Season finale review: ‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘Are You Better Off?’

“Parks and Recreation” just concluded its fifth season. I interviewed Mike Schur about the year, and have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as we lose the weight of 100 pregnant manatees…

When I spoke to Schur earlier this year prior to the airing of “Ben and Leslie,”  he talked at length about how he’s approached every finale after season 2 as potentially the last episode of the series. “Are You Better Off?” was conceived at a time when the show’s future was still at least somewhat in doubt  – as opposed to now, when it’s by far the most likely NBC sitcom to be renewed – but it feels different from “L’il Sebastian,” “Win, Lose or Draw” and “Leslie and Ben,” in that the focus is even more on the future than on the past.

We certainly revisit a lot of Leslie’s actions as a city councilwoman from this season, including brief flashbacks to the fight over giant sodas, turning Lot 48 into a Paunch Burger, teaching sex ed to seniors, turning Dennis’ video store into a porn emporium, etc., but it’s less of a victory lap for this season than a set-up for what’s to come in the presumptive season 6, with Kathryn Pinewood and other Leslie Knope enemies (including, of course, Harris and his buddy from Animal Control) leading a campaign to get her recalled.

Similarly, the offer to buy Rent-A-Swag is a culmination of Tom’s story this year, but is also setting up competition from a wealthy, anonymous individual. (My money’s on Dennis Feinstein, if not Diddy himself.) Bert Macklin comes out of retirement to investigate the case of the positive pregnancy test, but Ann and Chris haven’t conceived yet (though appear to be full-on dating now), and is all designed to lead to Andy’s discovery that April will be moving to Bloomington for vet school, and Ron’s that Diane will soon be giving the world what it’s always wanted: Baby Effing Swanson.

And while the trip down memory lane – including Leslie returning to the polluted Pawnee River, which is how the season premiere ended – was fun, the most intriguing parts of the finale were those set-ups for season 6.

Though Leslie hasn’t entirely adjusted to the city council, overall her life has been pretty damn sweet this season. Having her face a recall vote gives her a big new obstacle to fight against – or, if the writers decide to have her lose, an excuse for her to find a different direction for her career. Similarly, giving Tom a deep-pocketed competitor provides him with a new struggle without undoing the maturation process he went through this year.

And to borrow a word from our man the Nipple King, I literally could not be more excited about the idea of Ron Swanson changing diapers, dealing with lack of sleep and getting a brand-new human life to mold. Babies can cause complications on sitcoms, but when there’s a big ensemble like this and Ron’s personal life only comes up a handful of times a season, it’s pretty simple to explore the giant gobs of potential hilarity that would come from Ron with an infant without having it take over the show. I can already picture the nursery furniture in my head, and all of it is much better-crafted than anything my kids slept in.

April getting admitted to vet school in Bloomington is the  fuzzy one of the bunch – even Schur admits he’s not sure where they’re going with it yet, in part because Chris Pratt will be absent for part of the season filming “Guardians of the Galaxy” – but the lead-up to it with the return of Macklin was the finale’s comic highlight. I respected the decision to retire Andy’s alter ego earlier this year, but at least for now the writers have abandoned any pretense of having him mature, and “Macklin, you sonuvabitch” will never not be funny. What made this Macklin story a treat was the decision to make Ann(*) his sidekick, as it lets her be more petulant and goofy than normal while also lending slightly more weight to the investigation than if it had been another Macklin/Snakehole (or Macklin/Hitler) joint.

(*) The way Ann reacts to the first sight of Macklin raises the possibility that this isn’t a character Andy first created to scare Greg Pikitis, but was something he used to do when he and Ann were dating. Enough time has passed since April and Andy got married that it’s fairly safe for the show to do Andy/Ann stories now and then, and when you combine her usual straight man qualities with their romantic history, you get an even higher, funnier level of frustration than when Ben is dealing with Andy.

The downside to Schur and company writing like cancellation could be around any corner is the enormous amount of creative energy the approach consumes, and you could feel the show trying to catch its breath with some of the post-wedding episodes. (On the other hand, this closing stretch of the season also featured outstanding episodes like “Bailout” and “Animal Control.”) The upside is that it forces the writers to constantly move the characters forward and try them in new settings and relationships. I’m assuming this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Leslie Knope, and the seeds laid throughout “Are You Better Off?” makes me very excited to see them flower next season.

Some other thoughts:

* Brandi Maxxxx’s appearance (Dennis on “Our Goo”: “I’ve seen the first 90 seconds”) gives me reason to link to the trailer for the “Porks & Recreation” porn parody. No nudity, but click at your own risk, especially if you ever want to look at Ron the same way again.

* Our first glimpse of Jerry the intern of course involves the gang shouting him down while just makes glutton for punishment Jerry glad he’s back.

* Since proposing web series seems to be a thing I do now, here’s a very easy pitch: “Rob Lowe is ‘The Nipple King’!” A fortune to be made here!

* Besides Dennis Feinstein, who are pre-existing candidates for the backer of Tommy’s Closet?

* Jerry has a timeshare in Muncie. Donna has a condo in Seattle. Donna wins, as usual.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at