Season finale review: ‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘Win, Lose or Draw’

“Parks and Recreation” just wrapped up its fourth season. I interviewed Mike Schur about the election results and various decisions from the year, and I have a season finale review coming up just as soon as Blue Ivy Carter high-fives me…

Perfection isn’t easy. Following perfection is even tougher. There’s a reason why every time a pitcher who just threw a no-hitter is ready for his next start, the guys on “Pardon the Interruption” invoke the name of Johnny Vander Meer, who famously pitched back-to-back no-hitters in 1938: Vander Meer is the only pitcher in the long and illustrious history of Major League Baseball to pull off that feat.

Season 3 of “Parks and Rec” was among the more perfect comedy seasons I’d ever seen, and it was all but inevitable that season 4 would see some fall-off – if for no other reason than that they had to make 22 episodes this year instead of 16. So, yes, there were some story arcs that rarely clicked for me (Ann and Tom in particular), and, no, there was never an insane hot streak like the Harvest Festival arc that opened season 3. But despite its imperfections at different points this year, “Parks and Recreation” remains my favorite comedy on television, and “Win, Lose, or Draw” – among the strongest episodes not only of this season, but of the show’s run to date – illustrated the many reasons why.

First of all, it gave the underdog campaign story its perfect ending, with Leslie narrowly edging out Bobby Newport – and only realizing it because uber-nerd Ben had mastered Pawnee’s election laws and knew he could demand a recount when it appeared Bobby had won by a mere 21 votes. This is something the show has been building towards all season, and something it has made every character invest in. This hasn’t just been Leslie’s dream, but the dream of Ben (who got to exorcise some demons from his Ice Town Clown days) and April (who agreed to take on more grown-up responsibility to help her mentor) and Donna (who sacrificed her beloved Benz to make sure they got those vans for the senior citizens) and Chris (whose future employment/happiness depended on a Leslie win) and everyone else’s. This was a victory for all of them, and regardless of how it shakes up the dynamics of the show (even Schur admitted in the interview that he’s not sure how they’ll balance Leslie’s new job with her old one), it feels like where the show needed to go, whether this turns out to be “the end” or just “to be continued.”(*)

(*) While a bunch of NBC shows got renewal news today, at the time I’m writing this, “Parks” is still in limbo. My assumption is that we’ll get some good news sometime tomorrow – possibly in tandem with sister show “The Office” (which is also not yet technically renewed) – since, as much as I love “Community,” it makes no sense to me that NBC would renew that show (which has lower ratings and is produced by an outside studio) over this one (which does better and is wholly-owned by NBC Universal).

And it wasn’t just that Leslie won – and Amy Poehler’s face as Leslie absorbs the news is among the best pieces of acting she’s ever done on the show – but that beautiful acceptance speech she gives. We start off with Ben’s perfectly well-written remarks, but then Leslie runs out of his words and starts improvising her own and they’re even more eloquent and perfect and moving. That is why all these people went to the mattresses for her, and that is why we watch “Parks and Rec,” on top of it being insanely funny. I watch too many other TV series (including a much-hyped show on this network whose title rhymes with “rash”) who spend a lot of time telling you why certain characters are awesome, then fail to adequately show you. With Leslie, “Parks” shows you, again and again and again. I didn’t think Leslie’s closing statement from “The Debate” could be topped as an emotional moment for her, but I think this one did.

And we got another great emotional coda to the season with a bookend of the scene from the premiere where Ben gave Leslie the “Knope 2012” button, putting her dreams ahead of their relationship. Here, it’s Leslie’s turn, and while her sacrifice isn’t as great – a long-distance relationship isn’t the same as breaking up – the scene still worked.

But even though this is an Amy Poehler vehicle and this was a particularly Leslie-centric season, “Win, Lose or Draw” made plenty of time for everyone else to have their moment. (Even Jean-Ralphio got to make a brief but triumphant appearance at the victory party.)

Chris got to have his mood improved by the “sexual decathlon” he had with Jen Barkley (“There were moments where I didn’t fully understand some of the physical shapes we were making”), even if she ultimately blew him off rather than take the extra 10 seconds to say goodbye on her way out of town. Jerry got to have another reason to feel anxious (and was right to do so, since a drunk Ron ratted him out in the season’s final joke). Ron got to impart his wisdom (and belief that “clear alcohols are for rich women on diets”) to both Ben and Leslie (Ron/Leslie advice scenes are always fantastic) before deciding that he’s happy staying in his current position. (Read the Schur interview for more on that.) Ann got to fake out Ben and Leslie, then drunkenly offer to move in with Tom. (I haven’t been crazy about their relationship on the whole, but when it’s played 100 percent as a joke, it works.) Even Bobby got some great farewell moments, from needing Leslie’s help in the voting booth to expressing relief on TV when he lost. And Donna got to save the day with a few keystrokes when April feared she had deleted the Parks Department’s entire database.

That subplot offered many of the finale’s biggest laughs – I could probably devote a few paragraphs just to analyzing Andy’s list of places to live (which included Winterfell, New Caprica and all the places from the chorus of “Kokomo”) – while also returning to the series’ richest vein of non-Leslie-related emotion in the ridiculous and yet never mocked relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Andy Dwyer. Andy’s a clown and a klutz and not terribly bright, but he’s there for April, and she in turn understands him better than he understands himself. The idea of April trying to make Andy’s Burt Macklin dreams into a reality (even on a local Pawnee PD level, possibly involving the return of Louis CK as Dave) is another promising new direction for the hoped-for season 5.

Excellent season. Great finale. Funny and touching in all the best “Parks and Rec” ways. I will be both mystified and sad if the show doesn’t get renewed, but Schur says he approached this as if it had to function as a series finale. Whether it’s a farewell for just a few months or forever, “Win, Lose or Draw” was, in fact, perfect.

What did everybody else think?