April 26th, 2009
One of the downfalls of my trip to California was that I was away during the period where a number of solid debuts took place: Southland seems like a potential keeper for NBC, The Unusuals is still technically in the mix for ABC, and the long-anticipated Parks and Recreation debuted. So while I took time out of my schedule to take a gander at the first two episodes detailing the adventures of Leslie Knope, I didn’t quite have the time to sit down and wrap my head around what I really thought about it.
“The Reporter,” in many ways, actually makes this out to be a good thing: it isn’t that this week’s episode (the show’s third) was substantially different than the two which preceded it, but it demonstrates that the qualities I saw as potential for the future remain firmly intact, and the ability for the rest of the show to fall in around them remains present. The show’s main problem, that it and its protagonist lean too closely to The Office, isn’t even necessarily a problem as long as the elements it is cribbing from its stepbrother are the ones that you like about the show; for me, thus far at least, this seems to be the case.
In many ways, the show is kind of like the park being proposed within the current main storyline of the series: it has plenty of early media attention, and lots of things going for it, but it needs to keep itself afloat during this key development period in order to survive. And while the verdict may still be “We’ll see,” I think that’s exactly where the show needs to be right now.
Every new comedy needs time to find its footing, which is why so sitcoms were once so plentiful: by building on an existing framework everyone was familiar with, from writers to producers to actors to viewers, it gave them a shorthand to begin building their own identity. If Parks and Recreation had remained a spinoff of The Office, it would have been using characters from that show as its foundation, for example. However, since this isn’t a spinoff, they made the difficult choice to choose The Office’s documentary style, and in some ways its protagonist’s world view, as its anchor.
It’s a dangerous decision, and I totally understand those who feel it runs too close to The Office in terms of its style: it doesn’t help that the show tends to overuse the talking heads during this early period, an honest attempt to build character but one that feels like an obnoxious “Look, we’re like The Office!” by the time the third act rolls around. But I don’t think anyone can really say that the style doesn’t work: there is something about its observational quality, and the ability to see both the public persona and the internal dialogue of individuals, which is extremely helpful at this early stage, even if they’re not yet hitting like they could in the future.
I hate to talk entirely in hypotheticals, but let’s ground it in reality: personally, I’m finding each subsequent episode funnier just because we’re starting to get a better idea of how these characters operate. What I find really unique about the character dynamics is that, more than The Office, the show is placing a lot on the shoulders of its protagonist immediately. The Office has Jim and Pam as its grounding force, the couple who are entirely normal, and who represent the sane side of things. And while Rashida Jones is certainly the sane observer in this scenario, and Paul Schneider is somewhat outside the main circle, the show isn’t using them as characters in their own right as of yet. Instead, they’re very much building the character of Leslie Knope from the ground up at this early stage.
I think Amy Poehler deserves a lot of credit for her work thus far: all three episodes have ultimately firmly sat on that line between comic and emotional with both the introduction of her mother and the jealousy over Mark’s sexual indiscretion (which I’ll get to in a second), and while it’s classic Michael Scott it’s also leaning a bit more on the emotional side. Leslie is as desperate as Michael in some ways, and just as naive in many others, but her heart honestly seems to be in the right place: she is honestly a public servant, and as far as I can tell there is nothing selfish about her ignorance. That’s really made a difference for me in terms of the show’s efforts to build her character, and I think that it allows the show to not have to have a Jim/Pam to bring the heart when you’ve got Poehler balancing these elements to the point where I feel bad for Leslie not because she’s so stupid but because she’s doing good things and trying really hard to do them.
