10 Defining Episodes of Park and RecreationClosing out an improbable six-year run, NBC’s Parks and Recreation is going out on one of the great final seasons of TV comedy in recent memory. Before Leslie, Ron, and the rest of Pawnee take their final bow, though, I thought it appropriate to reflect on 10 of the episodes that made Parks and Recreation, well, Parks and Recreation.
The following gallery isn’t of the “best” episodes from Parks’ tenure - doing so would take way more than 10 slots, anyway. Rather, the selections are meant to highlight individual episodes that captured the spirit of the show, which evolved greatly over the years.
Episodes like “Flu Season” and “Ron and Tammy” are stone-cold comedy classics, but the impending absence of Parks and Recreation from the TV landscape means we’re losing more than just a show that knew how to make us laugh. For almost always the better, Parks and Recreation never stopped revealing new facets of its identity, and the following collection of episodes are meant to form both a timeline, and a time capsule of what the show was, what it became, and what it will be remembered for being.
Rock Show (Season 1, Episode 6)The first season of Parks and Recreation is often considered a write-off by even its most faithful fans, and it’s easy to understand why. Confusion over whether the show was or wasn’t an Office spinoff was something of a complication (the documentary format and presence of Rashida Jones didn’t help things), but the biggest problem was that the show hadn’t found its signature voice yet.
Granted, even The Office didn’t really know what it was doing through its first year, but had the fame and blueprint of the original British series to fall back on.
“Rock Show,” the sixth episode of the series, was an 11th hour sign that the struggling sitcom was finally starting to cohere. It’s an eventful episode, with Ann and Andy (Chris Pratt, then still a guest star) breaking up, and Mark and Leslie nearly hooking up. “Rock Show” is nowhere near as perfect as some of the half-hours the show would begin producing by next year (though it did give us “The Pit,” and the runner about Andy’s many band names), but the optimism that would come to be the guiding principle of Parks and Recreation finally sparked during its first season finale.
Leslie's House (Season 2, Episode 14)Leslie’s Knope’s characteristic flaw has always been caring too much. The first season of Parks and Rec had difficulty figuring out how to portray that as ultimately being a net positive, instead of just an excuse for ridiculous behavior. Crazy Leslie is very much present in “Leslie’s House,” revealing just how big a mess her personal life is as she micromanages a dinner party to impress then-boyfriend Justin (Justin Theroux). But a balance began to be struck once the relationships with her friends and co-workers started to temper Leslie’s rarely bridled enthusiasm into something reflective of her love for those people.
Just as important, though, is how comfortably gelled the main cast had become by the midpoint of Season 2. For as great as the show often was at spinning multiple different storylines, getting the Parks gang together in one place often proved the best recipe for a classic.
Everyone gets multiple hilarious moments here, whether it’s Ron and Tom having a jalapeno eat-off, Mark and Andy trying to look cool next to the awesomeness of Justin, or April showing early signs of affection for Andy by filling Justin’s coat pockets with gum.
Master Plan (Season 2, Episode 23)Even before “Leslie’s House,” it was clear that Parks and Recreation was shaping up into something special. But the prospect of adding two new faces - even if those faces are as adorable as Adam Scott’s and Rob Lowe’s - to the cast could have risked overstuffing a show already dangerously full of characters fighting for airtime. Ironically, a half-hour featuring Leslie poorly (and Ron giddily) reacting to news of impending budget cuts was Parks and Recreation at its most crowded.
The introduction of Ben and Chris in “Master Plan” was also the show introducing its first major, non-Pit story arc, with Pawnee’s bankruptcy eventually culminating in “Harvest Festival” well into the following season. The show had mostly been a series of one-off episodes up until that point, largely maintaining continuity through callbacks and relationships (Andy and April’s own becoming a real possibility here, as the episode celebrates her 21st birthday). From “Master Plan” on, though, there was rarely ever a stretch of time where Leslie wasn’t working towards some greater goal, which helped open up the show to bigger and better venues from which to watch the Parks crew change.
