After three shortened seasons, four full ones, a City Council run, a recall, a harvest festival, a miniature horse funeral and a flash-forward, “Parks and Recreation” is finally done. Originally conceived as a spin-off of “The Office,” “Parks” quickly proved that it was a different brand of comedy than its parent show – one that was nicer and warmer, yes, but also weirder and more particular. Though it ultimately shared with its predecessor a creative inconsistency that resulted in some lackluster later years, “Parks” managed to put out at least some funny, unique episodes in each of its seven years on the air. The following is not purely a list of its 10 best episodes – if we’re being honest, all 10 of those would come from the two-and-a-half season creative high point that starts at the beginning of season two and ends halfway through season four – but it is a list that shows that any time you turned on “Parks,” you had a chance at something special. Here are 10 of those special episodes in chronological order.
Many critics were slow to warm to “Parks” in its abbreviated first season, but I was an early adopter. While some mark season finale “Rock Show” as the show’s first really good half hour, “Boys’ Club” begins defining the show’s foundational relationship between Deputy Parks and Recreation Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). It also establishes Leslie as the ultimate do-gooder, as she overcompensates for her perceived crime of accepting an illegal government gift by emailing an apology to everyone in city government.
Though the A plot is fun enough, “Boys’ Club” really stands out because it’s one of the first episodes to humanize former bum Andy (Chris Pratt). Pratt has been at the center of some hilarious moments throughout the course of the show (three words: network connectivity problems), but the sight of him naked, on crutches and chasing a mischievous neighbor down the street is still a stand out all these years later.
Ron and Tammy (Season Two, Episode Eight)
“Ron and Tammy” marks the first in a series of once-per-season episodes chronicling the exploits of the normally stoic Ron as he deals with the fallout his two crazy (and hated) ex-wives – both named Tammy. Though each one of the episodes are funny, the first one is the best, mostly because it manages to be laugh-out-loud funny without elevating to sight gags and drinking contests that would mark later installments. Most of the humor is in the dialogue, as Ron’s stony hatred of Tammy (Megan Mullally, Offerman’s real-life wife) quickly gives way to a confused, helpless lust.
There is one exception to that talky norm, however: the beginning of the couple’s tryst, which sees them making out passionately in a diner before speeding off to a nearby hotel, clothes flying off before they can reach the door. In “Parks’” chronology, the gross-out laughs served as a shocking new tool in the toolbox, further proof of the show’s comedic versatility.
Sweetums (Season Two, Episode 21)
Ostensibly, one of “Parks and Rec’s” strengths was its workplace setting, in a small-town government office that regularly interacts with the public. The show didn’t always get enough mileage out of this idea as it probably could have, but “Sweetums” is a great example of what “Parks” could do in that environment, while simultaneously taking on the question of government’s role in public health and bolstering the adversarial but respectful relationship between Leslie and Ron. It’s not a bad achievement for a plot so seemingly mundane as the decision of whether or not to allow the city of Pawnee’s monolithic candy company to stock park vending machines.
Besides being a surprisingly respectful and even-handed look at the topic that still manages to elicit chuckles, “Sweetums” stands above many of “Parks’” other public policy episodes for featuring one of the show’s first public forums and for standing as one of the show’s most vocal testaments to Ron’s staunch libertarian views. After bragging to Leslie that he’s going to eat all of his “turf and turf” steak meal because he lives in America, Ron lets rip this all-time great quotable to the camera: “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so. To me, that’s beautiful.”
Soulmates (Season Three, Episode 10)
“Parks and Recreation” Season Three might be my favorite season of television comedy ever. Almost every episode could have made this list. “Why not ‘Media Blitz,’” you ask, “or how about ‘The Fight’?” I could tell you that it’s just a matter or personal preference, or I could point out that this is the episode in which Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) calls forks “food rakes.”
“Soulmates,” in which Leslie tries online dating so she can avoid pining after future husband Ben (Adam Scott), is elevated greatly by Ansari’s best performance in the show’s run. Tom is bursting with perverse energy throughout the episode, ranking the level of boredom he feels for Leslie’s stories and demanding that she treat him to “apps and zerts” while they’re out on the town. If that wasn’t enough, the rest of the characters spend most of the episode engaged in a burger cook-off that results in trips to the preferred grocers of both Ron and Chris (Rob Lowe). Like most of “Parks’” best episodes, the humor is grounded in the characterization, and the reveal that Ron shops at a store called “Food And Stuff” seems less like a revelation and more like something you’d always just assumed.
Coming right on the heels of “Soulmates,” “Jerry’s Painting” reveled in one of “Parks’” stranger plots: department underling and punching bag Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) unknowingly puts Leslie on the canvas as the subject of his painting of a topless Greek goddess. Rather than expressing horrified, Leslie finds the portrayal empowering and is mortified to learn that a local decency group wants the painting destroyed rather than placed in a community art show. So Leslie steals the painting.
Though “Jerry’s Painting” is one of “Parks’”goofier half hours, it also sneakily doubles as another strong public policy episode – this one about the nature of obscenity and the purpose of art. A more damning critique than the amusing mewlings of reactionary “pro-family” agitator Marcia Langman (Darlene Hunt) is one art commissioner’s theory that it might be best to destroy the painting because “it has nipples in it.” Throw in Ron’s speech on the pointlessness of landscape paintings as a medium, and you have an episode for the ages.
