Tuned In

Parks and Recreation Watch: A Little Horse With Grief

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Spoilers for the season finale of Parks and Recreation, below:

Earlier this season, Parks and Recreation followed up the splendid “Harvest Festival” episode with “Camping,” in which Leslie Knope dealt with an unexpected complication of the festival’s success: what was she going to do for a follow up? What if she could never match that success?

Parks and Recreation is not an especially meta sitcom overall, but that was a rare moment that could be seen as a statement about the show itself. “Harvest Festival” was fantastic and the producers must have known it. It also concluded a six-episode arc, with ten episodes left in the season. What if they didn’t have anything in the pipeline to match it?

No one need have worried. “Li’l Sebastian,” the second of two season-ending episodes, showed us that both Leslie and Parks & Rec itself had a hell of a next act in them—enough to raise great expectations for next year.

The last ten episodes of Parks & Rec included some that were in the league of “Harvest Festival” (“Fancy Party”) and others that were just enjoyable, but always perfectly funny. (I’d put “The Bubble,” the first half of the two-parter, in that category, so just for the sake of a manageable workload I’m going to focus on “Sebastian” here.) And this stellar season’s finale was a kind of encore performance of “Harvest,” which like the earlier episode combined slapstick, authentic stakes and a holistic picture of the oddball history and commonalities that bond the folks we’ve come to know in Pawnee.

As I wrote about “Harvest Festival,” the small horse—not a pony! a small horse!—was the perfect Parks & Rec invention, because Li’l Sebastian stood for the things that make Pawnee Pawnee. To an outsider, like Ben, there is nothing special about the local celebrity. To a Pawnee resident, he is the most amazing thing that God ever created, and a reminder of every happy memory and thing they love about their home for the past quarter-century. You had to be there. And this absurd love of something out of all proportion, just because it’s yours, is what makes a hometown a hometown. (I love that, even by the finale, Ben is still viewed with suspicion on this point: “What was that tone?”)

Li’l Sebastian’s sendoff was one of those events, like the festival, that brought out the oddest and the best in the cast of characters. We got to see Chris facing his mortality and Ron struggling with a rare display of emotion (crying, as he has taught is, is acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon). We got to see Andy’s performance with Mouse Rat, which was hilarious, and yet actually kind of awesome and touching. We got a giant fireball, with a great staggering reaction from what I must assume was Nick Offerman’s stunt double (and hilarious cover-up reactions from Amy Poehler and Adam Scott, video above). We got Pawnee, together, to celebrate their small horse and their small town.

We also got the culmination of Leslie’s journey from the overeager nincompoop of Parks and Rec’s early episodes to the still overeager but intuitive and competent public servant—which this time was recognized by the local political community. The issue of her hidden affair with Ben aside, what will be really interesting is how she reconciles her dedication to the parks department with the political ambitions we know she’s held from the beginning of the series.

Without getting overly cute or dramatic, this finale ended a fabulous season—the best thing on TV in 2011 so far—in top form, setting the table for season four (not just with Leslie but, e.g., Tom’s departure and the appearance of the mysterious Tammy I), and giving itself, like Leslie, a challenge: Can you take this thing to the next level? I have no reason to doubt it.

Now the hail of bullets:

* OK, I will permit myself one nitpick: how serious a deal is Leslie and Ben’s office romance, really? That is, I can accept that it’s Chris’ idiosyncratic rule to forbid interoffice romances, that they really are at risk of getting fired and that it’s therefore an obstacle they have to take seriously. But as a scandal for a candidate in a city council or even mayoral race, would a Pawnee voter actually care about it? Is it weighty enough to hang over another season of the show? It seems to me that as long as it didn’t involve an affair, chlamydia and a series of harassing posters on public property, it’s all good. But then I’m from New York City.

* Call me immature, but I loved the pixellation on the portrait of Li’l Sebastian, who as we’ve learned was hung like a much bigger horse.

* “Ben is my boss, technically, and he is terrible… face-wise. And how… how… do I know, frankly, that you’re not sleeping with him? Maybe you are. Maybe you’re trying to throw me off. Hmm. Check and mate! [Pause] This is an outrage! Who do I call!”

* So I focused mainly on the second half-hour, but, oh—the fourth floor! “The last time I was there, I saw someone buy crystal meth out of a vending machine! It’s a bad place!”

* “Eighteen bucks each, forty for the set.”

* The pre-credits sequence was probably the best place to drop the introduction to Jean Ralphio’s Entertainment 7wenty scheme, but the moment of silence, interrupted by the custodian blaring “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” (at least that was the song on my screener), would have been an even better cold open.

* “Half mast is too high. Show some damned respect.”