Parks and Recreation has only been off the air for five years, but it’s already hard not to miss Pawnee and those who lived there. Although it began in a more satirical bent, the show found its footing when it realized it wasn’t a mere clone of The Office. Specifically, it got better once it realized its main hero, Middle American bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), was worthy of affection, not ridicule. The same went for her gaggle of weirdo co-workers, who populated the fictional Indiana town’s eponymous department. Over seven seasons, from 2009 to 2015, Parks and Rec walked a fine line between batty comic invention and good vibes, able to toss off a bizarre one-liner as easily as it could find the space to pluck at the heartstrings.
Predictably, there were a lot of stand-out episodes. Quality control was consistently high for its run, making it an easy show to rewatch (episodes can currently be found on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu). Because of this, it was tough to pick only the 20 best episodes out of a total of 125 for this list, but somehow, we managed.
20. Ron and Diane (Season 5, Episode 9)
The Story: Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) has a new girlfriend, Diane (played by no less than Lucy Lawless), and he takes her to the most Ron shindig imaginable: a woodworking award show that’s honoring him. Alas, lying in wait is his much-feared ex, Tammy II (Megan Mulally).
Why It’s On This List: Every episode featuring a Ron ex is gold, and each one is different. There’s a spectacular showdown, but what makes this one special is that Tammy II is, as it turns out, a red herring. The real beef winds up being not between Diane and Tammy II but Diane and Leslie. The former isn’t cool with how chummy Leslie is with her new man, and the episode questions the nature of their unusual platonic relationship. What’s more, you get to see some of Jerry’s home life when he throws his annual holiday party and doesn’t invite some of his co-workers.
19. The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show (Season 7, Episode 4)
The Story: It’s the final episode of Andy Dwyer’s (Chris Pratt) public access children’s show, as he’s following April (Aubrey Plaza) to D.C. That’s it. That’s the episode.
Why It’s On This List: Parks and Rec had no problem going wacky, but until its final season it never went high-concept à la Community. That changed with its final season — an unusual one, set two years in the future and thus the perfect time to surrender an entire episode over to man-child Andy and his bizarre interpretation of television for actual children. Yes, the gimmick sags here and there, but for sheer outside-the-box chutzpah, it’s a delight.
18. The Treaty (Season 4, Episode 7)
The Story: Leslie and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) have been forced to break-up, but they still have to see each other on the regular. When both get involved in a model U.N., they take out their frustrations in public.
Why It’s On This List: Leslie is maybe at her funniest when her feelings are raw, when that veil of professionalism slips and her emotions run rampant. The same with Ben. They have no interest in not being together, and watching them duke it out over childish things underlines and puts in bold and italics how much they belong together.
17. Moving Up (Season 6, Episodes 21 and 22)
The Story: While on a trip to San Francisco, Leslie is offered a job at the National Parks Department. Elsewhere, Tom’s latest business venture is, actually, both good and a success, the Unity Concert is a hit, and everyone’s lives seems to be going in good places.
Why It’s On This List: Parks and Rec spent much of its run on life support, always ready to be cancelled but somehow persevering. There was every reason to believe its sixth season would be its last, even if few involved wanted that to be the case. The season’s final two episodes have the air of a series finale, and if that were so it would have gone out big, with the Lil Sebastian hologram, the reveal of Duke Silver, and no less than then-First Lady Michelle Obama. Instead, there was one more season, but that didn’t spoil this almost-capper’s bottomless good vibes.
16. Ron and Tammy: Part Two (Season 3, Episode 4)
The Story: it’s the second time we’ve seen Ron’s ex Tammy II, and this is the one where she re-enters his life and this is the one where the two wind up in jail with him wearing cornrows and a kimono.
Why It’s On This List: See #20, or for that matter #7.
15. Win, Lose or Draw (Season 4, Episode 22)
The Story: It’s the culmination of the fourth season’s main story arc, in which Leslie — the person most put on earth to work in small town government, or maybe big time national government — found herself struggling for Pawnee’s city council seat against her opponent: rich kid doofus Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd, who’s somehow at once enraging and endearing). Anyway, she wins.
Why It’s On This List: At least happy endings happen in fiction. Even though Leslie’s win was a foregone conclusion, it was still a huge relief, even back in innocent 2012, when the highly qualified female candidate (with a Hillary Clinton picture in her office) wound up trouncing the unqualified wealth monster running against her. It also speaks to how much the show had changed. In the early days, when Leslie was more of a Michael Scott-esque menace, she probably would have lost. But Parks and Rec learned that it was best to be about good vibes.
14. Media Blitz (Season 3, Episode 5)
The Story: We finally get to learn something about Ben, the super-human state auditor whose appearance, alongside Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger, initially spelled doom for the Parks and Rec department, after reporters dig up his hilariously grim origin story.
