A review of tonight's “Parks and Recreation” double-header coming up just as soon as I collect my change from your wife…
On the one hand, I'm growing increasingly less at peace with the idea that this show will be over forever a week from tonight. On the other, so much of what's made this final season so great has come from the creative team's knowledge that the end is near. They no longer have to hold anything back, can do big character closure episodes like “Leslie and Ron,” don't have to worry about keeping everyone in stasis in Pawnee, and can try out every last crazy idea they've ever had for this show, because they no longer have to worry about what comes after.
As a result, we got two wonderful and very different episodes of the show tonight. “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” was presented entirely as an episode of the eponymous show-within-the-show (like when “30 Rock” did its “Queen of Jordan” episodes), which still allowed all the regulars(*) to act (mostly) in character, but also gave us alternate credits, Perd Hapley taking us into and out of commercial breaks, and a prolonged farewell salute to both Johnny Karate and Burt Macklin, FBI. “Two Funerals,” meanwhile, finally achieved the show's dream of getting Bill Murray to play Mayor Gunderson – something that could really only work with Gunderson dying – and headed for closure in other ways with Tom proposing to Lucy and Garry becoming interim mayor.
(*) Save Tom, who was absent both last week and in this one, but returned for “Two Funerals.”
I suppose you could have done an all-“Johnny Karate” episode earlier, but the fact that it was Andy's last one made it a special thing, and gave what was otherwise a very goofy stunt episode a real emotional throughline. We got to see April feel guilt over taking Andy away from this, but then we got to see Andy be selfless and wise and good by insisting that she's all he needs to be happy. That story grounded things just enough that all the bigger flights of fancy – the Verizon/Exxon/Chipotle commercial boasting that they're “Proud to be one of America's 8 companies” in 2017, or discovering that Macklin's middle name is Tyrannosaurus (probably because Andy thinks the Tiberius in James T. Kirk also refers to a dinosaur), or seeing John Cena menaced by a tarantula – didn't feel like they were carrying the show to too ridiculous a place. It was a stunt that worked because it was somehow still an episode of “Parks and Rec,” albeit shown through a different lens.
Bill Murray's cameo, meanwhile, was only a very small part of “Two Funerals” but it was a delight. (Can he win an Emmy just for the post-mortem grin on Gunderson's face as Ethel Beavers discusses how the mayor “spent night after night exploring every nook and cranny of my body”?) Mainly, the passing of both the mayor and Ron's barber were used as a springboard for the characters to grapple with the finality of the series as a whole.
Leslie Knope doesn't know she's on a TV show that's about to go away, but she does know that half the gang is about to leave town, and that this particular era in their lives together is coming to a close. Ron Swanson would scoff at the idea that he was a TV character, but he's not so powerful to be able to avoid collapsing in Andy's arms upon learning of Salvatore's death. (Andy, recalling Ron's recent cycle of life wisdom: “Was he killed by a younger, stronger barber?”) And Ben would probably love the idea of being a TV character – even if he'd be disappointed it was on a sitcom, and not as Ser Ben Knightstorm on “Game of Thrones” – but he's mainly focused on the chance to make peace with Ice Town once and for all.
That we wind up with Gerry as the mayor, even just for two months, feels like a fitting ending for the show's most put-upon character. After being dumped on for so long by his co-workers, he gets his real name back and gets to be the adored figurehead of the town he loves, at least for a little while. Though in true Gergich fashion, his attempt to give a big speech – like his attempt to read a heartfelt farewell letter to Andy during “Johnny Karate” – gets interrupted, here by the hot air balloon taking off.
Tom gets his happy ending too, and it's nice to see him find a moment where all his usual glitz and swag isn't appropriate. Lucy's not going to radically transform him – she likes most of what he likes, which is one of the reasons they're a good match – but there's a time and place for Michael Bay-esque adventure, and a time to be a goofball with a plate of pancakes and a deck of cards.
This has been such a great sprint to the finish that when I think about the fact that we only have the hour-long series finale to go (which will air at 10 next week, with “The Voice” as a lead-in), all I can say is a very Jerry-ish, “Aw, geez.”
Some other thoughts:
* Boy, these two episodes brought back a lot of recurring characters, including Sir Edgar (who knighted both Andy and a very giddy Ben), all three Sapersteins, Joan, Perd, Ken Hotate, The Douche, Ethel Beavers, Typhoon, Ted from the jewelry store, Bobby Newport and Eagleton Ron. I would say my favorite of all the cameos was probably Eagleton Ron, not just because it meant it'd be a hell of a night for Sam Elliott (who's still on “Justified”), but because Ron Swanson's hatred of his mystical hippie doppelganger is among our hero's more endearingly vulnerable qualities.
* Leslie asks why Jean-Ralphio is like this. “Pills,” he says. Dr. Saperstein did not do a great job of raising those kids.
* That poor kid in Andy's audience cosplaying as Professsor Smartbrain, who has to endure Ben being dismissed as a boring nerd. I also loved the black and white hard-boiled detective Macklin sequences that somehow still had room for lifeguard poop jokes.
* I sadly did not have time to do a frame-by-frame dissection of the legal disclaimer for the Loose Animal in the Studio segment, but I assume there will be whole Tumblrs devoted to it before the night is through. (And since I initially wrote the review, someone has already tweeted this section of it.)
* Better local ad: Ron running out the clock, or Ken Hotate gleefully trying to take back his money from white people, one quarter at a time?
* Who would have thought that Shia LaBeouf, jewelry designer would be among the show's more prominent running gags about the year 2017? I also enjoyed getting a glimpse of future emoji technology with the Douche busting out a hologram of a man pooping on his way out of Ben's office.
* I would now like all people with multi-part names to incorporate “Karate” into them. Hillary Rodham Karate Clinton. Jonathan Rhys-Karate-Meyers. Gugu Mbatha-Karate-Raw. For that matter, Shia LaKarateBeouf
* TheJohnnyKarateSuperAwesomeMusicalExplosion.com just redirects to the official NBC.com site for the show, but there is indeed a Mouse Rat documentary on there.
* I would like to purchase a version of “Kung Fu Fighting” sung by Retta, with Duke Silver on sax.
* “Parks and Rec” never turned out to be an “Office” spin-off, but I'd like to think of Andy Dwyer and/or Eagleton Ron at some point getting in a game of frisbee golf with Andy Bernard.
Finally, with only a week to go until the series finale, expect a lot of “Parks and Rec” retrospective content here on HitFix over the next few days. I spoke with Jim O'Heir about Garry becoming mayor and the long strange saga of Mr. Gergich, and that interview's up now. Tomorrow, look for the first of a two-part interview with Mike Schur looking back over weird parts of the show's history, both big (figuring out how best to present Leslie) and small (recurring characters like Perd Hapley and Sewage Joe). We've also compiled a list of some of our favorite episodes, Drew McWeeny is working on salutes to a few of the characters he loves most, and there should be one or two special features at the start of next week. This is an all-time great, and we intend to see it off right.
But as for these two, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org