Friday, April 17, 2009

Never Judge a Show by its Pilot: Parks and Recreation

WARNING: This article could make a good drinking game if you take a shot every time you read The Office. Please read responsibly.
First impressions:
NBC is setting the bar very high as they promote their new sitcom Parks and Recreation by saying, “From Emmy Award-winning executive producers Greg Daniels (NBC's "The Office," "King of the Hill") and Michael Schur (NBC's "The Office," "Saturday Night Live") comes a new mockumentary that looks at the exciting world of local government.” In the past when I have seen creative people try to do something new or different and the network's selling point of the creative people's new show is those creative people's past successes it did not always do the new show any favors by setting false expectations (Never Judge a Show by its Pilot: THE CLASS). Resume style promotion only impresses Hollywood insiders. Fortunately, the Sneak Previews give me the impression that this new show will do for local government what The Office did for Middle Management/Corporate America. Why can't they just say that? Now more than ever there are many institutions that deserve to be mocked.

FYI: A religious or financial institution would fit nicely in this mockumentary format. Call me...

Unfortunately, after hearing about this show for the last several months (It was originally described as an untitled spin-off of The Office starring Amy Poehler. Then it was not a spin-off of The Office), one has to question if this show is ready for prime time or only half-baked. In fairness to all parties concerned, Amy Poehler's pregnancy did delay the show's production by a few months.

Amy Poehler is funny and has a proven track record on Saturday Night Live, Upright Citizens Brigade, and her movie Baby Mama. She will deliver the laughs no matter what project is thrown her way. I have every confidence that she can carry a show it just has to be the right show. This now begs the question, will people want to watch an Amy Poehler weekly TV show where she only plays one character?

I watched the pilot:
Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope a mid-level bureaucrat in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana who aspires to be high-level bureaucrat. Like on The Office, the familiar documentary cameras follow Leslie throughout her workday. Leslie and the other characters also speak directly to the camera. Leslie is assisted by her colleague, Tom Haverford played by Aziz Ansari. I thought the Leslie-Tom dynamic is similar to that of Michael & Jim on The Office only Tom has a lower moral threshold and uses his government job for personal gain. Where Leslie aspires to be the the first woman president, Tom aspieres to be another Governor Blagojevich.

The episode opens with Leslie holding a town hall meeting, where she meets a local nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) whose boyfriend (Chris Pratt) fell into a pit on an abandoned construction site and broke his legs. Leslie is inspired to turn the site into a community park. Leslie's boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), is anti-government and would rather see the parks department run by a corporation like Chuck E. Cheese. Leslie's savior is city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) who has been in public service for fifteen years and was burned out after his first two months on the job. Leslie has a special place in Mark's heart because Mark sees that Leslie really believes in the cause where everybody else is either burned out or cynical... They also slept together. Mark calls in a favor from Ron to let Leslie have her park project. Rounding out the cast is Aubrey Plaza who plays the apathetic college intern April Ludgate.

Now we met the characters and we know their agendas. I can see the "Building a Park" story-line carrying the show from now to the fall season and possibly beyond. When you add how people feel about civil service workers, this show might take off.

I still see this show as a spin-off of The Office. Even though we do not see any of Dunder Mifflin employees, the always present but never seen or heard documentary film camera is for all practicable purposes a character and an obvious link between the two shows. Things look optimistic for this new show but as you know, I never judge a show by its pilot.

I saw the following episode:

We meet Leslie's unsupportive mother (Played by Pamela Reed) who is high up in the school board. Leslie and her team canvas the neighborhood to get support on the park project. The city manager has federal funding, wants to fast track Leslie’s project, and attends the next night’s town hall meeting that turns out to be a disaster. I had a few laughs through out the episode (Especially the Easter egg hunt where Tom forgot to hide the eggs). The funniest part is the sense that the show is more plugged into our own political reality more than anybody wants to admit. I can see people watch the show and ask, "What real event inspired this episode?" I do not see a public servant in the future approach Amy Poehler and saying, "I became a bureaucrat because of you.” Then again...

To quote Leslie Knope, “This is where the rubber of government meets the road of actual human beings.”

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa
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