The first shot of the first episode of Parks and Recreation, back when it was The Office: Indiana, shows a smiling Leslie Knope introducing herself to a young girl playing with toys in a public park sandbox. In the last shot of the last episode of Parks and Recreation, when it’s now one of the greatest sitcoms of the past 20 years, Leslie is still smiling, gathered with her friends one last time. In the seven seasons and 120-plus episodes in-between, she’s dealt with snoody librarians, bumbling animal control stoners (R.I.P. Harris), and immature Twilight fans, but through it all — okay, except for when Ann left — she’s always kept a smile on her face. And now she’s the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (probably?).
It’s the only way Parks could end, with Leslie excitedly and nervously looking forward, telling Ben, “I’m ready.” The smile-to-smile arc may sound obvious, but it’s not. It’s who she is and has always been, and “One Last Ride” was a glowing reminder of all she’s accomplished, from filling a pit to running the free world. It was a perfect finale for Parks, even if it was an imperfect episode.
From the moment “Moving Up” leapt forward three years in the future, it was clear Parks wouldn’t be satisfied with a slight ending. It wanted to wrap things up with a child-sized cup. True to form, “One Last Ride” didn’t end like creator Michael Schur’s favorite show, Cheers, with the characters yakking in a bar. It was more Six Feet Under, except only one character died, while another faked his death. Every time Leslie touched one of her Pawnee pals (NOTE TO SELF: write a pilot for a Muppet Babies-like series called Pawnee Pals), we saw into the future, where Donna and Joe’s life together is one big treat yo’ self and Craig’s married and Champion’s alive and Ron’s overseeing the great outdoors, which is all he’s wanted this entire time, anyway.
This was a fun idea and a clever framing device, but so much time was spent on the then, with the characters mostly separated, that we didn’t get enough time on the now, when they’re all together. The best episode of the season, and maybe the entire series, was “Leslie & Ron,” which is exactly that. Leslie and Ron trapped in a room, mano a workplace proximity associate. It would’ve been nice for an extended scene in the finale where the gang stopped catching each other up on their lives — skillfully managed exposition, but exposition nonetheless — and began just shooting the sh*t or making a saxophone sound like a fart.
But that’s a minor quibble, and it’s hard to not enjoy an episode of television as absurdly optimistic, fun and sentimental as “One Last Ride.” It flipped the Six Feet Under finale around. It wasn’t about death, it was about life. To paraphrase Leslie, what makes life worth doing is getting to do it with people you love. I came into the last episode of Parks expecting to cry. But like Leslie, I ended up smiling the whole time.