Something you don't expect any NBC show that isn't The Voice to be asking: "Are you better off than a year ago?" Leave it to cockeyed optimist Leslie Knope (the sublime Amy Poehler), the hopeful heart and resilient soul of Parks and Recreation, to set herself up for a smackdown in the too-soon season finale (Thursday, 9:31/8:31c), by posing this question at a public forum that she naively sees as a "victory lap" to celebrate her one-year anniversary in office. While Leslie contends with a Pawnee version of Tea Party-style opposition — in this town, more like "sweet tea," with extra sugar in a 512 oz. cup — Andy (Chris Pratt) adopts his bumbling "Burt Macklin, FBI" persona (always a win) to solve a mystery that could change one of his co-worker's life forever. NBC is certainly better off for sticking with this show as it has improved over the seasons to become the network's most reliably enjoyable comedy — even though this already eventful and possibly pivotal episode would have been better off without the subplot involving Tom's "Rent-a-Swag" business and his contentious relationship with Jean-Ralphio's horror-show sister Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate).
Also building toward an unexpectedly sweet, though once again oddly preachy, finish is the next-to-last episode of NBC's Community (8/7c) this season. Abed's belief that the study group was always destined to meet — "like a team of superheroes" — is brought to life in a series of flashbacks of predestination, complete with comic-strip graphics, that cleverly reveal connections between the future Super Friends in such a way that could ultimately render them Frenemies. Who are the villains, and who's the hero who led them all to Greendale, are among the surprises in an episode that skewers the idea of prequels (especially if George Lucas is involved) while also reveling in the glimpses of these oddballs pre-community college.
Without question, the biggest comedy event of the night is a classic sweeps-stunt episode of CBS' mega-hit The Big Bang Theory (8/7c), in which the legendary Bob Newhart guests as a childhood hero of Sheldon and Leonard: former kiddie-show TV host "Professor Proton." Here's a first look at the episode, and by happy coincidence, Newhart leads our list of most memorable TV finales, published in this week's "Finale Preview" issue of TV Guide Magazine.
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THURSDAY NIGHT DRAMA: Seriously, isn't it time for Elena to snap out of it and start acting human-ish again? The Salvatore brothers sure think so, and in this week's episode of The CW's The Vampire Diaries (8/7c), they go to extremes to try to make it happen. ... Just look at this partial guest list for CBS' thrilling Person of Interest (9:01/8:01c): Carrie Preston, Amy Acker, Sarah Shahi, John Nolan. The story sounds pretty cool as well, as a virus disables The Machine while Detective Carter finds herself on the deadly radar of the corrupt HR organization. ... And look who's back on CBS' Elementary: Vinnie Jones as "M.," aka Sebastian Moran, the hit man formerly in Moriarty's employ. ... White Collar's Hilarie Burton checks in to ABC's Grey's Anatomy (9/8c) as a new craniofacial specialist. That's the good news. On the down beat: a dejected Bailey is still shutting out her colleagues, and paternal urges continue to plague Owen, who's worried that little Ethan (who just lost his mom, and his dad's in a coma) could end up in foster care. ... "Your tongue is very feisty," says the ghoulish title character of NBC's Hannibal (10:01/9:01c) as he welcomes an especially smarmy shrink (Raul Esparza) to dinner — with tongue as the main course. "It's nice to have an old friend for dinner," Lecter purrs, creeping us out even more than the serial-killer-of-the-week played by Eddie Izzard.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: Combining last week's and this week's vote totals, one of the Top 4 girls will be eliminated on Fox's American Idol (8/7c). While they await the news, Season 7 winner David Cook will perform. ... It's a Stevie Wonder renaissance. Having performed live on Dancing With the Stars recently, he's now the focus of Fox's Glee (9/8c), when New Directions tackles his classic songlist. Guest-star alert: Katey Sagal plays Artie's mom. And in New York, Rachel is busy getting ready for her Funny Girl callback. How much longer until a star is born (keeping with the Streisand theme)? ... MTV continues to bleed the turnip, spinning off Jersey Shore's Vinny Guadagnino into The Show With Vinny (10/9c), a talk show set inside his Staten Island home, where his family provides some Italian hospitality and food in between sound bites. ... In the same spirit of soul-numbing self-absorption, MTV premieres the scripted (it only looks like fake reality) comedy series Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous (10:30/9:30c), starring Bo Burnham as a newly graduated teen who opts out of higher education, hiring a camera crew to follow him around in hopes of becoming a viral sensation. I'd make some joke here about fame not being that easy to achieve, but that does seem to be MTV's primary reason to exist any more.