I’ve been rewatching bits and pieces of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation recently, mostly to pass the time while I eat breakfast, but also to try and figure out exactly when and where the show changed. Broadly, the show’s defining and greatest years — the second, third, and fourth seasons, which saw Leslie Knope rise from middle management to city council, all while finding the love of her life — are about resilience. The government of Pawnee is almost never able to do all it wants to do, and many of the show’s plots revolve around Knope and her team working to find a kind of compromise that pleases as many people as possible. Indeed, the arc at the beginning of the third season, where the gang oversees the Harvest Festival as a way to boost the town’s economy, is one of the most gratifying because the characters get to do the things they’re clearly born to do.
The fifth season, though, is when the show stops being about resilience and starts being about futility. After joining the city council, Leslie is almost immediately slammed by the greed and gridlock from the other council members, and by the increasingly difficult challenges presented by obstinate members of the town. The show had previously commented on real-world political circuses (Leslie finds out she was born in Eagleton, not Pawnee, leading to comments about birth certificates and places of origin), but by this point the show starts to feel infected by a sense of weariness at the prospect of one character, even a fictional one, fighting battles that can feel all too real to viewers. Leslie’s efforts to combat STDs at a retirement home by distributing condoms is rebuffed by a hyper-Christian husband and wife who are partly afraid of sexual intimacy because the husband is closeted and abstinent. A story about a failing video store becomes a prickly satire of “bailouts” in general. Personal stories get rougher, too: Leslie’s run-ins with Eagletonians, previously played for exasperated laughs, feel crueler as Leslie is openly mocked for being from Pawnee. (Additionally, her earlier fight with an Eagleton leader, played by Parker Posey, was contextualized as being the fallout of a former friendship that had gone south; here, things are just mean for the sake of it.) Leslie and Ben travel to Ben’s hometown, where he was briefly mayor at age 18, only for the entire town to make him the centerpiece of a celebration of his incompetency. One of Leslie’s council rivals, Jamm, actually crashes her impromptu wedding and instigates a fistfight. And the season ends with Leslie inexorably losing traction with the citizens of the town she’s spent years serving, her popularity tanking while other council members remain comfortably entrenched. Half a dozen episodes into the following season, she’ll be recalled from office and returned to her old job. Years of her life, and several seasons of the show’s plot, undone in a few hard twists.
Part of this can probably be chalked up to the show’s age: it’s now aired six seasons and more than 100 episodes, with its seventh and final season (consisting of 13 episodes) arriving midway through the 2014-2015 year. That’s a lot of story to tell, and more than most shows ever even dream of telling. And part of it can be attributed to the fact that this is a highly story-driven show, with multiple interlocking arcs over multiple seasons (the Harvest Festival, Leslie’s courtship of Ben, Leslie’s run for office), each joined by smaller, overlapping arcs (friendships and relationships in the supporting cast). Installing Leslie in office is effectively the moment the show said “It is finished.” But I also think that part of it has to do with the creative staff and showrunner Michael Schur trying to make a softly political comedy in an era of seemingly limitless bitterness and division and squabbling. You want to see Leslie Knope win office? OK, they say: then you will watch her suffer for her dreams. You want to see Ben become the prodigal son? You will watch him be laughed right back out of town. There’s a sadness, a sourness, to much of the fifth and sixth seasons. Leslie’s defeat and return feel like Schur’s own admission of his flagging spirit. In the sixth season finale, Leslie is given a dream job at the federal level and the show itself jumps forward by three years. It almost feels like it was meant to be a series finale in the event the show wasn’t renewed: Leslie riding off into the sunset, energized and recharged once more, crusading the way she’s always done. It’s the kind of Hail Mary that usually signifies an admission that everybody was out of ideas or just tired of the world they’d built, but it wasn’t jarring for the way it skipped through time: rather, it was for the way it attempted to inject a sense of optimism and wonder into a narrative world that had almost forgotten what that looked like. After years in the trenches, it was a surprise to see the sun.