Having covered local government for a couple of small newspapers, I can say pretty categorically that there is hardly an unlikelier subject for a television comedy. So the fact that NBC’s new show “Parks and Recreation,” about a local government functionary in Indiana, is even a little bit funny is a minor miracle.
And in spots, it’s more than a little funny. But as a whole, the show — which comes from the folks behind “The Office” and mimics its documentary style — still has some work to do to find its footing.
Whether that can happen during “Parks and Rec’s” brief six-week run this spring is the big question. The show has a talented and game star in Amy Poehler and some good talent around her, but in Thursday’s premiere (8:30 p.m. ET, sandwiched between new “Office” episodes), the parts don’t quite fit. And the fake-documentary format, which was a pretty new thing for TV when “The Office” debuted in 2005, is almost too familiar — or at least employed in too similar a way.
Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a mid-level employee in the Pawnee, Ind., parks and recreation department whose optimism and ambition confounds and annoys her colleagues. She’s the Michael Scott of this story, albeit one whose sights are set a little higher than her current post. She sees her current job as the first step on the path to greatness, noting in the pilot that it’s a great time for women in politics: “Hillary Clinton. Sarah Palin. Me. … Nancy Pelosi.”
Her co-workers don’t see it that way. Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), hates government and dreams of the park system being privatized, while her colleague Tom (Aziz Ansari, “Scrubs”) is more interested in using his job for his own ends. Leslie has a possible ally in city planner Mark (Paul Schneider) — who marvels at her continued cheerfulness but doesn’t remember that they had a one-night stand several years ago.
Leslie finds her crusade when Ann Perkins (“Office” alum Rashida Jones) complains at a community forum about a large pit in a vacant lot near her house, one that her loser boyfriend (“Everwood” scene-stealer Chris Pratt) fell into and broke both his legs. Leslie impulsively declares that she’ll fill in the pit and put a park on top of it — or at least form a subcommittee to examine the possibility of starting to do those things.
“Office” executive producers Greg Daniels and Mike Schur co-created “Parks and Recreation,” and they’re in their comfort zone when Leslie and other characters are talking to the documentary cameras. Poehler, who was the best thing about “Saturday Night Live” in several seasons, brings a wide-eyed, chipper quality to her character that comes across like Tracy Flick from “Election,” all grown up.
But aside from one slightly drunken moment with Ann — they’re celebrating the formation of their subcommittee — late in the premiere, almost all of Poehler’s best moments come when she’s by herself. Her interactions with other characters all feel a little awkward — which may be intentional, given that her character is awkward too — but becomes a little off-putting. It doesn’t help that none of her co-workers, with the possible exception of Mark the planner, is very likable.
“The Office” may have succeeded a little too well in making the documentary format familiar to audiences, because its use here feels a little bit rote. There are several scenes where a character says one thing, only to be contradicted by another character’s talking head. It’s something we’ve seen a hundred times on “The Office,” and it just doesn’t work as well here.
Maybe it will after we get to know the people in “Parks and Recreation” a little better, which I’m willing to do given the talented folks involved. I’m hopeful that Daniels, Schur, Poehler and Co. can course-correct and fix some of the problems that show up in the premiere. If they can’t, though, “Parks and Recreation” probably won’t be elected to a second term.
Here are a couple of clips from the “Parks and Recreation” premiere.