The comment is made with sincerity, completely unaware of its inexplicably bad taste. It's a line and a character that very few performers could convincingly pull off. Thankfully for Parks and Recreation, it has Amy Poehler--and that brings me to a pop quiz about the lovable Ms. Knope (remember, the "K" is silent), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. Let's see if you can guess which of the following quotes applies to the centerpiece of NBC's latest mocumentary:
Oh, I can't fool you! They're all talking about persistent Leslie, an eager political beaver with a cheery disposition--yet often prone to delusions of grandeur and extravagant bouts of hyperbole. She's full of optimism yet tends to oversell things, has nerves (and sweat glands) as excitable as her disposition, is a stickler for the rules and has lofty aspirations--including a stint in the Pawnee mayoral office before her run to the White House. Her career path is inspired by the trailblazers who came before her--including Madeline Albright, whose framed visage (along with Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi and many other notable women in politics) adorns her desk.
Leslie's drive also comes from her ball-busting mother: "She's as respected as Mother Theresa, she's as powerful as Stalin and she's as beautiful as Margaret Thatcher," says the loving, clueless daughter, who wants to be sassy, powerful and dynastic: "I think we could be a multi-generational political dynasty, you and I. You know, like the Kennedys or the Bushes...minus the drinking problem." Leslie takes things seriously--to a fault--and that doesn't help her stress levels when dealing with an apathetic staff or an angry community. (Leslie's self-imposed public apology after a mistake perfectly encapsulates so much of this show's winning style.)
You see, much like the characters in The Office and Waiting for Guffman, Leslie just doesn't see how silly she is. But she's so darn lovable, you can't help but root for her (something that separates her from her younger, meaner cousin, Election's Tracy Flick). And I can't help but root for this sitcom, one of the few genuinely funny shows on TV. Yes, its documentary style (Leslie and her co-workers are filmed by an unexplained documentary crew and frequently speak to the camera) and slacker characters force comparisons to The Office. But is that a bad thing? (And for all you haters, remember that NBC's Office is a clone.)
Parks writers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur are Office regulars, which explains why the two shows share the same sensibility. But when you line them up, their templates aren't nearly as similar as you might expect. The characters here aren't carbon copies of Dunder Mifflin's denizens (don't let the presence of the fabulous Rashida Jones deceive you), and Parks--while it aims for delightfully awkward and uncomfortable humor--is a little cheerier than its sometimes-dark sister.
It also has the incomparable Poehler, whose years on Saturday Night Live helped hone her political savvy. Nice, na´ve and oddly adorable with an unwavering bravado and burning desire to be liked, Leslie comes across like the offspring between Poehler's portrayals of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Dennis Kucinich (although, at heart, she's an arrested development version of Kaitlin: "Rick! Rick! Rick!").
Leslie's energy has found a new outlet: an eyesore of a pit, the remnant of a condo project abandoned by a bankrupt developer in a local neighborhood. The hole is brought to her attention by resident Ann Perkins (Jones), who Leslie soon recruits into the system after learning of Ann's boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt): He broke both of his legs after falling into the giant ditch. Leslie grabs hold of the project with the tenacity of a Pit Bull, and begs her bosses to green-light a sub-committee to transform the pit into something more suitable: "The chance to build a whole new park from scratch? This could be my Hoover Dam!"
She gets her wish, but not after experiencing her own pitfalls with the boys' club bureaucracy that makes her job even harder. Leslie often learns things the hard way, and her recurring frustration is one of the many joys of Parks and Recreation: After an exhausting election season in real life, the show understands that we're all a little sick and tired of politics. Watching Leslie stumble through red tape--she even filibusters her own meeting ("They can't touch you if you talk forever")--is one of the show's many delights.
So are Leslie's co-workers, a gang of office drones who seem to have given up on life. There's mustachioed boss Ron (Nick Offerman), a disgruntled Libertarian whose distaste for his ex-wife is rivaled by his hatred for government: "All government is a waste of taxpayer money...my dream is to have the parks and recreation system privatized and run entirely for profit by corporations. Like Chuck E. Cheese." Leslie is also joined by right-hand man Tom "boy genius, smooth like milk chocolate" Haverford (Aziz Ansari), an ass kisser and self-professed ladies' man (love the peacocking) who revels in Leslie's embarrassments and comes across like a wannabe used car salesman fresh out of a frat house at Douche U.
