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May 8, 2017

‘Parks and Recreation’ goes out on a good, if familiar, note

(NBC)

(NBC)

“Parks and Recreation” will go down in history as one of the all-time great American sitcoms. Never quite a hit with ratings, “Parks and Rec” was a critical darling that managed to retain its quality comedic voice far longer than some of the greatest long-running shows in history.

Its spiritual predecessor, “The Office,” provided seven incredible years of powerful comedic storytelling, but declined in quality to such an extent that the show’s legacy is forever tarnished. “Parks and Recreation,” on the other hand, lasted for only seven seasons, and it managed to keep its characters and situations feeling alive all the way through until its series finale.

Well, it almost did.

The first half of this seventh and final season, while predictable, was highly enjoyable. Most of the storylines were familiar, but who could fault a long-running show like this one for recycling one or two scenarios? In one episode this season, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), the surly intern-turned responsible adult, worries she is becoming too ordinary. She freaks out, telling her husband Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), they are becoming boring grown-ups and are no longer the crazy, impulsive weirdos they used to be. We’ve seen this plot multiple times on “Parks and Rec” over the years, and although it’s slightly tiresome by now, the remarkable, consistently funny writing does allow the show to pull it off again.

Meanwhile, Leslie enlists help from the Parks employees to convince the public to endorse her bid to create a national park in Pawnee, Indiana, instead of letting a corporation named Gryzzl (which might as well be Sweetums, another fictional “Parks and Rec” corporation) take over that land. Over the years, Leslie has had to defend her precious land from encroaching companies time and time again; this is nothing new.

Tom and Donna engage in a “Treat Yo’ Self” day, in which they go out on the town and indulge themselves, buying and doing whatever they want. Dennis Feinstein (the wildly hilarious Jason Mantzoukas from “The League”) shows up to threaten the gang’s beloved JJ’s Diner.

Perhaps the worst example of recycling is the series finale itself, chock-full of scenarios familiar to any committed “Parks” fan. Andy tries to convince April to have kids with him, but she doesn’t want to, once again fearing the responsibility and maturity that come along with motherhood. After a trademark Leslie Knope inspirational speech, April realizes that she can have kids and still be herself, and proceeds to do just that.

Tom Haverford’s (Aziz Ansari) recent business venture, “Tom’s Bistro,” collapses just as his myriad other businesses have, but he finds success with yet another venture, writing a best-selling book entitled “Failure.” If we continued to follow the story of Tom, this writing gig would doubtlessly fall apart pretty quickly, and he would go on to brief success in some other field.

Ron quits his job in the private sector and is convinced by Leslie to throw his values away and return to work in the public sector. Most recognizably, Leslie decides to run for public office yet again, with her husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) as her campaign manager.

Unfortunately, unoriginality was not the show’s sole problem this past season. The most obvious misstep was episode ten, “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show.” Played entirely as an episode of Andy Dwyer’s fictional show-within-a-show, the episode felt like bad NBC web content as opposed to an actual episode of television. “Parks” unconvincingly shoehorned members of the regular cast into the episode, and completely missed the mark on the one emotional beat it was aiming for. It was, very simply, a showcase episode for the newly christened movie star, Chris Pratt.

It is always disappointing when a show is so eager to please its fan base that it leans too heavily on not only nostalgia, but also on overusing reliable character beats and scenarios. It would have been nice to see “Parks” end on a more imaginative note. However, as it was throughout its run, “Parks and Recreation” was a funny show up until the end. Even among the uninspired narrative arcs of the final season and finale, it did manage to produce some powerfully affecting moments.

Ron Swanson’s last canoe ride, the return of Chris (Rob Lowe) and Ann (Rashida Jones) and even the last appearance of the evil Tammy 2 (Megan Mullally) all hold emotional significance for long-time “Parks” fans. Although manipulative, those moments do remind us why we loved “Parks” so much in the first place.

Eli Fine can be reached at elazarfine@umass.edu.

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