Parks and Recreation is about Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. She loves her job but none of her coworkers share her enthusiasm. Tom (Aziz Ansari) constantly mocks her behind her back and her boss Ron (Nick Offerman) hates all government projects. In the first episode, town resident Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) complains about an abandoned pit in her neighborhood. She just wants the pit filled in, but Knope decides to build a park on the site. She hopes a successful project will help her fulfill her dream of moving on from local government and becoming the next Hillary Clinton.
The show, which premiers tonight on NBC, was originally thought to be a spinoff of The Office, but it actually has no connection to that show's universe. However, critics say it's hard to get over the similarities, since the show has the same producers, it looks like it's being filmed by an unexplained documentary crew, Amy Poehler's character is similar to Michael Scott, and Rashida Jones is best known for playing Karen on The Office. Below, the critics weigh in on Parks and Recreation.
Maybe if NBC and the people behind Parks and Recreation weren't so hell-bent on telling everyone it's not The Office and just embraced the fact that - one more time for clarity sake - it's The Office, viewers wouldn't be put off by the comparison. They would opt in if they were already fans of one of television's finest sitcoms. And let's face it, if viewers don't like The Office - which has never been a ratings hit despite the critical acclaim - then they will not go in for Parks and Recreation. Why? Because it's the same show, with different people in a different location.
The producers of The Office have hewn a little too closely to that show's template in Parks and Recreation, which despite a few amusing moments winds up feeling like that established program in drag.
What Parks would appear to need, more than anything, is a stronger human component (think the romance between Pam and Jim) to ground its eccentricities. There's a vague hint of that in the character of Ann (The Office transplant Rashida Jones), but even she's saddled with a good-for-nothing boyfriend, and there's nothing else initially to counter-balance Poehler's overwhelming presence.
Thanks to Poehler, Leslie comes across as sweet and well-intentioned, a public servant who is able to view being yelled at as "people caring loudly at me." And yet the show merrily tortures her, pushing her in the pit, belittling her efforts, letting the deeply unlikable Tom undercut her with knowing, sarcastic glances to the camera, as if she were Michael from The Office. Parks never expends enough energy to even approach funny, but even if it were more amusing, that sour whiff of gratuitous cruelty would still linger.
It's Poehler who owns the show, and she proves instantly that she's got the comic intelligence to carry a series like this one, which draws its energy from character interactions rather than broad punch lines. She's awkward but not alienating, and she's eager without being repelling. Most of all, there's a genuine heart to her that gives the comedy a balance and lets it be mocking without resorting to cruelty.
All this soon turns Parks and Recreation into a summer camp for lightweight one-liners, the kind of banter that might sustain an occasional SNL skit, but may have trouble supporting a whole sitcom. Unlike her SNL colleague Tina Fey, whose success with 30 Rock NBC would dearly love to replicate, Poehler just doesn't have the material to do it. Clueless, oblivious characters are a foundation of most sitcoms, but this show needs more of a humor base than a wall mural that shows Pawnee's first white settlers massacring the natives.
The show looks a lot like The Office, but there aren't many female leads on television quite like Leslie. The closest ones are women who volunteer to look foolish on reality shows like Bravo's Real Housewives of New York or TV Land's coming, self-explanatory dating show, The Cougar. There is also, of course, reality: Leslie in some ways recalls Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who became infamous during the 2000 election recount for her dim understanding of the law and clear love for the trappings of office.
Leslie is a classic ditz, which is to say that she is ridiculous and endearingly obtuse. What makes Ms. Poehler's star turn a milestone is that ditzes are traditionally supporting characters, like Jenna on 30 Rock and Karen on Will & Grace or, reaching back, Edith on All in the Family and Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It's hard to think of many actresses since Lucille Ball who have been as wacky in a leading role on a network sitcom.
Like The Office, it does its work quietly — too quietly for some, I'm sure — and it is no more about actual small-town politics than is the Adult Swim cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor. But it has a kind of sunny charm, a premise fit for a novel, and is built upon a pair of strong female leads, a rare enough thing in sitcoms. Poehler and Jones have a nice, contrapuntal rhythm. I stamp this show: approved.