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'Parks and Recreation' season premiere review: Toward a better, funnier future shock

Parks Recreation Amy Poehler

(Ben Cohen/NBC)

What do we want from the final season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation? Time with people we have come to love. Chemistries we savor. Optimism we need. One last wander through a vast world that delights with even the smallest quirk. But mostly, we want laughs, generated from a finely honed wit that’s character-driven, pop- and politically-aware, and/or occasionally absurd.

The show’s much-hyped premiere event—two episodes that aired back to back—frustrated that expectation with flawed ideas born from the season’s inspired premise (suggested by last year’s coulda-been-a-series-finale closer): a three-year jump into the future. While far from a fail, the opener wasn’t the giggly good time it should have been, and left me unconvinced the high concept represents the best way to bring this wonderful sitcom to a close.

The year is 2017. Hologram phones and tables are commonplace, Kevin James fronts the Jason Bourne film franchise; the Cubs are finally World Series champs again. Oh, and Shia LeBeouf designs wedding dresses. They ain’t cheap. Pawnee is now a boomtown, thanks to the presence of Google-esque tech giant Gryzzl, and we’re made to wonder if the city is losing some of its spirit in exchange for material flourishing.

Leslie (Amy Poehler), go-go-go amped and idealistic as ever, now works for the National Parks Service as a regional mucky muck—her sexy Thomas Jefferson ads have goosed attendance at Mt. Rushmore—and most of her former colleagues have moved into private enterprise. Tom (Aziz Ansari), leveraging the success of the effortlessly chic Tom’s Bistro, is a burgeoning restaurant mogul. Donna (Retta) is planning a wedding and selling real estate. And Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and his mustache run a very good building and development company called… the Very Good Building and Development Company. He’s also replaced callous, selfish councilman Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser) as Leslie’s archenemy: The former friends—and they were pals, despite their sharp ideological differences—apparently had a falling out in 2015 over an incident they refer to as “Morning Star,” the details of which remain a mystery to us.

The season’s major arc: The wealthy Newport family, owners of Sweetums, are selling 25 square miles of virgin land that Leslie thinks would make a great national park. She sees it as the defining gesture of her Pawnee public service—in other words, her legacy. (No final season can go without a plot that’s a metaphor for the idea of legacy, or the show’s legacy.) But Gryzzl wants a new corporate park campus, and they want Ron to build it. Thus the war for Pawnee’s soul begins.

The first half hour was pilot-y with set-up and orientation, but it had its moments. My favorite came when April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) buy the haunted house owned by a deadpan German creep played by filmmaker Werner Herzog in one of the show’s two killer cameos. (Jon Hamm had the other, doing the funny dummy thing.) The second half hour was solid Parks, but everything that made it swell had nothing to with the time-jump premise. Leslie and Ron teaming up to liberate shared enemy Jamm from a worse foe, Ron’s diabolical ex, Tammy II (Megan Mullaly) was bonkers—and Poehler/Leslie’s impression of Mullaly/Tammy II was sensational. Lonely Tom traveling to Chicago with Andy to find love was poignant and funny. Both stories could’ve been told in a version of the show still set in our present—not its future.

Here’s what bugs me about the 2017 premise. For starters, the writers have let it inspire a big idea that I just hate: Leslie vs. Ron. That they are now true antagonists—not political and personality opposites with deep respect, grace, and affection for each other—just bums me out. Our six-season investment in their growing rapport has been wiped out with a gimmick. Poehler plays it archly fume-y; Offerman is subdued or irritated, as if he, too, is disappointed by this turn of events.

My worry for their friendship is probably exactly what the writers want me to feel. But it’s just not what I want (sorry!), and the bigger problem is that I’m not really worried at all: It’s conflict for conflict’s sake, and phony. The prospect of sitting through a season waiting for their inevitable reconciliation annoys me more than it tantalizes me, especially if the best they can to do to work this contrivance is tell stories that could’ve been told without it.

A better strategy might have been to have them start the season as friends, then blow them up, then bring them back together. Playing the cause of their fracture as a mystery mythology – this “Morning Star” business—is a distraction; denying context for their conflict keeps us from connecting with that conflict. Our Parks and Recreation expert Dan Snierson tells me that there’s a Leslie-and-Ron bottle episode looming; perhaps it will help orient me to the new formulation of their relationship.

In other ways, the writers didn’t let the premise inspire the show enough. Another season of April searching for her life’s calling and passion? Is this really April’s defining idea—to always be questing for the best expression of her true self, no matter when we find her in time? Okay, I guess. But it’s getting dull, and the riffs need to be more inspired. The idea that as a girl, April dreamed of being a mortician, is kinda perfect, but I think the writers squandered it by having her give up on pursuing the dream after a mere walk-through of a funeral home. Why not spend an episode or two watching April’s approach to cadavers dressing, casket selling, grief counseling?

On the whole, Parks and Recreation lightly played the 2017 of it all, which itself produced disappointment. Bits like the hologram tablets and trivia like Kevin James-as-Jason Bourne distracted more than amused. Oh, yeah. It’s 2017. Weird. I got the sense that the writers are afraid of the premise even as they feel they need it to inspire the energy and ideas needed to produce one more season. The operating principal seems to be: The more things change, the more things stay the same—and if they aren’t, they’ll get back there eventually. (See: suddenly conventional April/Andy getting their gonzo groove back; whipped Jamm recovering his prickishness.)

Hopefully, Parks and Recreation will make me warm to its not-yet-electrifying future shock in the coming weeks. The last thing I want from the last season of this gem of a show is to leave me wishing it ended one season earlier.

Season premiere grade (both eps combined): B-