News broke today that NBC would be renewing “Parks And Recreation” for a seventh season. It’s a piece of news that’s somewhat surprising: “Parks” has never been high in the ratings, and it’s been perpetually on the chopping block. That has meant that Mike Schur and company have written what amounted to series finales at least three times during the course of the show’s run, only to have to start all over again once picked up for more episodes. This is a good problem for a show to have, but has also pushed the program’s stories along to the point where there really aren’t that many stories left to tell. In particular, last week’s episode suggested that less, not more, episodes in the future might actually be the best thing for the entity as a whole.
To be clear: This isn’t about advocating for the job loss of not only those onscreen but off as well. And while the show isn’t currently operating at its peak, it still usually has one or two strong elements in each installment that still elevate it amongst primetime’s comedy lineup. But it’s incredibly difficult to read Ron Swanson’s speech to Leslie Knope at the end of “New Beginnings” as anything but the beginning of the end of the show. And that’s FINE: the idea that shows should go on forever is a pipe dream at best, and a selfish act at worst. Just because we want something to go on forever doesn’t mean that it should.
In that speech, Ron told Leslie that she should be proud of the way she’s helped Tom, April, and Andy transform from barely-functioning adults into independent, self-motivated adults. It’s a bang-on speech that simultaneously celebrates Leslie’s greatest qualities while simultaneously advancing the case that neither the Parks Department nor “Parks And Recreation” need her around anymore. This isn’t a sad revelation, but a logical one based on both that character’s track record, her time in the City Council, and her character’s recent abrasiveness in the face of the small-minded town. Leslie has bigger and better things to do, so even while Amy Poehler is a gem that any show would be lucky to have, it’s not clear that her presence on the show is actually a benefit at this point. “Parks” has almost completely told the story it needed to tell about Leslie, and keeping her around on a full-time basis actually does all that hard work (on the part of her character as well as “Parks” as a whole) a disservice.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t stories to tell within the world of “Parks,” but I’m not sure they are truly vital to behold. If we understand that Tom, April, and Andy will participate positively in their community in a way that would not have been possible without Leslie’s inspiration, then we don’t necessarily NEED to see them navigate small-town politics once Leslie has moved onto different (not inherently “better”) things. The show has done such a good job demonstrating this truth that proof isn’t actually necessary. It’s understandable why NBC would want to keep the show going, but it’s eerily similar to the same reasons why it kept “The Office” going after Steve Carrell left: “Parks” isn’t a big hit, but it’s a dependable commodity, and so the show trudges along without much need to exist other than the need to produce 21 and a half minutes of comedy between 13 and 22 times a year.
The show no longer “needs” to exist because it’s consistently on-the-verge-of-cancellation forced the show to skip ahead when it might have preferred to keep the foot off the narrative accelerator. I’m pleased that we’re still not waiting for Leslie to win a seat on the City Council, nor still wading through her rough tenure there. But with that storyline over, there’s no way to have her character stay in Pawnee and still be true to the character honed over the past six seasons. Ron identified this problem almost immediately, which meant “Parks” identified this show immediately, which means that a seventh season will either be a Leslie-lite season in order to shine a light on her protégés or will be a season filled with Leslie-as-big-fish-in-a-small-pond storylines in which her overaggressive behavior forces audience members to wonder why they rooted so hard for her in the first place. The former has potential as a series of episodes, but not necessarily the culmination of the story “Parks” has been telling. The latter would just undo the remaining goodwill of fans who will watch the show no matter how many times NBC shuffles it around its schedule.
Certain shows have a built-in shelf life, and “Parks” feels like one of those shows. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a mark of strength rather than weakness. Graham Yost recently announced that the sixth season of “Justified” would be its last, and that is cause for celebration, even though it’s one of my favorite shows on television. TV can sometimes only sustain a certain amount of episodes before it inevitably either repeats itself, contradicts itself, or turns characters into caricatures. (Ron Swanson has veered dangerously into “live-action cartoon” mode over the past two seasons, and it’s more than a little sad to see that happen.) So I understand why NBC wants another season of “Parks,” but I’m curious if those involved with the show want the same thing aside from the guarantee of another year’s salary. The show could have ended on several different plot points, but with “New Beginnings,” it finally started to end the story of “Parks And Recreation”. The plot is what happened. The story is what it means. The story of “Parks” is that of a woman who through sheer force of will, determination, and enthusiasm helped make those around her better workers and better citizens. In that regards, the mission of the show has been accomplished. Taking a final victory lap might be nice, but certainly isn’t needed in order to augment the show’s place in TV history. Just as Leslie needs to let Pawnee go, maybe we should be prepared to let go of “Parks and Recreation”.