"Tom and I work really well together," says Leslie. "We're both outsiders...I'm a woman, he's a...well, I think he's a Libyan." Says Ron: "I like Tom. He doesn't do a lot of work around here. He shows zero initiative, he's not a team player, he's never wanting to go that extra mile. Tom is exactly what I'm looking for in a government employee." Tom is frequently joined in troublemaking by office intern April (Aubrey Plaza), whose unimpressed gaze of disinterest permanently affixes itself to the show's background.
But Leslie tries to spend most of her time working with city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), the closest thing Pawnee has to a stud. The bachelor is disillusioned with government ("I lost my optimism about government in about two months; Leslie's kept hers for six years"), so he spends more time planning through the skirts of the town's female population. That includes Leslie, who never wastes an opportunity to remind us of their magical night (a.k.a. drunken hookup) five years ago, an event Mark barely remembers. That might be why he's clueless to her true feelings, which seem to grow bigger as the season progresses and contribute to her frequently juvenile behavior.
Leslie also faces a cold shoulder from mom Marlene (Pamela Reed), a calculating woman who doesn't have the highest impression of Leslie's abilities: "I want my daughter to be successful, which is why I always tell her there's nothing wrong with being a wife and mother." Meanwhile, back by the pit nurse Ann waits hand and foot on lazy Andy, a singer/songwriter who takes advantage of her caring nature.
The cast is uniformly excellent, one of the greatest ensembles working today. And unlike The Office--which sometimes takes things a little too far (see: Michael, Jan and Dwight)--Parks keeps these characters on slightly more believable ground (I love Meredith and Creed, but they're caricatures). What's so fantastic is how the show doesn't take long to show us different sides to these people--just when you think you have Ron, Marlene, Mark and Andy pegged, along comes some heart and humanity that proves--when push comes to shove--they have Leslie's back.
Poehler is perfection as Leslie, and what's so refreshing is that the character is a departure from the schtick she's most famous for (which I still eat up). There are no random bouts of country redneck or tragically unhip ghetto slang ("Yo!", "Bitch!" and "Suck it!"), something that injected some of her more well-known characters on SNL (Amber, Britney, Netti) and in Baby Mama ("Oooh oooh!"). Here she's far more restrained yet equally hysterical--not only in her timing and delivery, but in her face and mannerisms. Watch Poehler's expressions when Leslie listens to other people--it's just as enjoyable as her dialogue, and Leslie's genuine smile of childlike glee is contagious. You see Leslie as a believable character, not as part of the "Amy Poehler persona"--and that's a remarkable feat for the actress.
In real life, I would hate someone like Tom. But Ansari is so unbridled and aggressive, it's impossible not to fall for his toolish charm ("Do you think I'm in the top five best-looking Indian guys in Pawnee?"). Ron may also appear like a one-trick pony, but you soon realize that he's in on his own schtick, and a disciplinary hearing subplot in one episode will win you over. Mark is one of the less flashy roles, which makes Schneider's performance all the more admirable: He may not get the best punch lines, but the actor does so much with his delivery and his face--most of it extremely subtle--that has to be commended (watch how he tries to squirm out of commitment in Episode 3). Schneider also gets two very complicated scenes--one with Poehler, one with Jones--in the season finale, and both come off beautifully. It's a credit to his intelligent choices as an actor that he makes Mark so likable.
Jones has the most "normal" character of the bunch--we identify with her more than anyone--and provides the necessary voice of reason and sighs of discontent (kind of like this show's Lisa Simpson). But don't be fooled--Ann gets plenty of laughs, and Jones has some killer expressions up her sleeve, too. She easily overcomes her own gorgeousness, a.k.a. "The Kate Beckinsale Syndrome" (see Snow Angels), to make you believe her unenviable position.
