The world first met Pawnee, Indiana’s finest government employees—along with some less effective, yet no less lovable, workers—on April 9, 2009. What followed is one of the best sitcoms of the 21st century. For seven seasons, Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, and their colleagues showed the perils and triumphs of local politics. While we always recommend a full rewatch, if you’re just looking for a reminder why the show is one of the greatest ever, here are 12 essential episodes of Parks and Recreation.
“The Banquet” (S1, E5)
The often maligned six-episode first season hadn’t yet found the heartfelt tone that would soon come to define the series. But season one did show just how funny Parks and Rec could be. And no episode from that batch makes us laugh more than “The Banquet.” It features a blissfully naive Leslie getting a haircut favored by the town’s male politicians. That causes plenty of confusion when she arrives at a big gala with Ann. The episode also has some amazing one-liners, like when Leslie scolds her friend about babying her then-boyfriend Andy. “He’s got three crutches, and one of them is you. And the other two are crutches.”
“Hunting Trip” (S2, E10)
Ron’s yearly government-funded men’s hunting trip gets a whole new crew when Leslie insists that the women of the office, and Tom, come along. What follows is a fantastic day of hunting that is all fun and games until a fired bullet grazes Ron’s head. As weird as it sounds on paper, that’s when things really get funny. (A highlight: Ann and Leslie forcing Ron to throw up after he mixes pain pills with Scotch.) This episode also features a major first step in the budding relationship between April and Andy. It’s an important moment for one of the show’s most important couples. Even if a clueless Andy doesn’t realize it.
‘Telethon” (S2, E22)
Leslie signs the department up for an overnight shift during the 24-hour “Pawnee Cares” telethon. This wouldn’t have been so bad if she didn’t stay up all night making T-shirts for everyone the night before. A series of hysterical problems inevitably arises from her exhaustion. The subpar talent they lined up for their block of programming doesn’t help, either; and Tom makes things much worse by failing to get former Indiana Pacers star Detlef Schrempf to the telethon on time. But all that pales in comparison to Mark’s plan to propose to Ann live on TV. Unbeknownst to him, she is about to break up with him. The only way to stop the impending disaster? Leslie moons the camera. It’s classic Parks and Recreation chaos.
“Flu Season” (S3, E2)
One of the funniest episodes in show history sees City Hall overrun by the flu. It leaves poor Ann running around the hospital, which involves taking care of a jealous April, angry at Ann for kissing Andy. Meanwhile a sick, delusional Leslie ignores Ben’s advice to rest so she can deliver an important speech to local businessmen about the Harvest Festival. (She nails it, of course.) But the episode’s most memorable performance comes from Rob Lowe’s Chris, whose perfect, fat-free body can’t handle being sick. His descent into illness is an all-time great sequence, which includes him looking at the mirror and imploring his body to “Stop. Pooping.”
“The Fight” (S3, E13)
Another of the show’s most hilarious episodes contains maybe it’s single funniest sequence. Many of the department’s issues and burgeoning relationships come to a head at the Snakehole Lounge, where Tom is debuting his new alcoholic concoction, “Snake Juice.” Donna correctly points out it is basically “rat poison” that is making everyone very drunk. That’s followed by a montage of highly inebriated characters barely able to speak to the camera, including “Burt Macklin” and “Janet Snakehole.”
“Li’l Sebastian” (S3, E16)
The stellar third season ends with the sad death of beloved town icon Li’l Sebastian. Leslie honors the tiny horse’s life by organizing a big public vigil; the superb episode features cameos from Megan Mullally’s Tammy, Ben Schwartz’ Jean-Ralphio, and a returning Detlef Schrempf. The event is also a big turning point for Ben and Leslie’s relationship, one that will cause them major problems in the future. But the highlight is Andy’s iconic ode to the best little horse in the world—his classic song “5,000 Candles in the Wind.” Though Ron burning off his facial hair is a close second.
“Pawnee Rangers” (S4, E4)
It’s impossible to overstate how good this episode is. From the title alone you know exactly what you’re in for. All the boys in Ron’s hardcore Pawneee Rangers group defect to Leslie’s Pawnee Goddesses. If that were the only plot, this would be an amazing episode. But it also features Chris dating Jerry’s daughter Milly, and the debut of Tom and Donna’s “Treat Yo’ Self” holiday. It’s “the best day of the year,” until a reluctant and depressed Ben joins. Eventually, he allows himself to enjoy the festivities, which means buying himself a Batman costume. Mark this an impossibly perfect half-hour of television.
“The Comeback Kid” (S4, E11)
Leslie’s plans to kickstart her sagging campaign go terribly wrong thanks to a series of unfortunate events. That includes Ann recruiting local basketball hero and sad sack Pete Disellio, who (initially) refuses to dunk at Leslie’s big event. Eventually the campaign team unites for Leslie’s big public announcement… only to then be thwarted by a red carpet that doesn’t reach the too tiny platform in the middle of an ice rink. All as Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” provides a hilarious soundtrack to the absurd moment. This is also the episode wherein a depressed, out-of-work Ben shows off his claymation short.
“The Debate” (S4, E20)
Parks and Recreation was special because it was full of heart. It featured characters worth caring about because they cared about each other. And the emotional core of the series was Leslie Knope, whose endless enthusiasm came from her genuine belief in the power of government. We believed in her because she believed in making the world a better place. It’s why her otherwise disastrous, hilarious debate with Bobby Newport stands out as one of the show’s most powerful moments. It ends with her moving speech about what it means to love a place and want to take care of it. Our only regret is we never got to vote for Leslie ourselves.
“Ron and Diane” (S5, E9)
Ron’s nomination—not to mention his relationship with Diane—is threatened when Tammy II shows up at the Indiana Fine Woodworking Association Awards. Leslie successfully runs interference for him, which in fact leads to Diane feeling threatened by their friendship. Meanwhile, the rest of the office calls off their “Jerry Dinner” when they realize Jerry’s Christmas party is amazing. It’s a funny, touching episode that gives everyone a chance to shine. Also, Ron’s chair really is impressive, even if we still don’t know which one is his.
“Moving Up” (S6, E21 and 22)
No, we aren’t cheating on our own list so we can sneak in a 13th episode. (Even if that’s technically what we are doing.) The two-part season six finale would have served as an incredible series finale. Ben gets Gryzzl to provide Pawnee free wi-fi after he beats the CEO in a game of The Cones of Dunshire. Tom successfully launches his bistro after some major hiccups. Meanwhile, Leslie meets Michelle Obama and finally accepts a position in the federal government. That’s only after she figures out a way to have her office located in Pawnee. Finally, her Unity Concert brings together the city’s old citizens with their new Eagleton counterparts.
“Leslie and Ron” (S7, E4)
The friendship between Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope is one of the best in television history. It’s also the most significant one on Parks and Recreation. But the final season, with its time jump, shockingly starts with them as fierce enemies. The cause of their years-long enmity remains unknown until their mutual friends lock them in their old Parks and Recreation office. A night of hilarity ensues, along with a moving confession from the normally emotions-adverse Ron. He’s missed his colleagues, and the typically observant Leslie had been too busy to notice. We will never like the idea that they went years without talking, but it was worth it for this episode alone.
All the episodes on this list, and all the ones we didn’t include, have made something clear. Every episode of Parks and Recreation is essential.