If you’re looking to watch 20 great episodes of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, you could simply opt for season 3 in its entirety, plus the first 4 installments of season 4, chased down, obviously, by the remaining 18 episodes of that same season. Granted that comes to a total of 38 episodes, but what is this, a maths test? Everyone knows maths is worthless in real life. (Maths is very important, stay in school.)
Seasons 3 and 4 were Parks and Recreation’s undeniable sweet spot. The dull Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) had left, the brilliant Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe and Adam Scott) had arrived, the adorable Andy and April (Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza) were a couple, and Leslie and Ron (Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman) had reached hero status.
There are moments of greatness dotted elsewhere in the show’s 125 episode history though, as this one never really went off the boil. Even in its lesser episodes (cough, season six), Parks and Recreation had wit and heart to spare. It also signed off with some unexpectedly solid season seven installments.
Join us in celebrating 20 great Parks and Recreation episodes…
Pawnee Zoo (Season 2, Episode 1)
“The thing about youth culture is… I don’t understand it.”
Paul Feig directed the Norm Hiscock-written season 2 premiere in which Leslie Knope becomes an accidental hero of Pawnee’s LGBT community by unwittingly staging a wedding for two male penguins, Tux and Flipper.
“Pawnee Zoo” is a turning point episode for Parks and Recreation. It not only introduces two recurring characters crucial to the show’s satirical side—local TV host Joan Callamezzo and professional bigot Marcia Langman’s Society for Family Stability Foundation—but also erases the going-nowhere Leslie/Brendanawicz romantic pairing and cements Chris Pratt’s status as a regular on the show. April still isn’t quite April and Donna is barely established at this point, but the rest of the building blocks for the series Parks and Recreation would grow into are laid right here.
It also starts with Leslie performing the entire Jazzy Jeff and the French Prince rap “Parents Don’t Understand,” making it unmissable.
Practice Date (Season 2, Episode 4)
“Can I use your bathroom? Are you impressed that I know what it’s called?”
Louie C.K. pops up here in his brief guest stint as cop Dave, one of Leslie’s pre-Ben love interests. He’s not the best thing about it though, that’s Amy Poehler.
Leslie’s pitiable dating history (“One time I rode in a sidecar on a guy’s motorcycle and the side car detached and went down a flight of stairs”) and first-date jitters provide some glorious moments for her character in this Harris Wittels-written, Alex Hardcastle-directed episode. There’s her drunkenness, English accent, and ability to stay roughly as cool on a date as Ben Wyatt does on TV…
All that, plus the introduction of Duke Silver and newscaster Perd Hapley. The B-plot in which the rest of the office tries to dig up scandal dirt on each other is diverting (if lacking in Chris Pratt), but watching Leslie commit numbers one through seven on the list of most embarrassing things she’s ever done is the real draw.
The Camel (Season 2, Episode 10)
“Mmm, that’s a good shoe-shine.”
By this stage in season two, the supporting characters really start to shine. The office ensemble’s first great episode is “The Camel,” a heart-warming story about fun and camaraderie that showcases Tom, Donna, April, and Jerry as much as Leslie. The following episode “The Hunting Trip” is probably on par, but this one pips it for keeping the action in the department.
Controversial City Hall mural The Spirit of Pawnee (depicting your typical act of Pawnee colonial violence—I love those murals) having been vandalized, each department is tasked with designing a replacement. Cue April being weird, Tom experiencing his first emotional response to a work of art, Donna turning Greg Kinnear into Jesus, and everyone being mean to Jerry. In short, a classic.
Ron and Andy’s awkward shoeshine storyline is a fun bonus.
Flu Season (Season 3, Episode 2)
“Leslie, I typed your symptoms into the thing up here and it says you could have network connectivity problems.”
The only thing better than drunk Leslie is sick Leslie wearing a pair of jeans as a scarf. This episode, written by Norm Hiscock and directed by Wendey Stanzier, sees April, Chris, and Leslie each respond to being struck down by the flu in their own way. April is mean to Ann (whose nursing job finally lands her a natural place in an episode), Chris assumes he’s dying, and Leslie refuses to miss a big meeting, despite hallucinating that Ben is Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula.
This one’s full of Parks and Recreation goodness. Andy and Ron bond over meat tornados and sports (“I’m surrounded by a lot of women in this department, and that includes the men”), and Ben is clearly starting to fall for Leslie, a Wonder Woman whose superpower is being awesome at her job. Applause all round.
Time Capsule (Season 3, Episode 3)
“Pawnee: first in friendship, fourth in obesity.”
