Most Parks and Recreation episodes this season have followed the approach of telling three or four separate, often unrelated stories over the course of half an hour. It’s a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” sort of format, so even if one of the subplots falters – like, say, Chris and Ann trying to record a PSA – the others are there to pick up the slack. “End of the World” also employed this model, but attempted to disguise it by hinting at a shaky thematic link to tie them all together.

“End of the World” sought to answer a simple question: how would the characters react to the world ending tomorrow? Of course, none of the characters actually believed that the world was about to end. The episode cleverly got around that fact by introducing a cult – whose members hilariously referred to themselves as the Reasonablists – that believed the end of the world was to occur at daybreak. So, while none of the characters were predicting an impending apocalypse, they were all given the chance to reflect on what they’d do if the world were ending.

Naturally, Ron didn’t give a damn about the end of the world, and in fact used it as an opportunity to sell overpriced wooden musical instruments to the true believers. Ann and Chris, on the other hand, became more contemplative, pondering questions of death and reincarnation. Tom and Jean-Ralphio decided to throw the best party ever with the last of their Entertainment 720 funds, while April and Andy tried to complete everything feasible on Andy’s bucket list.

Now, all of this was a whole lot of fun, don’t get me wrong. I got a kick out of seeing the insanity at Tom and Jean-Ralphio’s party, the drumline and Jean-Ralphio forgetting that Lucy and Tom had dated being highlights. I also felt as if most of April and Andy’s subplot hit the right combination of funny and sweet, and I especially appreciated seeing April’s enthusiastic side shine through. (Nice callbacks to Burt Macklin and Janet Snakehole, by the way.)

But I’m not quite sure all of this hung together as well as the show would like me to believe, and that’s mainly due to the A-plot, which I haven’t discussed yet. (Talk about burying the lead, eh?) By largely ignoring the fallout of Leslie and Ben’s breakup, at least from Leslie’s side, the show has been building up to a confrontation between the two of them for a while now. Unfortunately, the stuff leading up to that confrontation didn’t work well. It relied too much on stupid, irrational, jealous Leslie, which is probably the worst flavour of Leslie. (Leslie’s ploy to get Ben into her car was excruciatingly dumb and unfunny.) Up until when Ben told Leslie at the gas station that they had to stop hanging out together, there wasn’t a point in this story that I found amusing, nor was there a point where I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, I know exactly what’s going to happen next.”

On its own, a weak subplot is just a weak subplot, but “End of the World” wanted to tie everything together thematically, and just in case you didn’t understand that this episode was about people reflecting on the possible end of the world, Leslie spelled it out for you with big, flashing, neon letters: she flat-out said that if the world were ending tomorrow, she’d want to be with Ben. Automatically, by having Leslie say that, “End of the World” lent itself a kind of gravitas that it hadn’t displayed in the previous twenty minutes. Suddenly, the subplot about Tom and Jean-Ralphio’s party became a story about Tom reconnecting with an old flame. The subplot about Andy’s bucket list became a story about the importance of youthful spontaneity (complete with a montage scored to a pop-rock song, to boot!)

There was nothing about the final couple of minutes of this episode that didn’t feel emotionally manipulative, and that’s not just because I was wondering why April and Andy didn’t simply wait until the weekend to make their trip. The sudden change in message was jarring; this installment of Parks and Recreation started out as a series of vignettes about people reflecting on the end of the world, but by the end, it became a story about big, life-changing moments, or so the show would want me to believe. It’s as if the episode wanted to emphasize the importance of Tom reconnecting with Lucy or Leslie telling Ben that the romantic component of their relationship was over by juxtaposing it with the vastness of the Grand Canyon. It’s a powerful visual image, but it didn’t make Tom and Lucy’s or Leslie and Ben’s moments seem any bigger.

At the end of the episode, I was confused about what I was supposed to take from it all. “End of the World” started out with a clear message: different people react differently to the possibility of the world ending. However, by the end, that message got lost and muddled: thinking about the end of the world can…um…lead to important stuff happening, I guess? Parks and Recreation is generally not a show that employs a thematic heavy hand, so on the rare occasions that it does, the show must be trying to say something important. But “End of the World” didn’t have a clear message, so the implied thematic cohesion just wasn’t there.

Overall, this wasn’t a particularly strong installment of Parks and Recreation, but it had quite a few fun moments, so it’s not as if it signals the end of the world. Pun intended.

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