Parks and Recreation had all sorts of warning signs around it when it debuted in 2009. It was pitched as a spinoff of The Office, which was currently at the end of its peak in Season 5. This was an idea that seemed like a really bad one at the time (and seemed even worse four years later when The Farm, a Dwight-focused spinoff was proposed.)
But the creators, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, eventually backed off the “spinoff” approach. Instead, they revealed the show would be a spiritual sibling to The Office (not direct spinoff) about a midlevel bureaucrat working in local government… I know, the premise just screams “exciting.”
Another warning flag as the show developed was Schur’s fascination with The Wire and its cynical look at the effectiveness of institutions. Early episodes painted a picture of incompetence and laziness, where the titular P&R department can’t even get a simple job like filling a hole at a neighborhood lot done thanks to red tape and incompetency.
The curious thing is that Schur and Daniels’ premise, dour though it began, ended up being one of the show’s biggest strengths, but it would take a year or so for that become evident to viewers.
Another thing that was not immediately obvious was how perfect the casting job was. (Well… almost perfect. Paul Schneider — aka “Mark Brendanawicz,” aka “oh yeah, I vaguely remember that he used to star in the show” — never really clicked the way everyone else did.) Daniels and Schur filled the cast with funny, strange, and amusing actors, most of whom came in with little name recognition, and most of whom eventually emerged as breakout stars as their talent was put to use.
The centerpiece of the cast, though, was an obvious win from the start: The talented and tireless Amy Poehler as protagonist Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department.
Much like its sitcom godfather, The Office, Parks and Rec debuted with a six-season episode that was mediocre at best. The plot of the first season focused on two threads: The department’s attempt to fill the aforementioned neighborhood lot hole and Leslie’s attraction to fellow government worker, Brendanawicz.
It received a very tepid response from critics and viewers. Alan Sepinwall said in his review of the pilot, “the writers need to find more ways to distinguish Leslie from Michael Scott.” Leslie, like Michael, started the show delusional and mocked by her colleagues. Her redeeming trait was her perseverance, whereas Michael’s was always his curious warmth in spite of his obnoxiousness.
This made the Season 1-version of Leslie perhaps an admirable figure, but not a very fun character to watch on screen.
The standout of that first season — a character the show nailed pretty much from the start — was Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford, a slacker and hustler who’s shameless in his shallowness. But where Tom could have been crass and unlikable, Ansari plays it with an infectious good nature.
But most of that first season, with the exception of a few scenes and a slight upward trend those fifth and sixth episodes, feels like a rough draft of a comedy that hasn’t quite figured out its tone or characters.
Thankfully, the show solved most of its problems during the offseason, and it came back a much improved show the second season.
First, Schur and the writers figured out how to improve the tone of the show. They realized that the show is a lot more compelling by heroizing Leslie and her idealism for serving the public. It makes the depiction of local government — and Leslie specifically — much more flattering and uplifting.
In other words, a Leslie who “marries” two possums at the zoo to improve morale or grows a community vegetable garden to encourage healthy eating (the plot of the first two episodes of Season 2) is a lot more than a Leslie who struggles and fails for six episodes to fill a hole in the neighborhood (the plot of Season 1).
The side characters also took sharper definition in that second season, evolving the cast from “The Amy and Aziz Show” to a true ensemble comedy.
The breakout character quickly became Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, the manliest of men, a libertarian stuck running a government department. Swanson’s unconventional personality, fantastic joke delivery, and admirable moustache quickly made him an internet hero.
Aubrey Plaza as the super-sarcastic, low-key April Ludgate emerged as another standout. The seriously weird Plaza gives the deadpan, apathetic, somewhat evil April a personality unlike any sitcom character I’ve seen before. Her dislike of pretty much everything is undercut by a sweet playfulness.
The show pulled a hard left on the plot front, ditching Leslie’s crush on Mark (who instead paired up with straight-woman Ann, played by the indispensable Rashida Jones) and putting on the backburner the story about trying to fill the infamous hole from Season 1.
Instead, we get lots of hilarious short stories, like a day when Ron has 94 meetings scheduled, Leslie hosting a telethon, and a disastrous department-wide hunting trip.
Of course, every Greg Daniels show has to have a Jim and Pam, so the show gave us April and Andy Dwyer, Ann’s ex-boyfriend, a pairing that would have made absolutely no sense at the beginning of the show, but ended up being a mind-blowingly inspired pairing, the sweet and funny romantic heart of the second season.
Chris Pratt as Dwyer was initially written as a lazy scumbag, but was gradually rewritten into a effervescent man-child, wacky and energetic and clueless.
After everything was said and done, Parks and Rec Season 2 ended up one of my five or so favorite sitcom seasons ever. During the season, P&R became such a gratifying show to watch, hysterically funny and fundamentally optimistic with really unique characters.
I also love the show’s sense of discovery that second season. As it figured out its characters, it provided surprising moments. The first characters twists of any TV show — in this case, April reluctantly falling for Andy, Ron revealing his two loves (brown-haired women, breakfast food), Tom’s green-card marriage — hit harder than moments from later in the series.
