only to give the Leslie Knopes of the world someplace to test themselves before they leave for bigger tasks on bigger stages.
Most television shows ignore places like Pawnee, as well as the people who live there. “Parks and Recreation” has always had Pawnee as its subject. But it would be great to see the show make a vigorous case that, even though it has a porn store, a raccoon infestation and a diabetes epidemic, the town is worthy of Leslie anyway. At a time when there have been serious discussions about abandoning Detroit, one of America’s formerly great cities, regionalism deserves the kind of vigorous, funny defense that only “Parks and Recreation” can provide.
“The sun is rising over a sea of love, and waffles, and possibility,” Leslie told us toward the end of the episode. Let it rise over Pawnee, too.