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It’s unfair to compare NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” to “The Office” just because they share writers and producers. “Office” didn’t any more invent the mockumentary than its British predecessor, and to act as if “Parks” has to be measured against that show’s standard gives short shrift to a genuinely funny and engaging comedy that bears stylistic similarities to “Office” but has a heart and mind all its own.
Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Ind., is the kind of naive, blindly cheerful central character that’s admittedly reminiscent of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. But the key difference is that Michael’s idiocy is egocentric, while Leslie’s lack of self-awareness and her zealousness to please ultimately are designed to benefit those around her. In the words of Pawnee resident Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), she’s “kinda doofy, but sweet.”
The series revolves around Leslie and her fellow low-level government employees, including Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) and her boss, Ron (Nick Offerman). Leslie is endearingly optimistic about her ability to effect change in the community, so when Ann appears at a meeting to complain about a giant undeveloped pit next to her apartment that’s become a safety hazard, Leslie takes it upon herself to try and reclaim the land and get a park built on the lot.
As far as structured plot goes, that’s about it, but that thread is more than enough to connect a series of often hilarious moments in which Poehler and the talented cast riff on their natural chemistry. Ansari plays the same cocky and somewhat lazy schemer he’s perfected in roles ranging from “Scrubs” to features like “Observe and Report,” but he’s great at it. It’s also nice to see Schneider, so wonderful in dramatic work, fit snugly within a comedic ensemble. Offerman is similarly poised to have a few breakout moments as a conservative official who wants to dismantle and privatize his department and who looks to Bobby Knight for leadership tips.
But it’s Poehler who owns the show, and she proves instantly that she’s got the comic intelligence to carry a series like this, which draws its energy from character interactions instead of the broad punch lines you’d get on, say, a Chuck Lorre show. She’s awkward but not alienating, and eager without being repelling. Most of all, there’s a genuine heart to her that gives the comedy a balance and lets it be mocking without resorting to cruelty. It’s funny, smart and fast. I hope it sticks around.
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