“Parks and Recreation” just said goodbye to Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe, and I have a review of the episode coming up just as soon as I pack you a bag of bras, knives and loose onions…
There have been times when “Parks and Rec” has had to treat the 13th episode of a season as a just-in-case season/series finale. (Mike Schur and I discussed this approach about a year ago at this time.) With season 6, there was never any real uncertainty about the second half of the season, so there’s no attempt to turn “Ann and Chris” into something that could function as an end to the series – other than, perhaps, the final shot of the (digitally-created) Pawnee skyline, which evoked the last shot of “ER.” There’s no closure for Leslie, Ben, Ron, et al the way the show often tried to provide in its other finale-style installments. Instead, the episode is simply the end of an era: a farewell to Leslie and Ben’s respective best friends, and, in a way, to the series that “Parks and Rec” began as.
We often talk about the idea that “Parks” didn’t really become “Parks” until season 2 (or, really, the season 1 finale, “Rock Show”), and that it took the writers a half-dozen episodes to figure out how to dial in Leslie as something other than a female Michael Scott. But watching “Ann and Chris” – which featured a few flashbacks to that long-ago pilot episode – it almost felt as if this wasn’t a case of a TV writing staff finding their way with a character, but of a lonely and intense woman needing a new friend to bring out the best in herself. Beautiful Ann was never the funniest of “Parks” characters, and her role on the show became increasingly nebulous the closer Leslie and Ben grew, but in the beginning she was essential to the series, not only as the woman petitioning to have the pit made into a park, but as the first person in years to look at Leslie Knope from an outsider’s perspective and see the amazing (if at times terrifying) woman that she was.
And perhaps appropriately for the first of the two characters being sent off, “Ann and Chris” wasn’t the funniest episode of the season, but boy oh boy were the emotions of it perfect.
Beyond the pilot flashbacks, the episode played like a tour of Ann’s entire history in Pawnee, including past lovers(*), rivals, friends and more. Andy’s realization that they used to date served as a funny meta-commentary on how much both characters have changed since the start of the series, Tom’s goodbye gift was as sweet as Tom Haverford can get, and the revelation that Ann almost became a Perd-vert during her wild post-Chris dating period was both funny and terrifying. (As are most things related to Perd Hapley at this point.) April trying to take pleasure in Ann’s departure before reluctantly admitting that she loves her, too, was touching without undermining April (who has slowly, if unhappily, warmed to Ann over the years). Leslie and Ann had a final celebration at Lot 48, wearing the helmets they donned when they filled in the pit back in “Kaboom,” Pistol Pete (whom Ann therapized back in “The Comeback Kid”) is among the people involved in the chain of favors needed to get the fence open, creepy Orin is dressed as the Easter Bunny, and as Ann gets in the car to leave Pawnee for good, you can see the stuffed bear from this season’s “Filibuster” in the back seat. It’s a fantastic trip down memory lane, and in some moments – like Ann and Jerry’s shared sobbing over Ron’s very matter-of-fact farewell (in part because this is as much emotion as Ron has ever shown her, in part because he remembered her name) – very funny.
(*) Other than Mark “He Who Must Not Be Named” Brendanawicz, of course. At this point, I think everyone needs to stop expecting Paul Schneider to ever, ever return to the show, or even be mentioned on it.
As someone who arrived on the show later in the run, Chris didn’t get quite as elaborate a send-off, but the show did right by him as well. It’s funny: even though this is the second time he and Ann have been romantically involved, this episode was the first time I truly appreciated the weight of these two sets of best friends pairing off like this, and the ways in which Chris is absolutely the male equivalent of Leslie.(**) He is more exuberant, thoughtful and generous than any of his friends can hope to be, and their guilt over not being able to reciprocate his fantastic memory boxes (themselves another nice tour of the past) winds up being the only gift he needs. Some more excellent individual farewells here, though there wasn’t time for one last mention of Chris’ affair with Jerry’s daughter.
(**) It almost makes me wonder what it would have been like if, before Leslie and Ben started dating, she and Chris fooled around a little. Would the world have exploded from too much combined positive energy?
On the whole, I think “Parks” is probably going to benefit from their departure. As important and/or funny as the two of them have been – and Chris still is responsible for arguably the series’ single funniest joke – the cast is overpopulated at this point, Ben has usurped much of Ann’s function on the show, and there was a very clear strain to keep one or both of Ann and Chris involved in things over this half-season. This will give Ben more to do, Donna more to do, April, Tom, etc., and a significant change like this will hopefully be useful for a show this old.
Still, I’ll miss them both, and “Ann and Chris” was a terrific, moving send-off to them both.
Some other thoughts:
* The closing song is Tom Petty’s very pretty “Wildflowers,” from the album of the same name.
* Despite Mike Schur’s deep and abiding love for “The Wire,” Chris Bauer (Harold from Public Works) is the first “Wire” actor of note to guest star on “Parks.”
* Rob Lowe gets to put his previous work as John F. Kennedy to good use here, as well as do a marvelously spastic dance to “One Headlight.”
* Loved the uncoordinated all-hands-in chant, with April of course crying, “Dark forces arise!”
* Finally, embedded below is a deleted scene from last week’s episode, combining Andy’s new career as a children’s entertainer with Chris Pratt’s gift for summarizing the plot of action movies. I apologize in advance for getting the chorus stuck in your head, but it’s worth it.
What did everybody else think?