'Parks and Recreation' Finale: This One's for the Fans

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This week's two episodes served as triumphant exclamation points at the end of a strong season

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NBC

And then we came to the end. Though NBC packaged the final two episodes of Parks and Recreation as a two-part finale, there's no more continuity between them than any other two consecutive episodes this season—but they are two standout episodes that serve as an ideal capper to a remarkably strong third season of the series.

The first of last night's episodes, "The Bubble," deals with the fallout from Ben and Leslie's kiss at the end of last week's "Road Trip." Ben and Leslie are in "the bubble"—that magical time, at the beginning of any relationship, when everything is "white wine, cuddling, and crazy amounts of History Channel documentaries."

Unfortunately for Leslie and Ben, the bubble has to pop sometime. Leslie is horrified to discover that Ben has a meeting with her mother, the legendarily ball-busting Marlene Griggs-Knope. Marlene—a Pawnee city employee herself—has requested four school buses, and Ben's immediate willingness to provide the funding leads Marlene to dismiss him as spineless.

We haven't seen Marlene since season 2's "Galentine's Day," and though the character has largely faded into the background, she's still clearly a major influence in Leslie's life. Leslie is so eager for her mother's approval that she coaches Ben on a list of Marlene's 100 favorite conversation topics. Unfortunately, Leslie's plan works a little too well; Marlene, impressed by Ben's newfound confidence (and his sudden, unexpected interest in both Andrew Carnegie and Calvin and Hobbes), makes a pass at him.

Meanwhile, the rest of the parks department is forced to deal with new manager Chris' eagerness to improve their performance and morale. Jerry is bumped up to a leadership role; Andy is given a temporary promotion; Tom is required to brave the nightmarish fourth floor archive room ("it's somehow both freezing and humid!"); April roams the office on a wheeled desk; and Ron—never one for public attention—is forced to occupy a circular desk in the center of the office.

In the end, both of the plotlines in "The Bubble" are resolved by compromise. When a frustrated Ben finally levels with Marlene about his relationship with Leslie, she laughs off her attraction to him, and the two quickly agree on a compromise (two buses, for those keeping track at home). And Ron—proving, once again, that he's a much better manager than he lets on—tells Chris that the new roles play to all of his employees' worst qualities. Chris agrees to scale back his "improvements" to the office if Ron will spend another week in the centrally-located swivel chair, and Ron unhappily accepts.

Though "The Bubble" is a fine example of Parks and Recreation at its funniest, the real treat was this week's second episode, "Li'l Sebastian," which serves as a triumphant exclamation point at the end of Parks and Recreation's third season. With a string of guest stars and near-constant references to prior episodes, "Li'l Sebastian" is a love letter to longtime Parks and Recreation fans.

The episode opens with tragic news: Pawnee's favorite miniature horse, Li'l Sebastian, has gone to that great big stable in the sky. As the parks department scrambles to give Li'l Sebastian the best funeral ever, a dizzying amount of plotlines develop: Leslie and Ben struggle to keep their romance under wraps. Tom collaborates with Jean-Ralphio on a multimedia empire called Entertainment 720 ("willing to go around the world twice for your client"). Chris and Ann confront the post-breakup awkwardness they've been avoiding all season. April helps Andy write a song "5,000 times better than 'Candle in the Wind'." And Ron fends off the advances of his vindictive, persistent ex-wife Tammy.

Though every minute of "Li'l Sebastian" is uproariously funny, the real meat comes in the final ten minutes of the episode, which feature enough sudden twists to make M. Night Shyamalan proud. Leslie is approached by a group of people who want her to run for political office, and risks her potential political career and her relationship with Ben by hiding it. Tom quits the parks department to run Entertainment 720 with Jean-Ralphio. Chris faces the fact that he's not immortal—and rediscovers his feelings for Ann Perkins in the process. Andy asks April to become the manager of Mouse Rat. And Ron faces the return of an even more diabolical ex-wife—his first wife Tammy, whose mere presence is enough to make his second wife Tammy run away.

What most intrigues me about the way that Parks and Recreation ended season 3 is how far the show has stretched from its original premise. These characters really do change and grow, and at this point, each of them is beginning to find opportunities outside of the parks department's walls. Of course, the show is called Parks and Recreation, and it's not going to turn into Mayor's Office, Entertainment 720, or Mouse Rat: On Tour (though I'd be thrilled to watch any of those shows).

But things won't stay the same, either. With the major events of the season —the Harvest Festival, April and Andy's wedding, Ben and Leslie's relationship—Parks and Recreation has proven that it's not content to simply spin its wheels. The first episode of Parks and Recreation's third season was called "Go Big or Go Home." This season has more than lived up to that title, offering the funniest, sweetest, most consistent sitcom on television. Here's looking forward to season 4.

Pawnee History:
Mouse Rat's "5,000 Candles in the Wind" has a lyric encouraging Li'l Sebastian to "learn to fly"—one of the two lyrics Andy previously claimed to use in every song he's ever written (the other, incidentally, is, "You deserve to be a champion").

Wise Words from Andy Dwyer:
On positivity: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I read that once, on a can of lemonade, but I like to think that it applies to life."

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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