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Fixing the Pit: Another Look at NBC's "Parks and Recreation"

After its six-episode first season, NBC's Parks and Recreation still isn't reaching anywhere near its actual potential.

Given the strengths of creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur and the comedic timing of the talented cast, Parks and Recreation should have been a home run but it's been hampered by an unnecessary and clunky format that sucks the energy out of every scene and an over-reliance on unfunny talking heads.

However, last night's season finale of Parks and Recreation ("Rock Show") was at least a step in the right direction. Written by Norm Hiscock and directed by Mike Schur, it played down the mockumentary aspects of the format that are typically overused and irritating, focusing the energy of the piece on several storylines--Andy (Chris Pratt) getting his casts off, Leslie (Amy Poehler) going on a date with a much older man, and Ann (Rashida Jones) discovering that Andy had lied to her--all of which dovetailed quite nicely at Andy's first rock gig with his band, Scarecrow Boat, since he fell in the pit and broke his legs.

Parks and Recreation tends to go off the rails when it relies too heavily on the documentary angle, with the cameras forced to shoot from behind windows, trees, or blinds at the action going on inside tiny, cramped offices. The documentary aspect works a hell of a lot better over on The Office, thanks to the physical arrangement of the workplace set. By using an open-plan bullpen-style environment, The Office is able to imbue each scene with a vibrancy that's missing here; at any time the camera can swing around to grab a reactions shot or a snatch of dialogue and this openness gives The Office some of its best bits.

By contrast, much of Parks and Recreation is set in a series of separate offices and there's none of the community and spirit of its predecessor. The talking heads--which don't always work quite as well on The Office as they should either (as opposed to the British original)--typically share information that is either obvious, implied, or could be shared with the audience in a better (and typically more humorous) way. Every time the action on Parks and Recreation is limited to workplace scenes, the energy plummets. But get the cast outside the confined walls of the Pawnee seat of power and the cast can surprise with their vivacity.

Last night's episode, for example, found Leslie on a date with a man she believed was going to help her with zoning regulations but was in fact a blind date arranged by her overbearing mother. That Amy Poehler looked so gorgeous in this scene (and, hell, even breathtaking for Leslie) was a plus; it gave Leslie an aura of normalcy and made her optimism not the freakishness of a loser (as it's been portrayed for much of the season) but the hopefulness of someone who knows they are fighting an uphill battle. Hell, Leslie and Mark (Paul Schneider) even address this issue head-on and Leslie is given the opportunity to make her cockeyed optimism something to root for rather than deride.

Additionally, the complex shadings of their relationship took a turn for the awkward last night as Mark tried to make a move on Leslie... after his advances towards Ann were brutally rebuffed. That Leslie, who previously mooned over Mark (they did, you'll remember, share a one-night stand four years earlier), would also spurn his proposition shows some real character growth. Could Leslie be becoming a more three-dimensional character (finally)? The entire episode seemed an effort to humanize Poehler's Leslie Knope, to make her character more sympathetic and relatable to the audience. (And, I'll admit that I laughed my butt off when Mark fell into the pit.)

So is there hope for Parks and Recreation, which has already been renewed by NBC for a second season? I'd greatly suggest they follow last night's episode as a model and either cut back or altogether ditch the awkward mockumentary format and give the series a straightforward single-camera comedy aesthetic. I'd also say that having the cast spend time together as a group offsite--whether that's at a local bar, an event, or just anywhere other than the claustrophobic office--is a Very Good Thing.

Plus, I'd advise Daniels and Schur to not try quite so hard to make the characters quirky and just let the actors breathe a bit more. Aziz Ansari's Tom was a hell of a lot more amusing last night because he seemed more at ease and less like Ansari was working overtime to please. And that goes for all of the actors, with the exception of maybe Nick Offerman and Chris Pratt, whose characters remain the most nuanced and real, possibly because they seem to be giving them a more naturalistic air, as though they are unaware that they are being filmed. (And, since I'm thinking about it, please upgrade the always likable Pratt to series regular.)

Make Leslie's optimism both her strength and her weakness but also don't allow it to overtake her character completely and make her a clueless buffoon. I'd rather see her as misguided at times than a total moron. She can still be funny without being the butt of every joke on the series. She can be Pollyannish, she can be peppy, but I'd prefer she didn't become another deluded boss along the lines of Michael Scott and instead becomes a fully realized character in her own right, rather than a punchline.

All in all, NBC has given Parks and Recreation an incredible opportunity to find its footing next season. Will it be another hit along the lines of 30 Rock or The Office? I don't know. But I will say that now is the time for Schur and Daniels--and NBC--to take some risks and try to find the core of this series by retooling a bit. Could it work as a series? I'm not entirely sure but I know that eternal optimistic Leslie Knope would offer a resounding yes.

What did you think of last night's season finale and of Parks and Recreations' season as a whole? What changes would you suggest Daniels and Schur implement for the second season? Discuss.

Parks and Recreation returns for a sophomore run next season on NBC.


AskRachel said…
I agree that last night's episode was much closer to what the series should be. Since the beginning, I wanted to like the show but found it to be flat and forced.

The season finale, however, did feel more loose and the characters seemed more comfortable in their bureaucratic skin. Plus, I actually laughed! Quite a few times!

Hopefully, the show is finding its footing and the enjoyable season finale wasn't just a fluke.
Lacey said…
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this episode. It was certainly better than last night's episode of The Office, which was painfully boring.

I think that Parks & Rec has an amazing cast and a fun premise and it should succeed. If last night's episode is the direction they're heading in, then it just might have a chance.
Mazza said…
Totally agree. Last night's ep was the best of the 6. You hit on all the right suggestions to improve the show and I second them all. Get rid of docu crew, let Leslie be normal, get chars out of office, and let actors breath. Could be a good cute show if they fixed somethings.
Mazza said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said…
Agreed. Definitely best of season 1 but they have a long road ahead of them before they can reach its actual potential. I love the actors but don't really understand why it's so boring.

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