This column contains spoilers for the series finale of “Parks and Recreation.”
For my column this week, I was going to write about the Oscars. I was planning an impassioned but rational deliberation on why “Boyhood” deserved the Best Picture award more than “Birdman.” I had established an elaborate schema charting the casual misogyny and studied misrepresentation found in “Birdman.” I spent more time than what is healthy Googling Patricia Arquette, and I took copious notes on her much-publicized Best Actress acceptance speech.
Then I watched the “Parks and Recreation” series finale three times in a row, and my priorities changed.
This is not a review of the “Parks” finale or the final season. I can’t even begin to collect my feelings about what has quietly become the best show on television — funny in the familiar, giddy way of being drunk with your best friends and sharply political, but with a warmth running thick and sinewy through every scene and storyline. Reviewing “Parks” would be like sitting down and giving my mom a letter grade on her job as a parent. (Though if I had to do it, Mom, you would get an A- because of that time you told me I might be better off dating gay guys.) But Leslie Knope was one of the most empowering, endearing and timeless characters on television, and while saying goodbye is hard, her sendoff was pretty goddamn magical.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how revolutionary Leslie had become over her seven seasons, because of the goofy awkwardness Poehler infused into the character, her dorky dancing and almost-sexual attraction to mac and cheese pizza, distracting from Leslie’s impressive real mission. She went from being a lowly, slightly sad government employee to a beacon of liberalism, a powerful public figure, a caring friend and balanced mother.
We watched Leslie run for office; we watched her lose. We watched her face sexist coworkers (from Jamm to Councilman Milton to the sex-negative Langmans.) We watched her fight the uphill battle for approval in Pawnee, a place slyly representative of all of conservative America. We watched her find love in her equal Ben Wyatt, kindly (but firmly) reject some weirdos (including Louis C.K. in one of his most cringe-inducing roles yet), have children and make a giant career leap at the same time. Every shade of Leslie blared feminist, a label she didn’t deny (I have a magnet with her quote, “Hoes before bros, uteruses before duderuses, ovaries before brovaries” on my fridge), but that never was her most salient characteristic — her feminism was tightly connected with her pluck, tenacity and kindness.
Leslie and her co-conspirators were some of the most fleshed-out characters on television, especially in comedy, but Poehler skillfully masked Leslie’s complexity in her outright hilarity. It was only after the joke that the depth behind Leslie’s ideology, and her character, coalesced. But don’t get confused: Leslie Knope is one of the strongest and most important characters on TV ever, because of these very shades.
In the last few minutes of the “Parks and Recreation” finale, we get a glimpse into Leslie’s future: She is doing something big, something important, something very public. Is she the next Hillary? Quite possible, given her hairstyle and Poehler’s uncanny past impressions of Clinton. But despite her power, Leslie is still Leslie – warm and supportive and overzealous. “Parks” did the incredible by making us fall in love with a character before her success or political awakening, when she was still a humble government official just trying to build a park. It makes Leslie’s path all the more rewarding, and the ending of the show that much more bittersweet.
Last month, I had a really scary job interview in New York. My flight was leaving at 9 a.m. and the night before, the clock turned 1, and then 2, and still I was awake, mentally going over my resume yet again as I took excessive trips to the bathroom. Finally, I reached under my bed and pulled out my copy of “Yes Please,” Amy Poehler’s autobiography. While there are a lot of encouraging chapters I could have turned to — her triumphant time on Saturday Night Live, her words of advice to young girls or her experiences volunteering in Haiti — I went straight to the chapter on “Parks.”
I needed comfort, and I needed strength, and I needed the knowledge that I could succeed. Amy, through Leslie, has given that to me for seven years, reminding me that other bumbling, waffle-loving Midwestern girls can find success and passion, and that it is OK for me to have high expectations for myself. Just like Leslie so brightly exclaimed in the final words of the episode, she’s ready for whatever happens next. And because of “Parks,” I’m ready too.