Born & Raised (Season Four, Episode Three)
Throughout “Parks’” run, the show frequently attempted to do “ripped from the headlines” storylines with decidedly mixed results. Whenever the writers decided to firmly come down on one side or the other, the episode usually descended into a morass of unfunny preachiness. However, when the message played second-fiddle to the oversized chaos of bringing a national story down to Pawnee’s level, like in “Pawnee Zoo” or “Born & Raised,” the ripped from the headlines approach could result in some of the show’s better half hours.
There are so many funny scenes and gags running through “Born & Raised,” the story of what happens when the Birther movement takes on Leslie’s city council run. However, amidst Andy’s FBI agent impersonation and Jerry’s ultimately pointless quest across Indiana to fact check Leslie’s book, the episode shines most thanks to its best ever spotlight on local TV talk show queen Joan Callamezzo (Mo Williams). Among Pawnee’s quirks, the best one might be the glut of local news outlets, the number of which far outstrips the amount a normal mid-size town would have. Though literally all of them are great, Joan stands above the rest with her unchecked egotism, and her sensationalist reveling in her show’s Gotcha Dancers as she points out flaws in Leslie’s biography are only matched by her drunken come-ons to Tom later in the episode. We never find out exactly what she’s powdering in the restroom, but it doesn’t matter: we know it’s horrifying.
Pawnee Rangers (Season Four, Episode Four)
This list is perhaps a bit heavy with Leslie-Ron centric episodes, but their relationship (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the relationship between Leslie and Ben) lies at the heart of the show. The differences between their respective girl/boy scout analogues might as well be outsized versions of themselves: Leslie’s Goddesses are organized, enthusiastic and fun, while Ron’s Rangers are stoic, preparatory and guided by the shortest handbook in the history of scouting: “Be a man.” The compromise between friends and groups is an example of “Parks” at its friendliest, and the continued heightening of both groups’ opposite philosophies is mirthful to behold.
If the Ranger/Goddess plot is this episode’s steak, however, then most audiences remember “Pawnee Rangers” for its sizzle: Donna (Retta), Tom, Ben and their day on the town, armed only with the mission to “Treat Yo’ Self.” Reveling in Donna’s and Tom’s excesses is fun, but it would run the risk of becoming repetitive if not for one of “Parks’” most enduring images: Ben, who has finally given in to the urge to splurge, crying in release as he happily wears his Batman costume.
Ron and Diane (Season Five, Episode Nine)
Nick Offerman’s performance as Ron Swanson can’t be underestimated, but equally important to the legacy of the “Parks” character that will live longest in the annals of pop culture is the writers’ expert sense of when and how often to employ his numerous charms. “Ron and Diane” features the normally stony parks department director at his giddiest, giggling and grinning as he revels in the arcana of an Illinois woodworking show. Add a strong Leslie subplot, a charming turn by Lucy Lawless as Ron’s lady love and the return of Mullally’s Tammy, and you have an A story that’s crackling with humor and character.
The B story, in which some of the more misanthropic department employees try to gain access to Jerry’s awesome Christmas party – co-hosted by his surprisingly hot wife Gayle (Christie Brinkley) – is good, too, but I’ll bypass that to focus on “Parks’” attention to the insane details of its fictional world. Oftentimes, the biggest laughs on “Parks” come from its world-building specificity, and the corny jokes and reverent in memoriams from the wood show presenters are pitch perfect.
Let’s be honest: Season Six of “Parks” is rough stuff. Leslie spends too much of her time as a grouchy bully, battling straw men designed to make the audience pity her, and the rest of the cast muddles along in a premise that seemed to be going stale. “Anniversaries,” however, manages to create a fun spin on the Leslie-Ben romance while providing some excellent sight gags for Ben and Jerry.
Leslie’s story, in which she tries to woo a crotchety old couple to act nice so she can promote the merger between Pawnee and hated neighbor Eagleton, is fine. On the other hand, Ben’s slow acceptance of the fact that he’ll be spending his romantic wedding anniversary date with Jerry instead of his wife is wonderful in its reluctance, as is the men’s eventual acceptance and even enthusiasm. His reveal to Leslie of what he was planning is sweet, and her anniversary gift to him makes a perfect capper – one of the best endings to any episode in the show’s run.
Leslie and Ron (Season Seven, Episode Four)
Season Seven of “Parks” jumped forward into the future by three years – just long enough to re-energize the show with a new status quo and to make a bunch of silly jokes about life in the near future. The season was a stunning return to form after the relative doldrums of the previous two, with nary a bad episode in sight. For all of its futuristic and situational accoutrements, however, its best episode was a simple, 20-minute conversation between two friends who’d let a lack of communication come between them.
“Leslie and Ron” might be the least funny episode of these 10, but it is the most emotionally resonant. After six seasons of rugged, quiet masculinity, Offerman plumbs new depths by subtly showcasing the rarest of the Swanson emotions: regret. Like many of Season Seven’s resolutions, the episode’s end focuses on compromise and coming together despite key differences. Out of all of “Parks’” emotions and themes over the years, that one might be the most essential.
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