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Office Politics: An Advance Review of NBC's "Parks and Recreation"

Full disclosure: I loved the pilot script for Parks and Recreation, the new series from The Office writer/executive producers Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, which launches Thursday night on NBC.

It was written with flair and perfectly set up a whole new world: that of small town politics, or specifically the Parks and Recreation Department of fictional berg Pawnee, Indiana, as seen through the wide eyes of one Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a small town politico who won't take no for an answer and, even after six year, still hasn't lost her zeal for politics or paper-pushing. There, she discovers her "Hoover Dam," a deserted construction site pit that she intends to transform into a beautiful park.

Over the last few months, Daniels and Schur had assembled quite a cast for Parks and Recreation. In addition to Poehler, there's Aziz Ansari (Human Giant), Rashida Jones (The Office), Chris Pratt (Everwood), Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl), Nick Offerman (American Body Shop), and Aubrey Plaza (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). These guys are tops when it comes to a comedy series cast.

So what exactly went wrong with Parks and Recreation? For starters, I think it was a huge mistake to utilize the same mockumentary format as The Office, which not only limits the action here but also makes the series feel like a carbon copy of The Office with a different cast of characters. It all just feels too familiar: the rhythm and flow of the episode, the talking heads, the smirking at the camera. Hell, there's even a recycled joke here about Knope instructing Tom (Ansari) to keep a running list of her most interesting sayings for her memoirs. (I can swear Michael Scott tasked Pam with the very same thing on The Office.)

It's this format which constricts Parks and Recreations from the very start, making it feel like the series merely appropriated the format of The Office part and parcel and moved it to a government office in Indiana. While Schur and Daniels attest that Parks and Recreation isn't a spin-off of The Office, it sure feels like it and the documentary crew camera don't add anything to plot here. To me, it would have been much more advantageous to just shoot this as a standard single-camera comedy than to utilize a framework that now seems cliched and overused.

Which isn't to say that Parks and Recreation doesn't have potential. The Office, after all, started out on some shaky ground in its first season and took a while for it to find its legs. The moments that do shine in an otherwise dull pilot episode are ones that don't involve the characters looking at the camera or speaking directly at it, such as when Ann Perkins (Jones) is asked by her layabout boyfriend Andy (Pratt), since she's going into the kitchen, if she can make him some pancakes "real quick." And, Leslie, her clavicle injured after a fall into the pit that broke both of Andy's legs, also wants some. Plaza's sullen college intern April has some nice moments as she finally cracks a smile and snaps some pics of Leslie falling into the pit... which she later shows them around the office. And there's an odd frisson between Leslie and one-time lover Mark Brendanawicz (Schneider) that could develop into something awkwardly funny.

Poehler and Jones are both top-notch comedic actors but deserve more than this vehicle, which feels warmed-over and tired even in its first outing. The rest of the cast is equally great, each offering quirky and memorable characters. Which makes the fact that Parks and Recreation is so seemingly devoid of real laughs all the more heartbreaking, really, because the premise does have the potential--in the long run--to be sticky. There's more to Pawnee than just the Parks Department and I feel that, over time, the series would delve into the other branches of government, from the DMV to animal control, all while Leslie attempts to achieve her Herculean task of getting that damn pit filled in.

I like the notion that, despite Leslie's promises and good intentions, the pit itself likely never will be filled in; it's a symbol of both the inefficiency of local government and of our economy, as it exists because some condo developers ran out of cash halfway through construction and just left the pit, an angry, open hole, in the ground. It also binds each of the disparate characters--local politcos, a nurse, an unemployed musician--together in a way that's far more interesting and intriguing than if they, say, all carpooled together.

Yet one can't shake the fact that Parks and Recreation seems rushed onto the air without enough development time. Ordered to series without the benefit of first viewing a pilot, the premiere episode could have done with some re-edits and script polishing (which is odd, as some of the most witty and amusing bits didn't seem to make it into the episode in the first place). Or, hell, encourage the cast to offer up some on-set dialogue improvisation, which could open this up to some truly hysterical moments.

Instead, Parks and Recreation doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts. It's certainly not Shakespeare in the Park, but it's also not quite a fact-finding mission to the bottom of the pit. Let's just hope that this series can put on its hard hat and, like Leslie Knope, find its way to the top. Or at least somewhere in the middle.



Parks and Recreation premieres Thursday evening at 8:30 pm ET/PT on NBC.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
I think this show has a great premise and an excellent cast but I don't understand why they decided to do it in the same format as The Office. I like the mockumentary style but we've seen a lot of it lately and it's getting kind of tired. And it seems like, here, it's just constricting the actors and story, which is a big disappointment.
ted23 said…
Doesn't surprise me. The promos were pretty unfunny and as much as I love Poehler this seemed like an Office copy. Will watch 1st ep but likely that will be it for me.
Anonymous said…
Hope this turns out better than it sounds.
Unknown said…
I totally agree. The mockumentary format is overdone and doesn't work in this show. I liked some bits and will watch one or two more, but I don't think this is going to work out.

I liked some of the more droll bits, like Andy yelling at Ann to get the door when she's right there. It was also funny when Leslie's assistant (can't remember his name, the "redneck") hits on Ann in the middle of the town meeting.
Unknown said…
Oops! P.S. Better Off Ted is waaay funnier. Even the ads they do as the cold open are hysterical. Why no Televisionary love for BOT? :-)
Jace Lacob said…
SKST,

LOTS of love for Better Off Ted, which I am loving. Saw the first few installments early and wrote a very positive review here: http://www.televisionaryblog.com/2009/03/high-risk-workplace-advance-review-of.html
Unknown said…
Absolutely, Jace. That's one of the reasons I started watching it. I just haven't heard much about it since then, so I wasn't sure if you'd kept up with it. I think BOT is a good example of how you can break the fourth wall without using the mockumentary device.

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