Just to be clear, I wasn’t paid by season three to include a trio of consecutive episodes in a row (and then a further two consecutive episodes from later in the season, and then a final one, totalling six of its sixteen) on this list. They’re simply that good.
“Time Capsule,” written and directed by co-creator Mike Schur, welcomes Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte as guest star Kelly, a man attempting to convince Leslie to include a copy of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight in the town time capsule. That turns out to be one of the more sensible suggestions, which range from human and cat remains, to a defaced photograph of Tom’s ex, to a copy of Crazy from the Heat: The David Lee Roth Story.
The star turn of “Time Capsule” isn’t the pairing of Andy and Chris, or Tom’s plummet into the heart of Twilight fandom, or Donna’s filthy comments about Robert Pattinson, but the residents of Pawnee themselves in all their bigoted, obsessive glory. Ben calls them “weirdos that care.” which might be the best town slogan yet. It beats “the factory fire capital of America” at any rate.
Ron & Tammy: Part 2 (Season 3, Episode 4)
“I didn’t shave it off. It rubbed off. From friction.”
Megan Mullally’s twisted, hyper-sexual librarian Tammy 2 is always a Parks and Recreation highlight, but this is her shining moment. Back on the scene to mess up Ron’s life, she gets her claws into Nick Offerman’s character (Mullally’s husband in real life, trivia fans), resulting in a sex-binge, quickie wedding, deeply unwise set of hair braids, and a spell in jail.
There’s also more Ben and Leslie goodness in this Emily Kapnek-written episode directed by Tucker Gates, with the introduction of Ben’s much-derided taste for calzones, as well as a heart-warming moment when the Pawnee Chief of Police shows his admiration for Leslie’s stand-up spirit: “Leslie Knope gets as many favors as she needs because she’s the sort of person who uses favors to help other people.” Yes, sir.
Harvest Festival (Season 3, Episode 7)
“Ladies and gentlemen, the world famous Lil Sebastian.”
There’s a lot riding on the success of the revived Pawnee Harvest Festival in the episode of the same name, written by Daniel J. Goor and directed by Dean Holland. If the festival is a success, the Parks Department is funded. If the festival fails, they close down. Despite talk of a Wamapoke curse, a missing miniature horse, and muckraking local media, Leslie and the gang nail it.
And so does this episode, with its romantic plot-lines between Andy and April (“Awesomesauce”) and an increasingly infatuated Ben and Leslie. Chosen for its significance to ongoing story rather than stand-out gags, “Harvest Festival” gets you in the heart. Bonus: Ron Swanson driving a Dotto train.
Andy and April’s Fancy Party (Season 3, Episode 9)
“I guess I kind of really hate most things, but I never seem to really hate you, so I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Is that cool?”
This Katie Dippold-written episode is a beautiful thing. Hinged on the lesson careful planner Leslie learns from Andy and April’s fools-rushing-in approach to love, it’s one of the most emotionally rewarding installments in this warm-hearted sitcom. Set at Andy and April’s impromptu wedding, it’s full of genuinely moving moments. Andy’s wisdom wins the day, with Ben deciding to stay in Pawnee and Leslie deciding to tell him she wants him to stay. As Ron tells Leslie, “You find somebody you like and you roll the dice. That’s all anybody can do.”
The sight of Chris Traeger dancing, the cameo by Jean-Ralphio, and the Mouse Rat performance are all bonuses.
Jerry’s Painting (Season 3, Episode 11)
“Topless Leslie, glued to a horse!”
There’s too much Parks and Recreation goodness in “Jerry’s Painting” to leave it off this list. Ron’s art speech alone merits its inclusion. Written by Norm Hiscock and directed by Dean Holland, it’s a typical story of Leslie going up against Pawnee intolerance, personified in the form of recurring character Marcia Langman. The controversy starts when fine artist Jerry submits a painting of a topless centaur, unwittingly painted to look exactly like Leslie, to the City Hall art exhibition. A public obscenity challenge ensues in which Knope digs in her heels. (Fight Leslie is just about up there with Sick Leslie and Drunk Leslie.)
Meanwhile, Ben inducts April and Andy into the adult world, and we learn that Chris was in a nude production of Cats in college. Extra points for featuring a segment from Perd Hapley’s “Ya Heard With Perd.”
The Fight (Season 3, Episode 13)
“We need to remember what’s important in life. Friends, waffles, and work. Or waffles, friends, work. It doesn’t matter, but work is third.”
