Parks and Recreation – “Boys’ Club”

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“Boys’ Club”

April 30th, 2009

We’re now four episodes into the shortened six-episode season for Parks and Recreation, and this week’s episode was another one that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind: if you thought the show was a charming if slight investigation into an interesting work environment, “Boys’ Club” did nothing to change this opinion. However, similarly, if you were amongst those who felt that Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope hasn’t been given enough of a character to resonate within this environment, there isn’t much in her obliviousness and aloofness in this week’s central storyline that shows that they’re viewing these six episodes as some sort of character arc.

As someone who tends to fall into the former category, I thought the episode was quite solid, providing a tiny bit more nuance to Leslie’s character (even if the comparisons to The Office became even more pronounced with one particular scene) and utilizing the comic talents of Chris Pratt to deliver a really charming B-Story. As someone who understands the second perspective, though, I think I see what part of the problem is.

In these six episodes, Greg Daniels and Mike Schur are making the case for 22 more episodes next season more than they’re making the case for a great six-episode season. It’s not really possible to have a great six-episode season: there’s not going to be time to build to a cliffhanger, there’s not going to be a chance to create and resolve any real tension, etc. Instead, they are setting mood, creating characters that show potential, and giving executives (and viewers) a chance to see what kind of stories are possible in this environment.

The problem with this is that, for the most part, it keeps the show from really letting loose: without the guarantee of another season or the chance to keep building storylines, the show is so focused on trying to provide Leslie depth or establish Ron’s role as the boss that the storylines surrounding the office feel like every week’s a pilot. This week’s storyline, where Leslie opens a gift over $25 in her efforts to break into the eponymous group (which is really just a bunch of guys drinking beer), is not in itself funny, but it does display some of Leslie’s key traits (honesty, guilt-riddled, anxiety during public presentations, etc.).

What doesn’t work about this is that we’ve already seen all of these before: the show has exhausted any of the basic traits that make Leslie who she is, and because there isn’t time to fundamentally change any of them we’re left with a fairly repetitive first 2/3 of this run. The office setting isn’t without comic potential for Leslie, but a majority of it was established in the pilot, and the lack of any real forward progress is problematic when analyzing the show’s overall potential.

What we have been seeing, however, is brief little snippets at the beginning of each episode which have been a bit more, well, funny. This week’s scenario, where Leslie goes to a trail in order to investigate the teenagers who are throwing bags of dog poop at each other, was absurd and ridiculous, but the way that Poehler played Leslie answering her own question of how they could find this fun was perhaps the most engaging I’ve found the character. The same kind of scene has aired every week, really, and for the most part they have been the one “comic” scene. They feel as if they were a reel written/produced for NBC for advertising purposes, but they also contain some of the best comic scenarios.

I want to see more of this from Leslie, but for the most part the show is content to have funny, but not original, scenes like Tom giving Leslie a fake interrogation. I love Aziz Ansari, and I thought the scene was definitely funny, but it was a Dwight/Michael (or a Dwight/Jim, depending) scene at the end of the day. What seems to separate Leslie from Michael is that while both are oblivious, Leslie is less quick to anger: Michael becomes really frustrated when things don’t go his way, but she is just so forgiving and so understanding and so dead set on following the rules that it almost makes her tough to relate to. Very few people are such a combination of idealistic and hopelessly out of touch. In many ways the show is trying to use her as both Jim and Michael (unrequited love mixing in with management duties), and it just isn’t connecting right now.

What worked better in this episode, though, was Chris Pratt’s Andy, who is only listed as a guest star but who I really hope sticks around should the show get a second season. My brother pointed this out, but he isn’t a character who gets jokes, really: he’s just a guy with two broken legs who doesn’t clean himself or their apartment, and who totally understands how good he’s got it with Ann. There’s something really endearing about Pratt in general, but Andy’s hapless nature really suits him and is actually the kind of storyline Leslie needs in some ways. It’s also the kind of scene that The Office has rarely done, letting a single character get followed around like that outside of the “main environment.” The conclusion, with a cleaned up Andy still managing to be highly inappropriate, was charming and the battle with his neighbour seems like it has some potential.

The show needs to give more characters storylines like those, which don’t feel like they’ve been lifted from The Office – stuff like the Scrabble game or even April’s YouTube video feel too close to what the Office is capable of doing, and while NBC might be perfectly content with another half hour of similar comedy (it’s what they wanted in the first place), I as a viewer and a critic want them to embrace the kinds of stories that Daniels and Schur can’t tell on the proceeding show.

Cultural Observations

  • If, as expected, NBC gives the show a second season order, it will be interesting to see how it compares to The Office’s Season 2 resurgence. At least one similarity is quite likely: Amy Poehler will likely lose a bit more baby weight, just as Steve Carell lost weight between S1 and S2 of The Office.
  • I enjoyed the running joke as it related to Mark’s Facebook-like profile featuring him with numerous scantily clad women. The further they go in establishing that Mark is a sketchy dude, the better I feel the character will respresent an amalgam of Jim and Roy, lacking the external douchiness and being quite intelligent. He’s also a good counterpoint to Leslie: she’s concerned over a letter in her folder, and he’s got seven and doesn’t give a hoot.
  • No, the show’s main storyline wasn’t laugh out loud funny, but I really enjoyed Leslie spinning her knocking over the table and breaking the beer bottles with “hear that sound? It’s the glass ceiling breaking.” It was charming.

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