And Pratt (who I didn't even recognize shortly after watching Everwood for the first time!) is schlubtastic, completing one of my favorite TV couples ever (fitting considering Pratt is one half of my favorite real-life cool couples: I love you, Anna!). He is gifted with some of the show's more physically funny moments, but Pratt also gets to show off his comic chops in a horde of hilarious lines (like everyone here, he improvs some of the material) that show off his own sense of tone and timing: "This next song is dedicated to her--my girlfriend Ann. I call it...'Ann'." (I won't spoil any of Andy's band names, which change faster than Superman.)
Like NBC's version of The Office (which I also love), this debut season is abbreviated--there are only six episodes, but all are fantastic (I was hooked at the very first scene of the pilot, where Leslie conducts a survey) and get stronger along the way as both the cast and crew get comfortable quickly. That's not surprising considering the talent and familiarity on both sides of the camera, which include Baby Mama and SNL/30 Rock directors Michael McCullers and Beth McCarthy-Miller. All of the episodes here are winners, including "The Reporter"--where Leslie proves she's even less comfortable with the media than Sarah Palin--and the final two entries ("The Banquet" and "The Rock Show"), riotous affairs that end the season on a high note. This is smart comedy that isn't afraid to get its laughs in a variety of ways, a charming watch from start to finish.
Parks and Recreation is not just a hit with its scripts and performances--from the cute opening credits and theme to the colorful set design, it melds all elements together beautifully. There are so many things you might not catch upon first viewings (a side joke, an expression, a physical gag), making the replay value high (for some reason, seeing April mockingly wave a flag--something I missed at first--made me lose it in the pilot). I'm also oddly fascinated and amused with the show's constant repetition of guest character names, pounded into the scripts so hard that their mere mention is a joke in itself (Shauna Malwae-Tweep and Jeanine Restrepo, I salute you!).
The chuckles here are smart and silly, classy and childish, verbal and visual (the inappropriate City Hall murals depicting the town's history are used sparingly, resulting in an even bigger payoff), putting Parks right alongside The Office and 30 Rock on the top tier of TV comedy. I have a long history of loving female-led sitcoms--only to be disappointed when they cancelled far too soon (Kath & Kim, The Comeback, Fat Actress and to a slightly smaller degree Samantha Who?), so I won't try and get my hopes up. Don't let me down, NBC...keep this show on the air for a long time.
Two solid contributions make for a nice watch (and listen): Each episode has deleted scenes viewable separately in non-anamorphic video (for the season finale, they have been integrated into an "extended cut"; you can also watch the broadcast version), while audio commentaries also accompany each episode. Like The Office, the deleted scenes are great watches and could easily fit into the episode (some scenes offer alternate shots using similar material). Here's a breakdown:
1. Pilot (aired April 9, 2009): contains 8:19 of deleted scenes and commentary with executive producer/co-writer Michael Schur, co-writer Greg Daniels and actor Rashida Jones.
All of the commentaries are worth a listen--these are cool, funny people with good rapport. They provide some laughs (without trying to be funny) and some insight into the show: The shooting style, editing and camerawork--all vital elements to the finished product--are frequently discussed, along with how the crew tries to differentiate the show from other mockumentaries (The Five Obstructions was an influence!). The sets--including the pit and Pasadena's City Hall--get mentions, as does the difficulty of finding a tubular slide in Los Angeles (who knew?).
The gang also points out a lot of funny side stories and jokes that I either missed or that didn't all make it to screen (there's a cute Larry Byrd side story), and also talks about some filmed material that (unfortunately) doesn't appear in the deleted scenes (boo! Why aren't they here? The scene between Poehler and Jones in Episode 4 sounds fabulous!). We also learn that Aubrey Plaza was cut out more than they wanted; the crew hopes to devote more time to April in Season 2. Also listen for a funny story about Bill Hader, an amusing realization by Jones about Pratt's laziness and a great story about casting hospital extras ("When you're shooting in the Valley and request nurses, that's what you get...").
Also included in "Hose" cold open (1:16), another deleted scene that could have been used as an opener. Music videos for "Pit" (1:31) and "Ann" (1:51) provide a few more laughs (Pratt is a great song writer!), and they also give us a few glimpses of behind-the-scenes shots--making it all the more mysterious that no blooper/behind-the-scenes reel is here, my only complaint with the disc. What gives, Universal and NBC? That omission is inexcusable for a show like this, and there has to be some hysterical footage. Grrr...