When Parks and Recreation was originally in development, in the fall of 2008 for its midseason premiere in 2009, it wasn't just dubbed an Office clone because of similarities in style and tone: creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur were explicitly drafted by then-NBC president Ben Silverman to create a spin-off of the network's top comedy. They did not, but because of that expectation, Parks was initially compared unfavorably to its Thursday night companion show, and struggled somewhat in early episodes to find its own comedic voice and identity.
That history is fun to revisit now, as Parks enters its fifth season, because it has so handily surpassed its predecessor in terms of quality and quantity of laughs; as The Office floundered in its first fully Carrel-less season, Parks and Rec had its best year to date, continuing to bounce its characters off of each other in inventive combinations while creating an ambitious season-long arc that generates big (and well-timed, considering what's going on this year) laughs.
As before (see our previous reviews of seasons one, two, and three), the show's primary focus is Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a perky, ambitious, can-do type who serves as deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department for Pawnee, Indiana. The series began as a showcase for Saturday Night Live star Poehler, but quickly widened its scope to one of television's funniest ensembles: Nick Offerman as gruff libertarian (and Leslie's boss) Ron Swanson; wry Aubrey Plaza as his assistant April Ludgate; Chris Pratt as April's gregarious (and none too bright) husband Andy; Aziz Ansari as smooth-talking would-be power broker Tom Haverford; Rob Lowe as upbeat health nut city manager Chris Traeger; Rashida Jones as Leslie's best friend (and Chris's ex) Ann Perkins; Retta as no-nonsense department employee Donna; and Jim O'Heir as the eternally put-upon Jerry.
The primary supporting character of focus in season four, however, is Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), added to the series late in the second year, and half of a "will they or won't they" potential romance with Leslie in season three. Their romance makes complicated the season's other story of interest: Leslie's run for a Pawnee city council seat, which allows the show to engage in some of its most direct (and biting) political satire to date. This kind of thing is easy to do badly, or too specifically, alienating viewers and scoring easy points. To their credit, Parks' talented writing staff send up both current events--most memorably the "birther" movement and Obama's bowling trouble during the 2008 campaign-- and eternal political questions with wit and finesse. And it finds a good target in Leslie's opponent, rich kid Bobby Newport (a wonderfully dense Paul Rudd), who can pretty much stand in for the spectacularly unqualified candidate of your choice.
But the show isn't just for political wonks, and the gift of season four is its ability to tell one long story over the course of the year while making every episode work as a stand-alone. This, again, is where the endlessly funny supporting players become valuable, as major and secondary plotlines are turned over to Tom's wildly unsuccessful "Entertainment 720" company, his memorable "treat yo' self" pampering day with Donna (and Ben), Andy's return to college, Andy and April's Halloween party, April's disastrous shelter pet adoption fair, and Jerry's sad, sad birthday party. And Offerman's Ron Swanson continues to spin comedy gold--particularly via the appearance, early in the season, of "Tammy I" (Patricia Clarkson).
Parks and Rec has been on long enough now that even occasional characters--like "gotcha journalist" Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins), affable TV personality Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), and Tom's sleazy business partner Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz)--have become beloved and reliable sources of amusement, creating in Pawnee something akin to the immense comic community of Springfield on The Simpsons. And guest actors are well-used--aside from the aforementioned Rudd and Clarkson, Megan Mullally (Offerman's real life wife) makes a triumphant return as "Tammy II," as does Louis CK as a former boyfriend of Leslie's, while Katherine Hahn's arc as Newport's big-time campaign manager is an uproarious riff on electoral cynicism.
The 22 season four episodes are spread over four discs, along with Producers Extended Cuts of "End of the World," "Bus Tour," and "Win, Lose, or Draw," and Amy Poehler's Director's Cut of "The Debate."
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen image is crisp, bright, and attractive, nicely saturated and free of any noticeable issues. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is, unsurprisingly, mostly confined to the center dialogue channel, though occasional crowd scenes and campaign rallies make some use of the front and rear surrounds; dialogue is clear and audible throughout.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Parks and Recreation is well-known as one of the most improvisation-heavy shows on television--once scripted versions of all scenes are shot, cast members go on riffs. As a result, episodes tend to have a surplus of Deleted Scenes, which can be accessed either by the episode in the episode menu, or via the "play all" function in the bonus section. Deleted, extended, and alternate scenes are collected in chunks on disc one (30:34 total), disc two (32:06 total), and disc three (32:09 total).
On disc one, Webisodes: Road Trip (8:42 total) is a four-episode series in which April and Andy take a trip to the Grand Canyon. This kind of web-only content usually has the feel of second-tier programming and half-hearted efforts, but these short segments are very funny and feature Pratt and Plaza (and Pohler, with a phoned-in appearance) at their best. "Leslie Tribute Video from Tom" (1:09) shows the full--and funny--bio video for her campaign. Disc two also includes stand-alone versions of materials seen during episodes, this time in the form of several hilarious Campaign Ads (4:41 total). Disc three has a rather uninspired Music Video (4:31) for Leslie's campaign song, "Catch Your Dream."
On disc four the big treat is the "Gag Reel Uncensored" (17:03), which is labeled "extremely offensive" in the opening text, accurately. Introduced by Perd Hapley, it's genuinely funny and enjoyable to watch, and Pratt's closing ad-lib (about Kim Kardaishian) is worth sitting through the entire thing for anyway. "The Swanson Zone" (5:05 total) is a series of Offerman-related featurettes, all of them at least modestly amusing. Same goes for the items that fall under the broad heading of "Odds and Ends": the "Andy's Testimony" outtakes (4:17); "Congratulations Amy" (1:46), a cast video for Pohler's "Power of Comedy Award"; a "New Year's Eve" promo (0:24); a "People's Choice Awards" video(2:11); and the cast's "The Voice" Promo (2:32).
While the lack of cast or crew commentaries is somewhat glaring (I would have loved to have heard Poehler's thoughts on "The Debate," which she both wrote and directed), this is otherwise a solid assortment of fun bonus features.
By its second season, Parks and Recreation had solidified its crackerjack ensemble and become something far more interesting (and far more rewarding) than a mere Office off-shot. As the series continues, it only gets better--the timing gets tighter, the running gags wittier, the moments of sweetness and melancholy well earned. With laughs a-plenty and an enjoyably timely political subtext running throughout, this show's fourth season is its best to date.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.