Fancy Party (Season 3, Episode 9)Not just one of the series’ finest episodes, but also an all-timer for TV weddings, period, “Fancy Party” is a wonderful celebration of a spontaneous, weird, and joyous relationship that was the heart of Parks and Recreation through much of its run. April and Andy bring out the best in one another, just as Aubrey Plaza’s winning deadpan and Chris Pratt’s unflappable enthusiasm made the two a perfect match. Simply hiding the episode’s true intent by calling it “Fancy Party” was its own tribute to an unexpected, unpredictable romance that came together as swiftly as it did sweetly.
Unlike a lot of sitcoms, Parks rarely hamstrung or backtracked on winning pairings just to draw things out. The show allowed its characters to pursue the people who were right for them, which is as daunting for showrunners as it is real people. Though Leslie’s initial apprehension at the union is better expressed in the previous season’s “94 Meetings” (“Every time a couple gets married, two single people die.”), “Fancy Party” did justice to the show’s most adorable couple by honoring the exciting, scary, but ultimately rewarding process of watching the people you love grow up.
The Fight (Season 3, Episode 13)From a purely comedic standpoint, it’s hard to pick an episode that’s funnier, more quotable, or GIF-worthy than “The Fight.” Caffeine and liquor are a great excuse to write characters at their silliest, and luckily, Tom’s Snake Juice liqueur proves a potent blend of both.
The talking head montage of a wasted Parks department might be the single wackiest individual showcase for the show’s cast, whether it’s Andy mumble-jamming what sounds like a Matchbox 20 tune, or Ron cutting loose while wearing the hat of April’s alter-ego, Janet Snakehole. But the script from Amy Poehler also makes “The Fight” one of Parks’ most important looks at Leslie’s relationship with Ann, which was in many ways the most important of the series.
Ann had long been the hardest character to integrate into each week’s antics, so having her join the Parks department was inevitable. But the titular fight caused by Leslie bulldozing Ann into taking the job insightfully explores how conflicting personalities can be a source of stress in a friendship, but also an invaluable catalyst for change and self-improvement.
Also, did I mention Ron dancing?
Li'l Sebastian (Season 3, Episode 16)The most notable death on the show, and perhaps all southern Indiana history, the loss of hometown mascot Li’l Sebastian casts a pall over the third season finale. Parks and Recreation didn’t focus on death all too frequently, but the passing of Pawnee’s spirit animal, a tiny horse, made for a fitting capper to what was arguably Parks’ finest season.
Massive public events provided milestones throughout the show’s run, and the memorial in “Li’l Sebastian” is among the most memorable, featuring a debut for Andy’s “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” and Ron losing his eyebrows in a blaze of glory. For a death-obsessed episode, “Li’l Sebastian” is full of new beginnings, including the birth of Entertainment 720, and the introduction of Ron’s first ex-wife, Tammy I. It also marks a major pivot point for the focus of the show, with Leslie beginning her transition from civil servant to civil leader. Her secret relationship with Ben would be just the first of many new challenges that come with entering politics, but the show wouldn’t have been true to the ambitions of its lead character if it didn’t eventually move beyond the Parks department.
The Comeback Kid (Season 4, Episode 11)For as much effort as Parks put into moving the lives of its characters forward, rules of sitcom writing dictate those characters have reliable personality types. Like most comedies, Parks had begun to stretch the elasticity of those personalities by its fourth season. Leslie’s drive, Tom’s swagger, and Garry/Gerry/Larry/Terry’s bumbling were reliable wells to pull a joke from, but the longer such gags ran, the harder it was to keep human characters from becoming cartoonish.
