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TV Review | ‘Parks and Recreation’ bids farewell to cast favorites

Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 06:02

As Parks and Recreation goes on hiatus for the month of February to accommodate the 2014 Winter Olympics, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her fellow Pawneans bid farewell to two central characters as Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) drive off to seek unwedded baby bliss in Michigan.

The episode, appropriately titled “Ann and Chris,” brings Leslie and Ann’s friendship full circle: as a farewell gesture, Leslie wants to break ground — at last — on the park that first brought the two women together in the pilot episode. Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and the other Parks Department men hunt for a gift for Chris that is worthy of a man of such heart and effervescence. Along the way, the audience is treated to flashbacks and references to some of the finest moments of Ann and Chris’s time in Pawnee — including Ann and Leslie’s first meeting, Chris and Ron’s burger cook-off and the magical-but-now-definitely-illegal Snake Juice, Tom Haverford’s (Aziz Ansari) infamous concoction from local nightclub, the Snakehole Lounge.

In fact, the entire episode plays as a bit of a highlights reel, complete with welcome reappearances from fan-favorite recurring characters Orin (Eric Isenhower) and Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson). Nonetheless, this episode certainly was not the comedy’s strongest offering this season. It did not move any plot arcs forward in a significant fashion — the gift-for-Chris plot in particular felt contrived to deliver a specific conclusion. To be fair, however, goodbye episodes often exist in a bubble in which plot development is somewhat irrelevant. The characters and the audience receive much-needed closure — which they get in the especially poignant goodbyes between Ann and Leslie and Chris and Ben.

Of course, the departure of Jones and Lowe also opens up a lot of space within the cast. Jones, notably, often played the straight man to the otherwise eccentric personalities on the show. The comedy’s challenge moving forward will be to fill the gaps left by departing characters without sacrificing the goofy, earnest tone and camaraderie which has been the heart of the show. Earlier this season, in “Doppelgangers” (2013), we were introduced to crazy and passionate Eagletonian Craig (Billy Eichner), Donna Meagle’s (Retta) counterpart and a new employee in the department. The question remains as to whether Craig and other recurring characters, like Ron’s (Nick Offerman) wife Diane (Lucy Lawless), will be bumped up to being regulars. Showrunner Michael Schur might also opt to give more airtime to the criminally underused Donna. 

Major shifts on the show this season — Ben’s promotion to city manager, Leslie’s removal from office, the departure of Ann and Chris — had some viewers wondering whether the show’s writers were working to tie up storylines and whether this season — the show’s sixth — would be its last. Recent statements from NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, however, all but guarantee a renewal. It seems that NBC — much like the devoted audience — has faith in showrunners to adjust the cast accordingly and continue to allow the Pawnee universe to grow in new, mysterious ways. After all, the “Parks” creative team has already pulled off the near impossible in maintaining the show’s momentum even after its central couples were happily paired off.

Whereas many sitcoms stagnate long before their sixth season, “Parks and Rec” has maintained its allure largely by remaining dedicated to its strong characters. This season in particular has allowed for considerable growth: Ron, the epitome of an individualist, gets married in the season’s premiere, “London” (2013), and Tom finally gets a likeable love interest, guest star Tatiana Maslany of “Orphan Black” (2013-present) fame. Even Leslie has managed to mend some fences with the dastardly Eagletonians. Yet “Parks” never lets the characters’ natural growth impede the comedy’s essential hallmarks with which viewers were originally enamored. Ron is still disgusted to learn that his doppelganger is a vegan, Ben still copes with unemployment by taking up some strange and wonderfully nerdy hobby and Leslie still delivers a Wendy Davis-inspired filibuster like nobody else.

The episode thus ends on a hopeful note — as the tearful characters come together to watch their friends depart. In spite of this loss and future challenges, not much has truly changed — in the words of the inimitable Ron, “There has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food.”

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