Why It’s On This List: One of Parks and Rec’s best strengths is taking characters you thought were one-note, even annoying (most famously, Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer) and finding the lovable goofball underneath. Up to this point, Ben and Chris had been vaguely hissable. Here, Ben gets humanized. We learn why he’s so driven, so exacting, so glum: He’s masking the failure of destroying a town as their overly precocious child mayor. He’s been running from it ever since, but it’s clear, from this episode, that he needn’t run anymore. He’s found his home.
13. 2017 (Season 7, Episode 1)
The Story: The episode may have aired in early 2015, but the show’s seventh season suddenly jumped to the future (or just two years into the future). Leslie has a fancier job, Tom is a successful businessman, April and Andy are domesticated, maybe to a fault, and Jerry/Larry is now called Terry.
Why It’s On This List: Parks and Rec may be laidback and feel-good, but its crunchy vibe only works because it’s paired with a main absurdity. In short, the writing staff knew how to make the most out of a solid, gimmicky premise. The premiere of its final, abbreviated season finds them firing on all cylinders, finding hilarious jokes about life two years in the future. They were so, so, so wrong about what would actually happen in 2017, but that’s a good thing.
12. Leslie and Ben (Season 5, Episode 14)
The Story: Leslie and Ben get married! Finally!
Why It’s On This List: Leslie and Ben had one of TV’s shortest will-they-or-won’t-they? arcs, and — apart from a Season 4 detour in which they had to briefly bust up so she could run for office — they’ve remained one of the medium’s most stable couples. They rarely fight, they only bring out the best in each other, and they are crazy stupid in love, forever. Of course, this being Parks and Rec, their lovely marriage has to endure some kinks, such as Ron cold-cocking the dastardly Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser). But that’s just how Parks and Rec rolls: You need the ridiculous drama, so order can be restored.
11. End of the World (Season 4, Episode 6)
The Story: A local cult, called the Reasonabilists, predict the world will end at day’s end. Unfortunately, people listen to them.
Why It’s On This List: Like “2017,” this is a great gimmick that inspires the writers to go extra-creative. The episode works by separating everyone, sending each on their own misadventure: Andy and April try to finish their bucket lists, Tom tries to throw the perfect apocalypse party, Leslie tries to find Ben before the doomsday clock strikes, etc. It’s fast-paced and wildly inventive, and like the best episodes, it finds the right balance between madcap silliness and non-cloying heart.
10. One Last Ride (Season 7, Episodes 12 & 13)
The Story: It’s the final episode of the final season, and the gang is all departing Pawnee for greener pastures — fates we get to see because the episode follows each character into the future to show how their life turned out.
Why It’s On This List: Including this is a bit unfair to the many other great Parks and Rec episodes, as it was, again, the final episode. It’s also reminiscent of one of the all-time great finales: the closing of Six Feet Under. That insta-classic finale wrapped things up with a five-minute montage that showed how each major character died, not only giving HBO subscribers everywhere an emotional wallop but reminding them of their cosmic insignificance. Parks and Rec embraced the same general idea but spread it over a full hour. Where most episodes were more funny than moving, this one was definitely the reverse. But the show deserved to switch up the mix for its hour-long capper. Hell, even Bill Eichner’s supernaturally angry Craig Middlebrooks gets a touching send-off.
9. The Debate (Season 4, Episode 20)
The Story: After an entire season of build-up, Leslie finally gets to debate Paul Rudd’s Bobby Newport, the dimbulb trust fund man-child who’s running against her in pursuit of the city council seat she’s long dreamed of occupying.
Why It’s On This List: This isn’t only the near-climax of an entire season mostly spent on a batty campaign between a well-qualified woman and a brattish scion. Directed by Poehler, it’s the very embodiment of the show’s cockeyed-yet-utopian view of America. It’s a hilarious watch packed with goodies; a lot of them courtesy of Rudd’s predictably game turn as a sweet but dangerous moron. But it’s the way it all pans out that pushes it into Top 10 status. Here, good prevails over evil, and hard work and decency is rewarded over complacency and cynicism.
8. Jerry’s Retirement (Season 5, Episode 20)
The Story: Jim OHeir’s lowly Jerry — also known throughout the show’s run as Garry, Larry as well as Terry — retires.
Why It’s On This List: For five full seasons, Jerry/Garry/Larry/Terry was the staffer everyone took turns mocking. He was the easy target, the sweet screw-up who could always be counted on for a quick laugh. He took it all in good stride, mostly. Perhaps because work was the only place where he wasn’t unquestionably beloved.
In Jerry’s retirement episode, we got a closer look at his home life and the dynamic between him, his wife (Christie Brinkley), and his doting daughters — people that unquestionably believed him to be a delight. It’s a sharp and delightful contrast from, say, the Season 2 episode “Park Safety, which features that bit where Jerry, mid-slideshow presentation, splits his pants and then farts.
