I knew I was going to have a pretty strong emotional response to the finale of Parks and Recreation last night, but it ended up hitting me harder than I expected. Alasdair Wilkins captured my feelings in his review of the finale for The AV Club:
As the episode moved back and forward in time to plot out the rest of its characters’ lives, I felt keenly aware of how tonight was just one small moment in my life, one built on past experiences both good and bad, and one leading to some unknown future destination. Don’t worry, I’m fully aware of how silly that sounds, and my own presence in this observation is beside the point.
Part of the reason the episode resonated with me, I think, is that I’m on the precipice of changes in my own life. I’m less than a week away from starting a new job, possibly a new career, in an industry that’s completely foreign to me. I’m excited for a new start and the opportunities this job will bring, but I’m also anxious – as anyone is when trying something completely new. Add on all of the editing and writing I’m doing on the side, and I could really use a flash-forward to assure me that I’m going in the right direction. Even if that’s impossible for me, it was comforting to see that the characters we’ve come to love after 7 seasons of Parks and Recreation will go on to be happy. And I appreciated that not every one of them has a straight path to success; April isn’t entirely confident that she wants to have kids, and Tom has to lose everything once more before he can find his true calling. This being a sitcom, there was never any doubt that thing would turn out just fine for everyone, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to watch. Even if only briefly, I felt like everything in my life might be okay too.
Even beyond resonance with my specific current situation, Parks & Rec has always seemed much more real to me than most sitcoms, despite its often broad humour. I think that this is largely due to its heavy reliance on character growth and relationships, and even under the cartooniest characters lay grains of recognizable emotional truth. Much of modern comedy relies so heavily on nastiness, whether that be raunchiness or plain mean-spiritedness, that the essential optimism of Parks & Rec has always felt refreshing. This last season was careful to give happy moments even to the hapless Gerry/Larry/Garry Gergich, a character who in some ways would have been more at home on a more cynical show like 30 Rock. The source of that sense of heart has always been the characters and the variety of unique groupings of character relationships the show produced. As someone who has largely grown weary of romance being shoved into every story out of some sense of obligation, I appreciate how organically most of the Parks & Rec romances developed. Even more than that, I loved the friendships on the show. Ann and Leslie mirror friendships in my own life (to the point that Ann’s departure last year and her reappearance in the finale had me weeping uncontrollably), and I value the different forms that friendships could take between, say, Ron and April, Donna and Tom, or Chris and Ben. These were characters with different goals and personalities (not to mention the diversity the show incorporated), but they found ways to support and relate to each other.
In a show that gave us Galentine’s Day, the “child size” soda (it’s the volume of child, if liquified), and Knope compliments, the most important thing Parks and Recreation gave the world was probably Leslie Knope herself. Moving past the first season, Leslie was an optimistic and determinated machine, and nothing could stand between her and what she wanted (and what she wanted, much of the time, was to make her friends happy). She had her flaws, of course, but in the end she was a woman who never took “no” for an answer. Given their real-life friendship, it’s difficult not to compare Amy Poehler’s character to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. We can all see ourselves in Liz Lemon, but it’s often ourselves at our worst, especially as the series progressed. As much as we love the idea of shotgunning a whole pizza, Liz’s poor dating skills and alleged unattractiveness were frequently invoked, although anyone with eyes can see that Tina Fey is a bombshell. I love Liz Lemon, and I don’t mean to be down on her, but the show frequently emphasized her flaws more than was maybe necessary for a woman struggling to hold together a team of unmotivated weirdos and have a life on top of it. As this article at Medium points out, Parks and Recreation gave us more that that. Leslie had her own flaws to make her relatable (who hasn’t desperately wanted to intervene when we think our friends are making bad choices?), and if you can’t relate to her, maybe you see yourself in Ann (who shares Liz’s awkwardness in the dating scene, although not to the same extent), or in April or Donna, or maybe Ben or Tom. Even if Leslie’s manic ambition isn’t her most relatable characteristic to everyone, she gives us something to aspire to – you can bet your ass she never held her bra together with tape.
This could be another case of right timing, but Leslie Knope is probably the most important TV character to me since Buffy Summers. I watched Buffy when I was 16, which was the perfect age to get caught up in her supernatural melodrama, but Leslie leaves our screens while I’m an adult. Unlike Leslie, I wasn’t writing my career aspirations in my kindergarten dream journal, so I’m still looking for direction, but this new job is a start. I felt a bit guilty leaving my old team in the midst of organizational changes, but Leslie reminds me that when I find something I want, I should go for it and shouldn’t apologize for my passion or ambition. Beyond that, she would tell me not to take shit from anyone, especially dudes who don’t like what I have to say (her brief shut-down of some men’s rights activists in a recent episode was truly inspiring). But on the other hand, Leslie is always there for her friends to help them problem-solve with detailed binders, or just to give them the best birthday present ever. No matter what, Leslie will support the people closest to her. I see myself in Ann’s awkwardness and Ben’s nerdiness, but Leslie is the person I want to be. I may not share her political ambitions, but I strive to emulate Leslie’s enthusiasm, her compassion, and her perseverance.
Yes, I am aware this is a fictional television program, but as Wilde once said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” We are far more affected by the plight of our favourite fictional characters than some of us might like to admit, but if that means that I absorbed even a little bit of Leslie Knope, I’m perfectly okay with that.