Parks and Recreation made an inauspicious debut on April 9, 2009 as a potential heir to the throne of NBC’s only big hit comedy at the time, The Office. This was only fitting as the two shows shared a creative team (Michael Schur and Greg Daniels) and a similar mockumentary format. But throughout its seven seasons, Parks and Rec remained the little show that could: underperforming in the ratings (never, in fact, outrating its well-sampled pilot episode) but beloved by critics and loyal viewers. And in retrospect, that seems right. As can often be in the case in the actual government, the best work done on television is dependable, less flashy, and ultimately rewards the long game. Should Leslie Knope and company ever get to see the show that’s ostensibly been made of their own lives, I’m sure they’d be proud. It’s been a wonderful six years and in honor of this week’s series finale, we’re counting down the top ten best Parks and Rec episodes, as chosen by Sara, with our litany of Parks and Recreation fans on the SportsAlcohol.com roster ready to chime in via the comments section.
The Ten Best Parks and Recreation Episodes
10. “Telethon” (season 2, episode 22)
Just as the ensemble of Parks was settling into its rhythm, the cast received a shake-up: Brendanowicz was out and Ben and Chris were in. This episode precedes their arrival and while it could have served as mere place setting, instead it ups the stakes by trapping its characters together where their best and worst qualities will be on full display: an all-night telethon for diabetes. Leslie’s priorities are always a constant battle between friendship and career, and nowhere is that better encapsulated than her dilemma here, as she first convinces Mark to propose to Ann for the ratings then must quickly walk it back when Ann expresses doubts about the relationship. But the episode also used the telethon format to reward its loyal viewers with plentiful callbacks including appearances from Perd Hapley, Sewage Joe, and everyone’s favorite accountant Barney, a Springfield-esque grab-bag of characters the show would continue to build on throughout the years.
All-nighters Leslie Knope-style:
9. “Leslie & Ben” (season 5, episode 14)
Parks has given us several wedding episodes throughout the years and I’m hard-pressed to think of a show currently airing that does them better (case in point: this won’t be the last to make this list). Apparently this episode was originally conceived as a potential series finale, which makes sense, as the central ceremony is largely a vehicle for declaring what Leslie Knope has done for all the characters in attendance. And nobody has benefited more from her friendship than Ben, who entered the series a somewhat irascible outsider and slowly melted into a loveable nerd as he and Leslie grew closer. Though he first appeared at the end of season two, the series had no qualms about putting their soulmate-ship through the gauntlet, and thus the union feels well earned. “I love you and I like you,” Leslie declares, a perfect encapsulation of what a good relationship entails. It’s the time spent together that matters and the same could easily be said for the show itself.
I think those crazy kids are going to make it:
8. “The Debate” (season 4, episode 19)
Leslie’s run for city council in the fourth season was a development that irked some fans, particularly once Paul Rudd was cast as her buffoonish opponent Bobby Newport. With such a high profile guest star, Leslie’s eventual victory seemed like a done deal. But the season used the plotline to explore what drew Leslie to government in the first place, making the case for her impassioned belief in the benefits of public service that comes to its head in “The Debate.” Leslie has gotten flack over the years for being driven to the point of occasional derangement but such dedication is also what makes her so compelling, whether the world is living up to her expectations or failing them miserably. There is both inherent drama and comedy in those situations and “The Debate” has them in spades as Leslie must make her case before voters who have shown little compunction to listen to her. Despite the telegraphed outcome, it’s one of the most thrilling episodes the show has ever done.
And that. Is Roadhouse:
7. Flu Season (season 3, episode 2)
If “The Debate” mined comedy from Leslie Knope’s potential defeat, “Flu Season” was a wildly hilarious demonstration of Leslie firing on all cylinders, her expertise shining through even when consumed by a plague. But it also marked the first point when Ben and Chris, who had only been introduced into the cast three episodes prior, began to fully integrate into the ensemble. While both were introduced as big baddie city managers, Chris had demonstrated little to set himself apart aside from his cheerful outlook on life (and his enthusiastic use of “literally.”) So of course “Flu Season” found a way to undercut this uproariously and endear him to viewers in the process. The threat of Ben and Chris leaving for another city would hang over the next several episodes but they were clearly already starting to feel like part of the Pawnee family.
