It’s often been referred to as an Office spin-off, but NBC’s new half-hour sitcom Parks and Recreation is really more of a self-inflicted style-bite. Creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur don’t transplant an already established character to a new location, Frasier style, but instead transfer Ricky Gervais’s uncomfortably funny mock-doc template from a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a city parks department in Pawnee, Indiana. Rashida Jones returns, but not as The Office’s frustratingly likable relationship roadblock Karen. In Indiana, she’s known as Ann Perkins, a local nurse whose beef about a pit near her house in the first episode sets the show in motion.
Ann’s deadbeat musician boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), took an off-screen tumble into the abandoned build site next door and wound up with two broken legs. But after Ann complains at a public forum, it’s Amy Poehler’s parks-
department employee Leslie Knope (pronounced “Noop”) who takes up the fight. Leslie, who sees her mid-level civil service gig as the first rung on a short stepladder to the White House, hastily promises to turn the pit into a public park. This project provides the plot for the first three episodes and, considering the level of bureaucratic bullshit she’ll have to wade through to get this accomplished — the king turd being her Libertarian, Bobby Knight-worshipping boss, Ron (Nick Offerman), who has made it his personal goal to prevent his department from building anything park-related on his watch — the show might continue for several seasons before we see a single swing set.
Leslie, for the first few episodes at least, refuses to accept defeat in what she’s immediately adopted as a moral battle, promising the mostly indifferent Ann a fully loaded park — tennis courts, swimming pools, an amphitheater — where a hole dug for a high-rise condo now sits. Leslie enthuses, “This could be my Hoover Dam!”
In the show’s pilot, this clinically insane optimism is initially easily confused with the universal obliviousness that characterizes The Office’s Michael Scott (Steve Carell), but Leslie’s a much more likable variation on the clueless/conceited combo. Her inflated sense of self seems much easier to pop, and the show’s squirm factor comes mostly from her pathetic ego-stroking (congratulating herself for landing her first park-construction subcommittee at “only 34 years old,” for example), or watching her spend 20 minutes setting herself up for devastating, but easily foreseeable, failures. Which, admittedly, sounds a hell of a lot like The Office, but there’s no Jim or Pam here to identify with. Leslie’s coworkers and acquaintances are so far either completely passive (Ann) or arbitrarily cruel (Ron), leaving Leslie as the show’s moral center by default. Poehler’s deluded antihero act makes for a simpler and more traditional sitcom than Carrel’s Michael, who often frustrates viewer expectations by alternately playing protagonist and antagonist, often within the same scene.
After a fairly weak pilot, episode two follows Leslie in command of her new subcommittee — awesomely lecherous Tom Haverford (Human Giant’s Aziz Ansari), apathetic high-school intern April (Aubrey Plaza), ex-fling Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), and infinitely manipulable Ann — canvassing neighborhoods and seeking support at a public forum. Leslie predictably, even at this point, botches it big time, forcing her canvassers to recite an unnatural sales script verbatim, and recruiting lifelong enemies through misapplied Karl Rove intimidation tactics. She even has trouble convincing her mother to come to the forum, and the meeting itself proceeds with a sad fatalism that’s closer to Charlie Brown than anything from Must See TV.
Leslie’s relationship with Mark — they slept together several years ago, a one-night stand Leslie still cherishes and Mark barely remembers — is the show’s version of Pam and Jim’s two-season “will they or won’t they” soap operatics on The Office, but its actual complications aren’t fully detailed until the third episode. Mark’s affection for Leslie, much like everyone else’s, seem to be entirely pity-based, however. If the writers are planning romance, they’ve laid a pretty sad foundation.
The show remains DVR-worthy, for the moment at least, mostly via throwaway gags that could’ve easily been Office material and the charisma of its two comedic leads (Poehler and Ansari, who are generally the only funny things onscreen), but the diminishing ratings indicate that we, like Mark, won’t keep seeing Leslie just because we feel sorry for her. •