Parks and Recreation – “Park Safety”

“Park Safety”

March 18th, 2010

While Parks and Recreation rarely shows its roots as a spin-off of The Office, emerging instead as a cousin of sorts, I think “Park Safety” was as close as the show has come to feeling like its predecessor. This is, in some ways, a compliment, in that The Office is a show I enjoy, and this was certainly a funny episode of the show.

However, the show went out of its way to create some very specific situations that brought the show more towards broad situational comedy, something that the show has managed to do a bit more subtly in the past. It didn’t end up damaging the episode too much, as those sequences remained funny, but for a show that has been going out of its way to form its own identity there were parts of this week’s episode that made it seem like the production team from The Office had gone into the wrong office for a day. Of course, there were also parts of the episode that dealt with Parks-specific story types, so the Pawnee charm was certainly not lost.

It was just, perhaps, viewed through a slightly different lens, which seemed purposeful in terms of viewing a running joke in a new light.

My brother Ryan made the point on Twitter that the way the people in the office treat Jerry, the central figure of this week’s episode, was funnier when we had no idea why it happened. Part of what has made the second season come together so well is that the rest of the office has been fleshed out, and Jerry as the Pawnee Pinata has been a really big part of that. While we have seen Jerry make clumsy mistakes in the past that have him living up to his reputation (R.I.P., DJ Roomba), the show has never gone this far out of its way to turn Jerry into one big joke. The gag has always been sort of “there,” a fact of life that has become so normal that they don’t even think about it, which is sort of what made it funny.

In the end, I think that the situations the show created were more than funny enough to justify this shift, which by the end of the episode proved to be really intelligent. Yes, the gag where the characters struggle to avoid making fun of Jerry after his “mugging” even as his PowerPoint presentation goes completely off the rails is cheaper than what the show has done with the character in the past (or in the cold open, which I thought was really funny), but it made me laugh a whole lot on the level of enjoying seeing the characters enjoying themselves. And I think the show was smart to address the lingering issue of why Jerry puts up with it; by revealing that he’s close to his retirement, and that he’s aware that he’s the laughing stock, the show can maintain the status quo without feeling bad that Jerry doesn’t “get it” or that he’s going to eventually snap or something. Leslie doesn’t show everyone else the tape, which means the ribbing remains friendly rather than downright embarrassing. Jerry can remain the laughing stock and we can keep laughing, even if the initial lack of reasoning is no longer part of the joke. I think “Park Safety” demonstrated that the mystery wasn’t the entire joke, and Jim O’Heir got some great mileage out of the physical humour (even if the “he didn’t really get mugged” twist was evident, you know, the second he said he had been mugged).

While I’ll get to the Office comparison in a second, I thought that Andy Samberg’s Ranger Carl was a Parks storyline stuck with an SNL skit for a character. I like Samberg, but the yelling character seemed like a very reductive sketch stretched out into an actual character. If we take the story as part of the larger picture of the government bureacracy in Pawnee (Animal Control, Library Folk, etc.), then I like the idea of the Park Rangers as those employees too annoying to be left indoors. However, in practice, the character was more of a distraction than anything else, and I think that in an episode that was already dealing with the fairly over-the-top handling of the Jerry story they could have dialed him down a notch.

A lot of the episode struck me as an Office storyline, in terms of Leslie turning a single person’s situation into an office-wide panic or the overtness of the talking head where Leslie gave her impression of how Tom would respond to Jerry’s actual predicament, but it was most clear in Ron’s self-defence seminar. It just really felt like a “we have a storyline, what sort of group activity would follow that storyline” sort of deal, and while I enjoyed Nick Offerman having fun with the role, I liked the more subtle moments in the Andy/Ann/April triangle. The Office has always struggled by comparison, sometimes using the big group scenes as a stand-in for smaller scenes, but Parks managed to have its cake and eat it too. The final scene at the shoe shine stand really got the point across: Ann still likes the fun side of Andy, but her interest is motivated mainly by the fact that Andy actually appears to be kind and thoughtful with April in a way he never was with Ann, which is making her more than a bit jealous. I still think the show can’t actually create the triangle since 99% of viewers wants him to end up with April, but they’re doing a good job of drawing the boundaries, and while the self-defence class seemed a bit overly elaborate I think the story’s working pretty well overall.

And that pretty much sums up the show: some great jokes, some nice character moments within those jokes, and episodes that have some predictable but effective twists and turns rather than just playing out as the same story extended into half an hour.

Cultural Observations

  • With news that Amy Poehler is pregnant again, the show is going to be going into production on Season Three pretty much as soon as Season Two finishes, so it will be interesting to see how the creative momentum they’ve got going will come together with these episodes, and what course corrections they might make while Poehler is on maternity leave.
  • News that Paul Schneider will be leaving the show isn’t that damning when you consider how marginalized he already is: he comes right out and says that Jerry is mistreated, which is too straight-forward for this office to really take into consideration. He just doesn’t fit in, which works when you want to create conflict, but which kind of makes him an outsider in episodes like this one (and not always in a good way). I like Schneider, but I think that he’ll be better as an occasional guest star/recurring player in future seasons (yeah, I pluralized it – deal with it, NBC).
  • I’m with Ann: while “Scrotation Marks” doesn’t quite work, “Baby in a Straitjacket” is a great band name.
  • It was a bloody simple joke, but I got a laugh out of Leslie answering the phone with “Knope. Yep. No.” Sue me, I’m easy.
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