The new season of “Parks and Recreation” (which debuts with back-to-back episodes tonight at 8 & 8:30 on NBC) takes place in the year 2017, and the veteran comedy has a lot of fun with throwaway jokes about what life in the near-future is like, from souped-up tablet computers to the changed state of popular culture. Mostly, though, the fictional presentation of 2017 looks not dissimilar to what I imagine our real version of that year will look like, with one unfortunate exception:
When we get to the year 2017, we won't be lucky enough to have new “Parks and Recreation” episodes to enjoy.
Look, every great show – and though the ratings never reflected it, “Parks and Recreation” was a great comedy, and one that I expect to have a greater reach and impact in death than it ever had in life – comes to an end, and comedies in particular are usually better off saying goodbye before we get sick of them. Amy Poehler was the only famous castmember when the show started, but Chris Pratt is an action movie star, and original co-stars Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman are considerably better-known and more in-demand than they were seven years ago. Everyone's ready to move on to something else, and “Parks” isn't quite what it was at its peak. It can still occasionally provide an episode on par with what it was doing in its third or fourth seasons, but many other recent installments coasted along more on the sheer likability of this wonderful ensemble (which at this point still includes Adam Scott, Jim O'Heir and Retta) than on a sense that there were still huge laughs to be found inside the borders of Pawnee.
But there is knowing intellectually that a comedy is starting to run out of jokes, and then there is emotionally preparing to say goodbye to such a warm-hearted, sweet, lovely comedy that's provided such joy to its audience over the years.
Last month, my friend Linda Holmes was sad to see “Parks” castmembers and writers tweeting about the final day of production. To cheer her up, I sent her a clip of one of my favorite “Parks” scenes, Ron Effing Swanson reacting too enthusiastically to a shoeshine. Linda responded with another Ron clip, and we spent the next hour egging each other on with one hilarious clip after another. Yes, most of them were from the show's earlier years, and they did cheer up Linda (and a lot of people who followed us both on Twitter), but by the end of the contest – after she had conceded defeat by going with the two funniest words of Rob Lowe's career – I was right with her in my realization that I wasn't ready to say goodbye to “Parks and Rec” just yet.
NBC – whose current administration inherited “Parks” and has done everything possible to distance itself from the legacy of low-rated critical darlings like it, “30 Rock” and “Community” – has decided to make that goodbye as speedy as possible. The 13-episode final season will play out over less than two months, with two episodes airing every week until the series finale on February 24. They have no remaining comedies that are compatible with it, and don't want to devote scheduling resources to a low-rated show on its way out the door, which leads to this mid-season burn-off treatment.
But we're still getting a final season, however it's been scheduled, and based on the four episodes I've seen, it should be a very satisfying victory lap for the people and fans of Pawnee.
At the end of last season, “Parks” co-creator Mike Schur looked at how many of the show's major story and character arcs – like Leslie's plan to build a park on the empty lot behind her best friend's house, or Ron becoming a happily married man and father – were drawing to a close, and decided on a crazy gambit. The sixth season finale's concluding scenes jumped the story ahead to 2017, three years into Leslie's tenure as director of a regional office of the National Parks Service, with other characters in new positions – plus brand-new characters, like Jon Hamm as Leslie's incompetent deputy, Ed – and a world of new possibilities.
The time jump doesn't turn “Parks” into a new show (Leslie and Ben's triplets don't appear in a single frame of the first four episodes), nor does it dunk the series in some kind of comic fountain of youth, but it does provide a fresh enough start to get us through 13 more episodes without feeling like we've seen it all too many times before. Characters are in new jobs, or new relationships, and while they remain the same people at their core, the changed circumstances liven things up significantly.
Now that Leslie and Ron are no longer co-workers, for instance, the dynamic between them has changed a lot, and the season's lovely fourth episode is almost entirely devoted to putting Poehler and Offerman in a room together so their alter egos can talk things out. Andy and April get to struggle with growing older and more predictable, much to April's horror, while Tom realizes that fulfilling his dreams of mogul-hood (sort of) isn't satisfying enough. The early episodes bring back several familiar faces – including Lucy (Natalie Morales), Tammy II (Megan Mullally) and Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) – in different contexts that breathe new life into their characters. (Tonight's second episode is the funniest Jamm has been in forever.)
Is “Parks” what it was back in the days of “Flu Season,” “Harvest Festival” and “April and Andy's Fancy Party” – when it was on as extended a hot streak as any sitcom has ever been lucky and good enough to pull off? No. But nor is it a pale shadow of its former self in the way that, say, sister show “The Office” was at many points in its final seasons. The actors are still marvelous, the command of tone still impeccable, and the sense of humor still sharp and silly enough to get by.
Early in the season premiere, Leslie confronts an old enemy and surprisingly decides to thank her, because, “You did and said exactly what I thought you were going to do and say. And that's oddly comforting.”
There is nothing odd about the comfort “Parks and Rec” still provides, even in old age, even if it's only for a few more weeks.
I'll have a lot more to say about the show towards the end of the season (plus my usual episode reviews each week, starting tonight.) But for now, get on your feet and give Leslie Knope and friends one last round of applause before they go.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org