Tonight I’m beginning a new thing on my blog: Pop Culture Sundays, where I’ll be exploring some of my favorite books, movies, bands, and TV shows. We’ll be kicking things off with a look at one of my favorite shows, NBC’s Parks & Recreation, in anticipation of the series premiere on Thursday, September 26.
When Parks & Rec first aired in the middle of The Office’s fifth season, reviews were overwhelmingly negative. It was viewed as nothing more than a weak imitation of The Office, with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) playing a poor man’s Michael Scott. The fact that it was being helmed by Michael Schur (Mose Schrute) and that both shows featured Rashida Jones in supporting roles did not help things.
Many people quit watching before the end of the first season. That was a huge mistake.
For it was during the second season that a quiet miracle began taking place. The characters gelled. Their relationships took root. Deepened. The show found its voice, not in the mundane cynicism of Scranton. This was a show of light. It was quirky and generous and hopeful and warm and hilarious.
And with the arrival of Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) as beleaguered out-of-towners near the end of that season, it not only rivaled The Office. It surpassed it.
Michael Schur and his writing staff have learned from the mistakes of their predecessor. The Office had moments of genius, but nearly all of them took place in the first four seasons. Parks & Rec may not have reached the highs of The Office at its peak, but it has been consistently brilliant for going on four and a half seasons. Each episode must be experienced multiple times in order to fully absorb the richness of the characterization and the depth of the writing.
So, after careful consideration, here are my picks for the ten best episodes of what is currently the best comedy on television.
10. Go Big or Go Home (Season 3 premiere)
Parks & Recreation was on the back bench for the first half of the 2010 TV season, but when it returned in January 2011, it hit the ground running. Observe the perfection of this episode: the careful pacing of the basketball game between Ron Swanson and Andy Dwyer, slowly escalating into chaos. Seeds of romance carefully sown between three sets of couples. And, of course, the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness.
9. Time Capsule (Season 3)
When Leslie proposes a time capsule for life in Pawnee in the 2000s, an over-zealous parent pushes for the inclusion of Twilight. This suggestion meets with opposition from Marcia Langman, an activist and fundamentalist Christian. “There are boys staring deeply into girls’ eyes as they quiver and so forth. There really is a tremendous amount of quivering. It is anti-Christian. It is pro-quivering.”
8. The Fight (Season 3)
Yes, this is the episode where Tom foists his new beverage, “Snake Juice,” on the unsuspecting citizens of Pawnee. That montage showing each of our beloved characters in a state of total inebriation is worth a whole season of late-period Office.
7. Soulmates (Season 3)
Leslie signs up for an online dating service and is horrified when Tom comes up as her perfect match. Ron challenges Chris to a cook-off, leading to an excellent sequence in a health food store where Ron and April take turns throwing away strips of vegetarian bacon. Best of all, Tom gives us a list of abbreviations for the ages:
6. Road Trip (Season 3)
April & Andy’s relationship was one of the show’s best surprises. In the first couple of seasons April was a one-note character: she hated everything. It wasn’t until she started dating lovable goof Andy near the end of the second season that she really became one of the show’s MVPs, someone who carefully masks her respect and even love for her fellow employees beneath a mask of indifference.
In Season 3, after dating for just a few episodes, April & Andy surprised everyone by getting married. And then surprised them again by maintaining a sweet and steady, though dependably silly relationship. This episode, from the end of that season, is a standout. Tom tests out his own version of The Newlywed Game, Know Ya Boo, which leads to friction between the newly married couple when Andy realizes that April likes Neutral Milk Hotel better than she likes his band. The episode ends with April playing guitar for said band while singing Andy’s song, “The Pit,” one of the show’s best recurring gags.
5. L’il Sebastian (Season 3 finale)
When Pawnee’s favorite miniature horse, L’il Sebastian, dies, the whole town goes into mourning. “I’ve cried twice in my life,” says Ron. “The first time was when I was seven and got hit by a bus. The second was when I found out L’il Sebastian was dead.” In honor of his memory, the Parks department throws an extravagant celebration featuring the debut performance of Andy’s song, “5,000 Candles in the Wind.”
4. Ben’s Parents (Season 5)
Leslie & Ben throw a party to celebrate their engagement. The celebration is complicated by the arrival of Ben’s parents and his dad’s new girlfriend. Meanwhile Tom endeavors to persuade Ron to invest in his new business, Rent-a-Swag. You know it’s a great episode when you’ve got Ron, Jean-Ralphio, and Mike Ehrmentraut (he has another name, but come on) fighting over the last piece of bacon-wrapped shrimp.
3. Bus Tour (Season 4)
The climax of Season 4’s campaign storyline, this episode has the Parks department renting a bus on the day before the election. Leslie accidentally insults her rival’s father, who has just died, and crashes his memorial service. Andy, as special agent Bert Macklin, tries to figure out who threw a pie at Leslie (leading to the episode’s best gag, where he sloooowly pies Jerry over and over again).
2. The Comeback Kid (Season 4)
This has my vote for funniest episode of Parks & Recreation. When Leslie’s campaign advisors drop out of the race, she seeks help from her friends in the Parks department. Ann is placed in charge of finding entertainment for the upcoming rally while Ron, April, and Andy (and their new dog) are nearly arrested. It all culminates in spectacular fashion in the most painfully awkward campaign event on television.
1. The End of the World (Season 4)
Hands-down my favorite episode of Parks & Rec, this is the one where a “freaky cult” announces that the world is going to end on May 20. Tom and Jean-Ralphio throw the world’s biggest party while April & Andy try to strike as many items off their bucket list as they can in the few hours before morning.
And it is hilarious—Leslie’s interactions with the followers of Zorp are a series highlight—but “The End of the World” takes a sudden turn in the closing moments that elevates it above just a standout episode of a great comedy. I won’t spoil it here, but something about that final image of April & Andy, where they end up, gets me every time I watch it. There’s something so much bigger than just us and our narrow theologies. But our relationships really do matter. Our lives have significance because of the love we’ve invested.
And because of that, we don’t really need to know the logistics of how it will all play out. In one way or another, all will be well.