Tom Haverford’s entrepreneurship is responsible for some great stories on Parks and Recreation. In this episode, it’s responsible for the entire team getting wasted on new beverage Snake Juice and some of the funniest moments of the entire series. First, there’s Aubrey Plaza role-playing as Janet Snakehole, a wealthy heiress with a terrible secret. Second, there’s more from Chris Pratt as FBI agent Burt Macklin. And third, there’s Nick Offerman dancing in what has to be the most GIF-friendly moment in Parks and Recreation history (see above). Written by Amy Poehler and directed by Randall Einhorn, it’s a stone-cold classic.
Pawnee Rangers (Season 4, Episode 4)
“Do you march to the beat of your own drummer? Did you make the drum yourself?”
Leslie/Ron episodes are Parks and Recreation gems. This one pits Leslie’s pre-teen club the Pawnee Goddesses (a carousel of awards, candy, and puppy parties) against Ron’s no-frills Pawnee Rangers group (“We have one activity planned: not getting killed”). Leslie is fairly obnoxious throughout most of this episode, written by Alan Yang and directed by Charles McDougall, but she eventually sees the error of her ways and makes it up to Ron in one of the pair’s sweetest moments with the creation of a new, hardcore outdoor children’s group: the Swansons.
Meanwhile, Chris starts dating Jerry’s daughter, and Ben, whose nerdiness is well established by this point, is suffering over his split with Leslie, which causes him to rain on Tom and Donna’s annual Treat Yo Self day. Enter: Christian Bale’s Batman suit.
Like season three’s “Eagleton,” in which Leslie gives Ron the surprise party of his life, this one’s worth it for the smile on Nick Offerman’s face alone.
End of the World (Season 4, Episode 6)
“What religion am I? Well, I’m a practicing none-of-your-damn-business.”
An unashamedly soppy montage undercut by a classic moment of Andy Dwyer dumbness closes out this great season four episode, which sees the remnants of Pawnee’s 1970s cult of Zorp await the foretold apocalypse in one of the town’s local parks while Tom and Jean-Ralphio throw the ultimate party.
The world doesn’t end, of course. Although it almost does for Leslie when it looks as though Ben is starting to move on from her. What does end is ridiculously profligate company Entertainment Seven Twenty, which goes out with a bang engineered by “party scientist” Tom Haverford.
Add to that April and Andy’s attempt to tick off every achievable item on Andy’s bucket list and the return of Tom’s “lobster,” Lucy, and the result is an adorable, ridiculous episode, written by co-creator Michael Schur and directed by Dean Holland.
The Trial of Leslie Knope (Season 4, Episode 9)
“Bribing someone to hide a sexcapade? I’m proud to call you a friend.”
The usually beyond-reproach Leslie is under investigation by an Ethics Committee for her illicit relationship with Ben in this Dan Goor and Michael Schur-written episode. That means the whole gang going to bat for Leslie in a courtroom-themed installment with a pay-off better than most movie rom-coms you can name.
Thanks to its City Chambers setting, “The Trial of Leslie Knope” is chock-full of references to Pawnee’s less than progressive past (“any woman caught laughing is a witch”). Rob Lowe also shines as Chris, trapped unhappily between the demands of his role and his personal friendships. All the bee pollen paste in the world isn’t enough to fix him. Most Valuable Player, though, has to go to Helen Slayton-Hughes as court stenographer Ethel Beavers, who plays a key role in Ben and Leslie’s first public declaration of love.
It also marks the beginning of the ongoing Jerry/Garry/Terry gag. Just delightful.
Citizen Knope (Season 4, Episode 10)
“Ron Swanson: any other damn thing you might need.”
As she explains in “Citizen Knope,” a season four episode written by Dave King and directed by Randall Einhorn, Christmas gift-giving is like a sport to Leslie Knope. A sport she has always won, until now.
When the fallout from Leslie’s romance-at-work scandal causes her City Council Campaign Managers to drop her like she’s hot, the Parks team steps up to the plate via the medium of gingerbread and marshmallows. This episode ends with a beautiful scene in which the everyone in the gang offers to run Leslie’s campaign to pay her back the emotional debt for years of thoughtful gift-buying and generally being Leslie Knope.
Meanwhile, there’s the first appearance of the accounting firm who falls in love with Ben, a calzone reference, and a killer sting from Jean-Ralphio, from whom Ben receives some surprisingly wise career advice. It’s a Christmas miracle.
The Comeback Kid (Season 4, Episode 11)
“Get on your feet! Get up and make it happen!”
