“I just have one question for you,” asks Leslie Knope. ”Are you better off than you were a year ago?”
Leslie’s asking because she thinks she knows the answer. She’s asking because it’s the anniversary of her triumphant defeat of Bobby Newport and her election to the City Council, and she’s very proud of her accomplishments in the year that’s passed. She’s taking the rallying cry of the GOP during the last national election and turning it on its head, assuming a positive answer rather than a negative one.
And why shouldn’t she? We’ve seen what Leslie has accomplished this season. She stopped Sweetums from continuing to fatten the children of Pawnee, she defeated Paunch Burger’s bid to open yet another location and founded a park instead, she cleaned up the Animal Control Department, and much more. Leslie has fought for the well-being of the citizens of Pawnee at every turn, with a positive attitude and her trademark relentless enthusiasm.
But it turns out, Leslie’s idea of what’s good for the citizens of Pawnee is not in line with what a good chunk of those citizens believe.
“Are You Better Off?” was a very different finale for ‘Parks and Recreation’. This wasn’t a triumph like last season’s “Win, Lose, or Draw”, or a comedic tour de force like season 3’s “Li’l Sebastian.” In fact, while “Are You Better Off?” had plenty of funny moments, there was a very real sense of weight that permeated every aspect of the episode.
Pawnee is often compared to Springfield, based on the deep supporting cast of comedic characters that, like ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Parks’ can call on at a moments’ notice. We saw plenty of that here. But the difference is that unlike ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Parks’ asks that the viewer believe to believe that Pawnee is a real city that exists in the real world. It asks you to care that Leslie Knope is running for office, that Councilman Jamm is a creep who is bad for the city, and that what happens in the Parks Department matters to more than just the people in that building.
So in effect, “Are You Better Off?” was ‘Parks’ putting its money where its mouth is. It took many of what the audience believed were episode-specific stories told throughout the season – Leslie shutting down that Paunch Burger, arguing against “child sized” soda, saving the video store that became a porn emporium, etc. – and brought them back, this time from the opposite perspective.
Everyone watching the show roots for Leslie Knope, but this episode was a jarring reminder that the world of ‘Parks’ is not some magical land where just because Leslie wins political battles that means everyone roots for her. Her aggressiveness has made a lot of enemies, and they’ve banded together to remove her from office. The start of next season should be a fascinating inversion of season 4, with Leslie now campaigning to keep the job she has rather than get the job she wants.
The ‘B Story’ involving Andy was similarly serious in subject matter, though quite a bit lighter in tone. During an office retreat to Ron’s cabin, Andy discovers a positive pregnancy test in the garbage, giving him the opportunity to reprise his Burt Macklin character and launch a full-scale investigation (with help from jealous Deputy Ann Perkins!). It was easy enough to guess that Mona Lisa would be the first suspect and probable red herring, and I think most the audience (myself included) believed it would be April who was pregnant. But lo and behold, ‘Parks’ is once again too clever for us, ruling out April at the last minute (she’s going to Veterinary School, yay!) and instead revealing that it’s Ron’s own girlfriend, Diane (Xena!), who is pregnant.
This development makes me giggle with glee like Ron Swanson himself, because Ron + small children = comedy gold. As the man himself says right before he learns about Diane, his goal in life is for everything to remain the same. Now, Ron Swanson’s life is about to change in a very dramatic way.
Finally, Tom’s business has been one of the underrated great development this season, as that character has become far less of a joke and sneakily a symbol of the post-college generation that isn’t quite sure how to start their careers in the current climate. This season’s one big cliffhanger involves who attempted to buy him out, and instead will be opening a competing business across the street. I don’t have any good guesses, but in any case, I’m all for more “Rent-A-Swag” next season.
All-in-all, a very different finale for ‘Parks,’ but one that I deeply appreciated nonetheless. If a comedy asks the audience to take its characters seriously, then the show better do the same. ”Are You Better Off?” is proof that ‘Parks’ feels the same way.