Fortunately — miraculously, even — Parks and Rec kept that peak running. Its third season is the equal of the second. While I prefer the second season on the whole, the show’s third season is probably even more impressive. There are more characters and more plot going on, yet the writers pulled it off pretty flawlessly
Starting with the third season, the show replaced lead Schneider with Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, which would be like the Redskins trading DeAngelo Hall for both Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. It’s an absolute coup, a vast improvement in the charm and skill of the cast.
Particularly wonderful is Scott as Ben Wyatt, a realist counterpoint to the Leslie’s idealism. Scott is one of my favorite actors, and he’s put to great use in Parks and Rec, initially as an antagonist, then as a foil, then as a romantic interest and protagonist, becoming one of the show’s most reliable leads along the way.
Lowe’s run as Chris Traeger proved slightly more troublesome as the writers struggled to ground the character and give him compelling arcs. Lowe himself is pretty delightful, as usual, though.
Along with the cast upgrade came some of the show’s best stories. The department’s attempt to hold a Harvest Festival gave the show a sense of focus and direction, “Flu Season” gave the show some of its funniest jokes, and April and Andy’s surprise in “Fancy Party” is an emotional high-point for the series.
The fourth season, and its focus on Leslie’s attempt to run for local council (and her relationship with Ben), virtually matched the previous two seasons in quality, making the length of Parks’ peak just as impressive than the height of it.
Still, the fourth season is when Parks started to show signs of fatigue. We encountered some “why the hell not?” stories for the first time, like Ann and Tom briefly pairing up and Louis CK reprising his brief but fantastic role as Dave, Leslie’s boyfriend from the second season.
But for every dud of a story line, there was a masterpiece episode to balance it out: “The Debate” is not only funny and winning, but a surprisingly astute political drama as Leslie tries to convince Pawnee that she’d make the city better off; “The Trial of Leslie Knope” is a workplace drama semi-bottle episode that doubles as a romantic comedy; and “End of the World” forces each character to consider what they’d do if the world was ending tomorrow to hilarious and heartwarming effect.
By Season 5, the fatigue was becoming more noticeable, but the show remained a delight as a few good plots always shone bright, and the scripts always remained funny and sharp. Leslie’s new job as City Councilwoman gave the show some fresh faces, and her new career stasis shifted the season’s stories to the side characters.
Still, the best story from Season 5 is Leslie’s: The moving episode where she and Ben get married. (“I love you and I like you.”) Kudos to Parks for not dragging out the will-they-won’t-they game for their two best couples once they got together: Leslie-Ben and April-Andy.
At this point, I’m committed to Parks and Rec to the end — it’s earned that with a half decade more consistent and perfect than just about any comedy you’ll ever watch — but with Season 6’s sense of repetition and complacency (Can you blame them? Are there really six seasons of stories about a local Parks and Recreation department?), I feel less need than ever to keep up to date with the show.
Season 7 is slated to be the show’s last, and a structural twist from the Season 6 finale promises to make the final season a very intriguing one.
Unlike with the worse seasons HIMYM or The Office, these later seasons of Parks and Rec are still pretty easy to appreciate and enjoy. It’s like ending your night of drinking by sobering up and collapsing into bed rather than moaning with your face in a toilet.
Parks and Rec was so great at it’s peak that I actively try to go a long time without watching reruns so I can forget what happens. It never works — the temptation always has me hitting play on episodes like “The Possum” or “Li’l Sebastian” whenever I need a quick pick-me-up.
Thank you, Leslie, Ron, Ben, April, Andy, Chris, Tom, Ann, Donna, and Jerry. Thanks even to Mark Brandanawicz.
Thank you, Michael Schur and Greg Daniels. Thank you to one of the greatest writing rooms in sitcom history.
You gave us a show that wasn’t just a delight to watch almost 100% of the time, but one that also FELT important and influential as it did so.
A couple other thoughts:
- Ron is my favorite character, but I always felt like there was a little bit of a missed opportunity with him. He rarely played adversary to Leslie in any significant way, which really doesn’t make sense if you think about the characters’ relationships. There’s one episode in the second or third season that cuts between two talking heads: One of Leslie saying she would one day run for city manager and triple the size of the Parks department, one of Ron say he would run for city manager and cut the department. I always wanted to see this as an actual plot.
- Jean Ralphio is one of the funniest side characters in any sitcom ever. One of my favorite scenes from P&R ever is a tag, all in one shot, of Jean Ralphio entering an office as a temp, walking around the office with his new boss, admitting to lying on his resume, hitting on a girl, being promptly fired, and leaving the office.
- Along with The Wire, Schur cites Cheers and The Simpsons and two of his favorite shows. You can see the influence of both comedies, particularly The Simpsons — the growing cast of Pawnee feels carefully modeled after Springfield.
“That was amazing. That was a flu-ridden Michael Jordan at the ‘97 NBA finals. That was Kirk Gibson hobbling up to the plate and hitting a homer off Dennis Eckersley. That was… That was Leslie Knope.”