Tonight, NBC debuts the much-awaited Office-spinoff-but-it’s-not-but-it-kind-of-is-except-it’s-not Parks and Recreation, starring Amy Poehler. If you’ve been reading the advance buzz, you may have heard that it’s slavishly imitative of The Office and comes off as an inferior copy. I say that that’s not true—well, not entirely true—that I enjoyed the pilot more than I expected, and that I suggest you give it a chance.
First, the surface similarities to The Office. Like Michael Scott, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is a deluded middle manager; in her case, a bureaucrat in Pawnee, Indiana, with outsized ambitions. When a constituent, Ann (Rashida Jones), complains about a dangerous-city owned hole in the ground—into which her deadbeat boyfriend has fallen and injured herself—Knope decides to make a name for herself by turning it into a beautiful park. “This could be my Hoover Dam!” she declares.
So, OK: a buffoonish lead with delusions of grandeur. But that’s a universal type. The more specific, and distracting, similarity is that Parks is shot in the same mockumentary style as The Office, which I’m guessing was a mandate to make the show resemble an Office spinoff, which can’t possibly live up to the original. And that’s too bad, because much as it tries to seem otherwise, Parks and Recreation is—potentially—quite a different show.
In literal terms, The Office is private sector (business) and Parks is public sector (government). But in a larger sense, Parks is public where The Office is private. The Office is, at heart, about personal issues: love, regret, fulfillment. It’s about the inner lives of people in the self-contained world of Dunder-Mifflin. We rarely, for instance, see the story expand to D-M’s customers.
Parks is, in its conception, about community. It’s about what people want from other people, people whom they don’t know and maybe have little in common with but who, like it or not, they share a home with. While Parks has some of the same Office dynamics of its predecessor—Knope makes the kind of vain requests of her assistant (Aziz Ansari) that Michael does of Pam, for instance—it really becomes interesting when it depicts the larger community. (For instance, a funny scene of citizens yelling at Leslie—or in her words, “caring loudly at me”—at a public meeting.) It’s outward-directed, where The Office is inward-directed.
The most interesting relationship in the pilot is that between Leslie and Ann, which is not really like anything on The Office. The two of them don’t really have much in common besides a hole in the ground, and the vague sense that filling it can somehow, some way make their lives better. Leslie has clearly not really thought through her oversized plan, but it’s all her brain can come up with, and she’s not going to let go of it. (She also has a foil in her boss Ron [Nick Offerman], a government bureaucrat who doesn’t believe in government.) Ann has no real reason to be invested in the project, but she clearly does not have a life to brag about—tending to a boyfriend, already a layabout, who now has an excuse to stay on the couch and ask her to make pancakes. She joins forces with Leslie because, well, what the hell?
I don’t want to oversell this as some kind of metaphor for where the country is right now, but this is a really sweet—though satirically funny—way of showing what government and community are about: people turning to each other, not because anyone has all the answers or is even especially well-qualified to guess at them but because… well, who else have we got?
Potentially, it’s the kind of satire-with-a-heart that executive producer Greg Daniels came up with regularly on King of the Hill. By taking one laughable example of a tiny government project, and showing how intensely important these little battles can be to people, Parks could be the equivalent of the kind of small-bore civic satire you see in the movies of Alexander Payne or the novels of Tom Perrotta (or, combined, in the movie Election).
There’s already a meme developing out there that says, “Well, keep in mind, The Office wasn’t very good when it started, either.” I don’t think that’s true. It did take The Office half a season or so to find its eventual voice, to become a little warmer and flesh out the characters. But I believe The Office, from the get-go, was a distinctive and funny comedy with mounds of potential (though not all critics felt so at the time). I still think “Diversity Day” from the first season was one of the funniest episodes The Office has done, even though it is tonally different from the show a few years later.
Likewise, the Parks and Recreation pilot is funny, with mounds of potential. Its problem is that it seems to be actively downplaying its distinctiveness by emphasizing the surface resemblance to The Office. Whether it manages to do so is still an open question. But watch it tonight. And tell me if you see the potential too, or if I’m just fantasizing about a hole in the ground.