This isn’t a big surprise for me: I love the more emotional Michael episodes on The Office, and similarly I prefer jealous or mother issue Leslie over the character falling into a giant pit, even if there is some humour to be found in that. The show isn’t going to hit a comic highpoint this early in its run because we haven’t yet gotten used to these characters. Tom, for example, is slowly coming into focus: starting as a sarcastic slacker, we’re starting to see depth to his slacking, whether it’s the effort he puts into losing at Scrabble to meet his boss’ expectations of inadequacy or last week’s demonstration of his hustling skills that, if not ideally suited for this job, are ideally suited for SOME job. The show is even having some little bits of fun with April, who despite barely saying a word has become an entertaining fixture of the department. And I feel as if there isn’t an outright dud amongst them: all of them have elements that display potential for the future, whether it’s Ron’s Scrabble-playing bitch of an ex-wife or something else we haven’t even really seen yet.
I think I like Mark the best, though, which is partially due to Paul Schneider (who was great in Lars and the Real Girl, the last time I saw him) and partially due to the character’s actions in “The Reporter.” I love that he slept with the eponymous female, primarily because it was entirely sketchy: Mark isn’t a Jim, some ethically sound individual who can roll his eyes at every crazy thing Leslie does: he’s a horndog who sleeps with everyone, even Leslie, and who views Leslie not as a laughing stock but as someone whose optimism should have died by now. Yes, he fits into the Jim role in some ways, but his ethical dilemma here was really well played, just as I loved the moment last week where he was caught playing Rock Band when he was supposed to be canvassing. He’s supposed to be the planner, the one who knows the rules and is in a comfortable position, but yet he has far less drive than Leslie; combine with their quasi-sexual tension, and it’s a dynamic I really want to see more of.
As for Rashida Jones, I think that Ann is a really interesting character in terms of where she goes after Andy eventually leaves the picture (I think that Chris Pratt is hilarious as the broken-legged slacker, but I don’t really think he can be sustained within the storyline). As a citizen she really is only around as long as the committee is active, which means that the committee will need to remain active for quite some time. More importantly, though, it was nice to see Leslie and Ann take on more of a friendship this week as they discuss Mark’s sexual escapades: Ann honestly appreciates Leslie for having put together the committee so quickly considering her previous bureaucracy experience, and as a result she’s open to their interaction, and is willing to help Mark fix his mess in order to keep the project running.
It’s all kind of uplifting to be honest: whereas The Office reveled in the mundane reality, Parks and Recreation is taking the futility of government bureacracy and creating a scenario where we as the audience and the rest of the characters are inspired (albeit also kind of confused) by this woman who can’t stay on message, who is easily distracted, who doesn’t really understand what she’s getting herself into, but who is the only person in the department who cares and the person whose actions are most in line with both the higher-ups and the moral imperative. Whereas on The Office it seemed like Michael was stumbling into the right ideas through luck and occasionally a good idea, Leslie always has her heart in the right place but just needs some help along the way.
The show is in the exact same position: I feel as if it’s in a good place in terms of its actors, and its characters are coming into view, which means that it’s really about building a show around that. It took The Office a few episodes to get to that point, and 30 Rock about five or so, and I feel as if Parks and Recreation has everything it needs to do so. “The Reporter” wasn’t laugh out loud funny other than in a few moments, but it kept me entertained and it kept me more than hopeful for the series’ future.
- This episode felt like one giant piece of meta-commentary with the idea of needing to strike early and the ending on a positive note, which seemed like it would have had to have been intentional. The show is in pretty good shape, though: after two weeks, its ratings have been pretty stable, which is a good position to be in when My Name is Earl is probably in more danger than Poehler’s buzzed-about comedy.
- I was discussing the show on Twitter, and Ellen Gray made a good point about how long this committee can really last, and whether we’re going to see episodes which diverge from this focus. My thought is that this is a good solid foundation for this small order of episodes airing this season: it keeps things on a linear path, and let’s them worry less about broader storylines in favour of giving the characters time to grow. But I do agree that it’s going to have to branch out eventually.
- I find it kind of off-putting, to be honest, to start each episode (it seems) with Leslie being broadly comic: yes, Poehler is great at it, but the Honeysuckle thing was just a bit too silly and stupid even if it was in the area where she most often exhibits those traits (displaying her enthusiasm for the Parks department).
- I look forward to any and all future highly insensitive oil paintings in that hallway.