Whenever I start in on a Parks and Recreation re-watch, I’m never sure if I want to just skip over the first season or not. The Office suffers from a similar problem, but in a different way where the key to the show was just scaling back Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and then finding the supporting cast along the way. Parks and Recreation on the other hand, needed to find the best versions of the main cast, and the first season is a show that doesn’t really work despite the comic talent available. Watching those first six episodes, you can see what they originally thought the show would be and then smartly realizing that they needed to play to different strengths.
If you haven’t watched the first season of Parks and Rec in a while, it’s trying to be kind of like The Office but with government. Already, you’ve run into a problem because you have to think of your target and what you want to say. It’s one thing to be cynical about corporate America because it’s a top-down organization. There’s a faceless CEO of Dunder-Mifflin and he doesn’t really care about you, and you can tell because your boss is a buffoon who’s not answerable to his employees or anyone but the higher-ups. The comic tension comes from Michael Scott being able to be a buffoon and his employees have to tolerate it or play along.
That doesn’t quite work in a government setting because government, particularly the local government depicted on Parks and Recreation, is ostensibly for the people. Being cynical about government isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s incredibly easy, and unless you go darkly comic (a la Veep) there’s not a lot of comic grist there because unlike a company you don’t work for, we all know what it’s like when government lets you down. No one had to convince us to understand the cynicism of Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), who was disillusioned by city politics and government bureaucracy. The idea of making Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) a well-intentioned doofus works at cross-purposes of giving the show its own life because you’d tune in every week to be reminded that government, which you’re a part of whether your like it or not, cannot work for you. There’s no way to play that as good-natured, so unless you’re going to be mean-spirited (again, Veep), the show doesn’t work.
This kind of schizophrenic approach is why the comedy of season one struggles to land. None of the characters really work because they all exist within how someone like Mark sees government—as petty and ineffective. The showrunners’ genius move was realizing that he could take these negative qualities and transform them into comic positives. Watching Parks and Recreation, one of the most remarkable things is that every character post-Season 1 is still recognizable, but far more empathetic. You can still buy into them in a way you couldn’t with, for example, Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) suddenly becoming nice and inoffensive just because he went to anger management.
Run through the lead actors and you’ll see that the Parks and Recreation writers were able to seize on what made the characters silly but removed what made them odious. For Leslie, they decided she should be smart and good at her job, and if she’s foolish, it comes more from naiveté and overreach rather than incompetence. Tom’s (Aziz Ansari) self-absorption became a parody of an image-obsessed man his adoration of prestige and wealth. April’s (Aubrey Plaza) aloofness maintained her edge but then turned it more being weird and sardonic rather than apathetic. Ron (Nick Offerman) remained a libertarian, but the writers found they could lean into his self-reliant masculinity as old-fashioned and charming while still installing foibles like his weakness for Tammy 2 (Megan Mullally).
What’s surprising about these transformations is how natural they feel. Again, no one feels like a completely different character in Season 2 than Season 1, but the perspective has changed from one of cynicism towards one of optimism. The show stops being about characters working at cross-purposes and instead about the daily challenges of working in this small governmental department. The show still has room to make fun of local government and the headaches of dealing with citizens and powerful interests, but the conflict becomes external rather than internal. The problem isn’t a bad boss who makes people’s lives harder; it becomes about a great boss who still gets into trouble because she gets the flu or she apprehends the wrong possum.
Both Parks and Recreation and The Office dramatically improved from their first to their second seasons by recognizing what wasn’t working in season one, but Parks‘ evolution feels both grander and more subtle. It’s a change that affects almost the entire cast, and yet the characters still seem rooted in their original conception. Parks and Recreation wouldn’t be as beloved as it is today if it had continued on with the same tone from its first season, but without that first season, the writers wouldn’t have made the necessary tweaks to make Parks and Recreation a beloved sitcom.
For more Parks and Rec goodness, check out our ranking of the show’s 50 best episode.