A Plea for Pawnee: The Return of Parks and Recreation
January 20th, 2011
Parks and Recreation was my favorite show on television last year.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know this. Despite the series’ absence from NBC’s fall schedule, the series has loomed large in both year-end lists and in week-to-week discussion of every other comedy on television. History will remember Outsourced as the show which bumped Parks and Recreation from the 2010 Fall schedule, if it remembers it at all. Even as Community has put together a string of winning episode and Cougar Town has gained a certain cult following, Parks and Recreation was hanging around like the ghost of DJ Roomba, replacing the endless loop of the Black Eyed Peas with instantaneous access to the sterling second season on Netflix.
However, let’s get real for a moment. You might not be a regular reader of this blog, and you might not have any idea what a “DJ Roomba” even is. You might be one of those people who watched some of the series’ inconsistent episodes early in its short first season and decided that it wasn’t worth your time. It’s also possible that you just never found the show, limiting your NBC Thursday viewing to The Office and whatever happens to air after The Office. And, who knows, you might have no idea what any of this means, and just got here by randomly searching “Black Eyes Peas instantaneous access.”
Whatever category you fall into, however, you really need to watch Parks and Recreation. It is returning to television as part of an extended NBC comedy block, allowing for a certain degree of promotional attention, and it is finally nestled comfortably behind The Office where it should have been all along. And, as if that weren’t enough, the first six episodes of the third season are enormously confident, delivering big laughs while seamlessly transitioning into a new ongoing story arc. There has never been a better time to watch this show, and that’s saying something considering that there is never a bad time to watch this show.
Now, you might be thinking that this all reads like something that a “Fan,” more than a “Critic,” would say. I think that would probably be a fair assessment, but I have no qualms about playing advocate for this show (or really any other which I enjoy as much as I enjoy Parks and Recreation). The first six episodes of the season are not perfect, and I intend on analyzing each one in detail in individual reviews that will go up weekly starting this evening. I have my critical opinions, and I intend on elaborating on them in the weeks ahead, but my overall impression of the series is honestly best reflected by something approximate to giddy revelry.
The best compliment I can pay the show, actually, is that today is still incredibly thrilling despite the fact that I’ve already seen tonight’s premiere. I’m excited that you’ll finally get a chance to see these episodes, and to see the show pop up on my DVR, and to be able to see the internet’s response to the show’s triumphant return – I am, frankly, just happier now that this show is going to be back on television.
And, frankly, I want everyone else to be just as happy. I want the people who tuned out after the pilot to come back and understand what they’re missing. I want the people who watch The Office to realize that a spiritual successor exists should they be really concerned about what Carell’s impending exit will do to the series – they might even agree with Cory Barker that the show is better than The Office ever was. I even encouraged my students to watch, a shameless plug for which I had no shame. I write this plea not just so that the show can achieve higher ratings and remain for my own enjoyment, but also so that those who help facilitate those ratings can potentially enjoy the show in the way that I have grown to over the course of the past two seasons.
This is, of course, only my opinion. You might have already been pressured into watching the series and discovered that you weren’t a fan, an outcome that I would not consider probable but is certainly within the realm of possibility. But the problem facing Parks and Recreation is twofold: some people just don’t know what the show is, while others think they know all too well. And the only way to solve this problem is to convince people to sit down with an episode like tonight’s premiere (which, while certainly better with knowledge of the series, wouldn’t be the world’s worst introduction) and see something different from what they expected, to see something that might prove a gateway to the Netflix streams, the DVD sets, and the appreciation which might well follow.
I’m sitting out the traditional pre-air review phase of the series’ hype for two reasons. One is that I prefer to write post-air analysis, and thus channeled most of my energy into preparing a review for tonight’s premiere. The other, however, is that the nation’s paid critics have already done a fabulous job of outlining the series’ strengths as it heads into the new year. Below are links/excerpts from two in particular: Alan focuses on the series’ progression from the season which came before, as someone who has written extensively about the series, while Matt continues a stellar return to the TV beat with a piece that captures the charm of the city of Pawnee as rendered in the third season.
Read both, and prepare to nod your head in agreement at 9:30/8:30c this evening (and, hopefully, for many Thursday evenings in the future).
And what makes these episodes feel extra-special is the sense of purpose to them. There’s a big story being told here – not one that requires you to watch every episode (though your funny bone will thank you if you do), but one that seems to raise the stakes for everyone involved, and which makes the jokes funnier, the characters richer, in the process.
[See also: Alan's great interview with Amy Poehler.]
The characters aren’t fully-rounded, psychologically deep individuals, but loving caricatures of basic human tendencies and foibles, in the Preston Sturges mode. Their asides to the camera feel more like the casual, fourth-wall-breaking confessions you’d find in a stage play, inviting us into the fiction and making us invisible, honorary citizens of Pawnee. It’s a nice place to visit.