The immortal Chris Traeger GIF:
6. “Leslie & Ron” (season 7, episode 4)
The most recent seasons of Parks have been a rocky road. The show is at its best when exploring the dynamics of its core characters but distracting new antagonists (I’m looking at you Jamm) and needlessly knotty plot developments saw the focus drift, often at the expense of its best relationships. But the time jump to 2017 at the end of season 6 has completely revitalized the show, and this episode is a classic example of what Parks does right. This late in the game it can be tough for shows to find new layers in its protagonists but by locking Leslie and Ron together for almost the entirety of the episode, it strip mines one of the show’s most vital (and most contentious) friendships and builds it anew. There’s time for both a touching examination of Leslie and Ron’s deteriorated friendship and an extended mangling of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a perfect mix of poignant and goofy that bodes well for the show to stick its landing in the finale.
5. “The Comeback Kid” (season 4, episode 11)
Get on your feet! Stand in the place where you… Two of the best musical cues in sitcom history and they’re in the same episode. Both are meant to herald auspicious new beginnings (for Leslie, her remounted campaign; for Ben, his career in claymation) and both hilariously undercut those intentions at every turn. Though it comes at the midpoint of the season it has the feel of a “getting the gang back together” episode as Leslie has to build her campaign team from scratch, enlisting her fellow parks and rec employees for jobs many of them screw up in ways only they could. In fact, the only one not to pull a Jerry is, unfortunately, Jerry. Leslie’s campaign was the show’s first real attempt at a full-season arc, which made for some fumbling along the way, not unlike Pistol Pete going for a dunk on an ice rink. But when it clicked, it really clicked.
“Look at what I’ve accomplished”:
4. “Ron & Tammy” (season 2, episode 8)
By now the Ron and Tammy saga has become such an ingrained part of the P&R mythos that it’s easy to forget where it all began. Hitting in the first third of season two, the show wasn’t in any danger of getting complacent yet but Hurricane Tammy nonetheless offered a substantial shakeup of these characters by significantly narrowing the scope, documenting the systematic destruction of a single man who had previously seemed untouchable. Playing off the natural spark of real-life married couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly in hilariously subversive ways, it’s Parks and Rec at its most unhinged (sex with Tammy is memorably described as “doing peyote and sneezing, slowly, for six hours”). But it also marked the first real test of Leslie and Ron’s partnership and makes a great case for why the Parks department needed both of them: when one of them can’t give the tough love to get the job done, the other has to step up. It’s a dynamic the series has played with ever since.
“What’s it like to stare into the eye of Satan’s butthole?”:
3. “Fancy Party” (season 3, episode 9)
There are some shows that feel road-mapped down to a T. But what makes an episode like “Fancy Party,” which features the surprise wedding of April and Andy, so unique is that it feels like a discovery made along the way that became destiny. Perhaps Michael Schur and co. always knew about the chemistry Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza had together but as a viewer watching in real time, it was such a delight to see the two fall for one another in a way that felt natural and unplanned. The character work on the show was so strong at this point that everything feels unforced, from broad gross-outs like Ron pulling a tooth out as an elaborate prank to Donna taking Ann under her wing at a singles event, even though she’s acting like Nell, from the movie Nell to throwaway gags like Jean-Ralphio taking his Vince Vaughn toast quotes from Fred Claus. And while it’s in Leslie’s nature to worry about these two crazy kids, because we know we’re in such good hands, we never do.
I think those crazy kids are going to make it (part 2):
2. “Practice Date” (season 2, episode 4)
This was the first great episode of Parks, which spent most of its abbreviated first season finding the right footing. Leslie Knope started out as a proto-Michael Scott type, too bumbling and oblivious to be believably effective. There’s still some elements of that here but the focus of her cluelessness is wisely shifted from her professional life to her personal one as her nerves over a first date with Dave (Louis C.K.) lead Ann to take Leslie on an intentionally horrible practice date to cure her of her concerns, allowing for some ace Amy Poehler improv. It also marked the first episode that began to fill in the other characters of the office as they dig up dirt on one another, including the first appearance of Duke Silver and the expertly delivered revelation that Jerry is adopted. It was here that the show really began to gel into the amiable, good-natured take on civil service that would make it one of the best sitcoms of the decade. The stakes are a little low but the laugh quotient is high as it gets.
1. “The Fight” (season 3, episode 13)
It was the episode that birthed a thousand GIFs. The episode that introduced us to the duo of Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin. The episode that demonstrated the expansiveness of the Parks universe while shaking the foundations of its central relationship: Leslie and Ann. For all the great romances that Parks has thrown us over the years, the friendship between Leslie and Ann was its one true love, the catalyst for the entire show, so it’s only natural that their first fight would be an epic one, the two of them arguing about mature dilemmas such as future careers and relationships in a completely immature way: while totally fucking wasted. It’s the most wall-to-wall hilarious episode the show has ever done. But it’s funny because it all matters. These characters are as important to us as they are to one another. It’s friends, waffles, work, after all. Or waffles, friends, work. Either way, work is third.
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