Written by former-Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully, “The Comeback Kid” foreshadowed the show’s increasingly goofy sense of humor during the back half of its run, which was not always to its benefit. Parks’ had carefully balanced its silly streak since Season 2, once it became evident that the Parks department were among the sanest bunch of folks you could find in Pawnee (itself modeled on Springfield). But the craziness of Pawnee led to sometimes inconsistent, or repetitive character work during the show’s later years. “Comeback Kid” has all the main characters leaning into their wackiest traits full force, culminating in a hysterical sequence in which the cast has to shuffle across an ice rink to Gloria Estefan’s “Get on Your Feet.”
Win, Lose, or Draw (Season 4, Episode 22)If one had to pick a single scene from Parks and Recreation to encapsulate why the show was so beloved, it might well have to be Leslie voting for herself in the city council election. Poehler plays the moment with gentle grace as Leslie tearfully fulfills a life-long dream, and the fraction of that overwhelming feeling we get from having watched her the last four years is deeply satisfying on its own. Then, rival candidate Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) stumbles into the booth asking for Leslie’s help, because he broke his pen and now there’s ink everywhere. It’s barely a minute, but the scene captures both Parks’ upbeat silliness, and its earnest belief in what building something with your life can mean.
Leslie does, of course, win the election, and before the celebration can even begin, the next phase of her life poses another fresh batch of obstacles. Ben’s move to D.C. would bring the political aspirations of Parks from a local to a federal level, with Season 5 and 6 bringing in government guest stars of astounding clout. “Win, Lose, or Draw” would also sow the seeds for less successful ventures, like Andy trying to become a cop, or Tom and Ann getting together, which were the kind of throwaway story arcs the show’s fifth and sixth years would have to rely on more heavily as its titular workplace lost more of its employees.
Ann and Chris (Season 6, Episode 13)Among the most improbable feats Parks and Recreation pulled off during its golden years was its ability to effectively service almost every member of the cast each episode. As those years went on, though, it became increasingly clear that the story’s of some of these characters had run their course, or that their role within the show’s ecosystem had been supplanted. That the episodes after “Ann and Chris,” in which Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe left the show, kept Parks going without missing a beat was as good an indicator as any that the cast needed to be trimmed down.
Jim O’Heir and Retta getting bumped up to regulars helped cushion the blow, and gave deserved propers to two of the show’s key supporting players. All the same, “Ann and Chris” makes for a lovely goodbye, one that could easily have doubled as a series finale. By committing to its belief in people growing and changing, Parks forced Leslie to say farewell to her best friend, Ann Perkins. Leslie and Ann’s friendship finds a beautiful grace note in the pair breaking ground on the Pawnee Commons, which Leslie pinkie promised Ann she would create during the show’s very first episode. “Ann and Chris” is a wonderful and sad pause for reflection by Parks, a moment of looking back before the show’s final year would see it looking ahead.
Leslie and Ron (Season 7, Episode 4)As evidenced throughout the entire run of Parks and Recreation (and the previous selection), anytime an episode just featured the names of two characters, it was more than likely a great one. Though not the last episode to use the “_ and _” name template, “Leslie and Ron” was always going to be the most anticipated one. The stark contrast in worldviews between Ron and Leslie was always among the show’s most reliable veins of humor, but also its prime example of how conflicting ideologies don’t need to be a barrier to personal and professional relationships.
“Leslie and Ron” takes characters that once only shared a love of breakfast food, and illustrates how the years spent together have caused the two to be shaped by one another. Even last year, the thought of Ron reaching out to his “work proximity associates” was as absurd as Leslie bailing on a friend, but the time jump between Seasons 6 and 7 allowed “Leslie and Ron” to make a thesis point for the series about the friendships it always valued. Leslie and Ron were always united in the belief that good things in life take hard work, and it takes work to maintain a relationship, whether the other person is a daily part of your life or not. There was no better time for such insight, as Parks and Recreation leaving the air means we’ll have to say goodbye to a show that worked so hard to find the small joys and precious laughter in life’s simple things, like work, friends, and waffles.