7. Ron and Tammys (Season 4, Episode 2)
The Story: Ron runs afoul of another evil ex (Patricia Clarkson), whose name is Tammy but who shouldn’t be confused with the evil ex also named Tammy (Megan Mullaly) nor Ron’s mother, Tamara (Paula Pell).
Why It’s On This List: Episodes about the mega-libertarian secret softie’s exes always offered new and unimaginable insights into what made Ron Swanson tick. But we give the slight edge to the one with two Tammys (and a Tamara). Here’s where Ron almost entirely gave up being Ron. Parks and Rec was great at episodes where they completely upended firmly established characters, and no character was more firmly established than Ron Swanson. It’s heartbreaking to see him minus his super-’stache, wearing a credibility-subtracting polo shirt, and acting docile instead of stubborn. Of course, it didn’t last, but it was very Parks and Rec that the thing that snapped him back into place was an old-fashioned moonshine-off.
6. Time Capsule (Season 3, Episode 3)
The Story: Leslie thinks it’s a great idea to plant a Pawnee time capsule, but the town’s residents make that difficult, too.
Why It’s On This List: Season 3 was peak Parks and Rec. By this point, the show was firing on all cylinders week after week after week, wielding its specific voice with confidence. But usually, the focus was largely on the main cast, with only cameos from the weirdo residents of Pawnee. Those weirdo residents are all over this episode, however. Some of the best Parks and Recs episodes followed in the footsteps of this one, such as Season 5’s “Article Two” (the one with the Patton Oswalt epic Star Wars filibuster).
5. Sister City (Season 2, Episode 5)
The Story: Pawnee welcomes officials from their sister city, i.e., the fictitious Boraqua, Venezuela, including the joint’s own Parks and Recreation head (Fred Armisen). Their visitors spend the episode pointing out the many ways Pawnee is an inferior cesspool.
Why It’s On This List: As we said, Parks and Rec took a while to find its voice, and this hails from the period before it had. That said, this is the first episode where you could tell it was special. Before this, Parks and Rec was a little sleepy, a little laid-back, goofy but not too out-there. “Sister City” is where it really discovered its gift for rapid-fire, loopy jokes.
4. Harvest Festival (Season 3, Episode 7)
The Story: One of Leslie’s most ambitious dreams — to bring back the old Pawnee tradition of a “Harvest Festival” –actually comes to fruition, though the results are mixed.
Why It’s On This List: If “The Debate” is Parks and Rec at its most utopian then “Harvest Festival” is the show at its most honest. Leslie hopes that rebooting the annual fest will inspire a sense of community in a town sorely divided amongst untold cranks and weirdos. And it does, eventually, after untold chaos and headaches. The town has to turn on her and on each other before they can come together as one. It was also the episode that gave the world Li’l Sebastian (pictured).
3. Flu Season (Season 3, Episode 2)
The Story: Everyone except for Rashida Jones’ Ann gets the flu at the same time.
Why It’s On This List: The typical Parks and Rec episode is a smooth blend of absurdist humor and light sentimentality. We’d argue the show was at its best, though, when it went full tilt boogie wild — namely when the characters lost their minds. Here, everyone’s deliriously, hysterically sick, meaning the wacky one-liners get even more Cubist. It’s also responsible for the sight of Rob Lowe’s super-stud (and supremely health-conscious) Chris Traeger staring into a mirror, sweaty and exhausted, pleading with himself to “Stop. Pooping.” Surely, you’ve seen the GIFs.
2. The Fight (Season 3, Episode 13)
The Story: Leslie and Ann get into their first big fight. More importantly, Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford invents an alcoholic beverage called “Snake Juice.”
Why It’s On This List: If it’s amazing when our Parks and Rec peeps all get sick, it’s even better when they all get drunk. Tom’s booze — “basically rat poison,” as a sober Donna Meagle (Retta) puts it — unlocks bizarre and unexpected sides to each character who drinks it, even Ron, who exclusively imbibes well-aged Scotch. If you had to single out a peak bit out of the whole 125-episode run, you couldn’t do better than the montage of the cast several sheets to the wind.
1. Andy and April’s Fancy Party (Season 3, Episode 9)
The Story: Lovebirds April and Andy hold a dinner party in their mess of a home, and surprise everyone by tying the knot.
Why It’s On This List: Chris Pratt may now be the most famous (or the most ubiquitous) Parks and Rec star, but he lost some resolution when he transferred to big screen blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. It’s a huge relief, then, to learn that his long stint as goofy, endearingly idiotic Andy remains a delight. His hyperactive man-child schtick blended well with Plaza’s deadpan, vaguely sinister mien, and the few times they were front and center in an episode, it was always a wild ride to parts unknown. Here, they steer an episode that excels at both sides of the show’s personality: It’s deeply moving and unimaginably insane. No show could do both so well, and no episode embodied that spirit better.