The pitfalls of having an inexperienced, unskilled campaign team start to show in this Mike Scully-written episode directed by Tucker Gates. An electioneering event for Leslie’s relaunched “comeback” campaign goes badly awry, resulting in one of Parks and Recreation’s funniest scenes ever – Leslie, gang, and three-legged dog Champion trying to walk to her speech platform on an ice-rink to the sounds of Gloria Estefan.
Elsewhere, Ben is having a mild unemployment-related breakdown, which manifests in the production of homemade calzones (what else?) and his stop-motion animation debut.
Additionally, we learn that though she can do many things, Leslie Knope cannot break dance.
The Debate (Season 4, Episode 20)
“I believe that I’ve earned your vote. Bobby Newport believes he can buy it.”
With dumbo rich kid Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd in a brilliant recurring role) edging the polls in the City Council election, Leslie has a chance to get the upper hand on the debating stage. Unfortunately, Pawnee buys into his hapless approach, leaving Leslie perceived as shrill and overpowering. A speech from the heart wins out, though, in a tightly-scripted episode written and directed by Amy Poehler.
“The Debate” has more to offer, from a characteristically laconic Ron Swanson public address (“Hello, you are here because you gave us money. Now we will give you ribs.”), to April and Andy hobnobbing with Leslie’s donors, and the potential highpoint of the series: Andy reenacting the plots to his favorite films to make up for the lack of cable at the donors’ party.
With cameos from Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo, and the fantastic Kathryn Hahn as Newport’s campaign manager, this episode is one of the greats.
Leslie and Ben (Season 5, Episode 14)
If you don’t like crying at television shows, look away now. Leslie and Ben’s wedding episode was co-written by Mike Schur and Alan Yang and directed by Craig Zisk. And it is emotional.
One of those “the gang springs into action” stories, a speed-improvised wedding is pulled together when Ben and Leslie decide not to wait any longer to tie the knot. Cue Ron making rings from Ann’s light fixtures, Ann completing Leslie’s dress using pictures of Hilary Clinton, Donna singing classical (Retta got talent), and most importantly… the return of Ethel Beavers.
The whole thing ends with a singalong (“5,000 Candles in the Wind” by Mouse Rat) and a wedding breakfast (waffles and extra whipped cream from JJ’s Diner, obviously). It’s sweeter than two hundred white chocolate top hats; and for sheer emotional value, couldn’t be missed off this list.
Leslie and Ron (Season 7, Episode 4)
“That’s not the whole story.”
Funny as it is, Parks and Recreation has always been all about the characters’ relationships. In bottle episode “Leslie and Ron,” two favorites are put center stage. Mike Schur wrote this acclaimed season seven installment, which was directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller.
It takes place over one night when Ron and Leslie, who fell out at some point during the time-jump between seasons six and seven, are locked in the office by the others to resolve their differences. After a sprinkler shower, a Billy Joel song, and a confession of vulnerability never seen before from Ron Swanson, they figure things out. It’s essentially a showcase for the brilliance of Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman in these roles and is an all-round stunner.
The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Music Show (Season 7, Episode 10)
“It’s time to karate chop something!”
Making up for the disgraceful (but understandable in light of his exploding Hollywood fame) lack of Chris Pratt in seasons five and six is this episode-long tribute to the character of Andy Dwyer.
This one takes the form of Andy’s last ever episode of his titular children’s musical show, as he and April prepare to leave town. All the surviving regulars pop up, mostly in costume in the form of Carpenter Ron (self-explantory), Professor Smartbrain (Ben), and Old Mailman Barry (Jerry/Garry/Larry/Jerry).
It’s a fun and oddly emotional look back at Andy’s “journey” from pit-living waster, to shoeshine boy, to security detail, to assistant, to children’s entertainer. The high point, obviously, is Ron’s ad-break commercial for his new firm, Very Good Building Company (“Hire Very Good Building Company for your construction needs. Or do not, I am not a beggar”).
One Last Ride (Season 7, Episodes 12 and 13)
If you’ve come this far, it won’t have escaped you that this selection leans towards the more emotional episodes of Parks and Recreation. It’s only appropriate that we end with the two-part series finale “One Last Ride.”
Fittingly written and directed by co-creators Mike Schur and Amy Poehler, it’s a pretty perfect goodbye that gives everyone a happy ending in a characteristically low-key story that involves the gang reuniting to fix an old park swing.
And with that, one of NBC’s best comedies traded its legs for angel wings, took a running leap, and learned to fly. Bye bye, Parks and Recreation. Miss you in the saddest fashion.