During the first season of “The Office” there is a moment where a character is forced to admit that she had a hysterectomy. It’s not a funny moment at all. Instead, it seeks to remind the audience that these are real human beings with trauma and history behind the chuckles. It is a moment that in large part defined that show for me. Greg Daniels pseudo-spin off “Parks and Recreation” has no such subtlety on its mind.
Whereas the Steve Carell lead ensemble of “The Office” is anchored in humanity and a certain sense of pain, “Parks and Recreation” is a show about characters who tilt at windmills and remain optimistic and oblivious to their obvious shortcomings. More after the jump:
At the center of the show is Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a decidedly quixotic public servant who at 34 has finally become head of a subcommittee tasked with turning a gaping hole in the ground into a local park. A job which, from her perspective, is the first step on her road to the white house. Along her quest Knope faces many stumbling blocks; a libertarian boss (Nick Offerman) who would prefer privatized parks ala Chuck E. Cheese, an insubordinate co-worker (Aziz Ansari) who is all too happy to abuse his powers, a lady’s man (Paul Schneider) with whom she once had a one night stand, and a town full of people who will argue that anything, even a new park, is somehow a bad idea. None of these obstacles are as destructive as Knope’s own self delusions which force her into absurd situations like a filibuster of her own town hall meeting.
This is not a show for everyone. The characters are less immediately likeable than those on “The Office” and no one character stands out like Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute on the aforementioned show. Too, they remain more cartoonish throughout the entire first season, beginning to arc only during the last two episodes. Still, there is an amiable chemistry between the players and a loose, improvisational vibe to the episodes that feels fresh in spite of the fact that the show is a sorta-spinoff of a remake.
The show is very watchable. I breezed through all 6 half-hours in just two sittings but easily could have done it in one. As with “Arrested Development” each episode of the show tells a piece of a continuing story. I suppose that the serialized nature may be frustrating to some, but as a guy who only watches TV shows on season DVDs I see this as a plus.
“Parks and Recreation” is obviously still a work in progess. While it successfully differentiates itself in style and content from other single camera sitcoms by allowing the characters to constantly interact with the camera, the writers appear to be having some difficulty discerning exactly what some of the characters are supposed to be in the show. Ansari coasts on his hipster charm but never really does anything. More problematically, I found myself confusing Rashanda Jones and Aubrey Plaza’s characters during the first few episodes. Plaza has limited screen time and almost no characterization. I honestly thought she and Jones were the same person in some scenes, possibly due to their similar line readings and haircuts but mostly due to the fact that all the nuance of Plaza’s character can be summed up pretty fully in the word “disaffected”. Neither Ansari nor Plaza seems to be an organic part of the plot. Rather, they seem like tacked on elements, broad attempts to appeal to more demographics, as if simply having that hip Indian dude from Human Giant will somehow make young people watch this show regularly. Presumably season two will find some misadventures for these two secondary characters and it will likely be a better show once this happens.
Still, by the end of the first season I did find myself caring about what happened next to the characters, and to me, that is the sign of a good television show. I know that most people will probably not have the same reaction, but I found myself laughing at “Parks and Recreation” more regularly and loudly than I do at “The Office.” The slightly absurd stylings play to my sensibilities more than the awkwardness of Carell’s Michael Scott and the complete absence of a 4th wall is rather ingenious. If the second season continues with the sense of banal whimsy that buoyed the first while managing to improve upon some of the less developed characters “Parks and Recreation” might become a show for which I am actually willing to turn on my TV.
Additionally the disc features a commentary track on each episode with various members of the cast and writing stuff. Obviously there are some pretty funny people on these and the riffing is occasionally laugh worthy. It’s a nice touch, but realistically, I don’t know that the audience for DVD commentaries on TV comedies is that large.
Finally, the disc has a selection of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes for all six episodes. As with most DVDs with extensive deleted scenes it is a mixed bag; some of them are hysterical, others are just weird. Most often it is pretty clear why the scene was cut, but it’s fun to watch some of the improv work.
“Parks and Recreation” is a swell little show that is still figuring out exactly what it wants to be. Fans of “The Office” will likely enjoy the program but most will likely consider it as a weak little sister. All the same, I found that I rather enjoyed it and am considering actually using my TV set to watch a broadcast, something I haven’t done since Election Day.
The show: B+
The DVD: B