Is this long-running mockumentary funnier than The Office?
Parks and Recreation debuted in 2009 with a six-episode first season, and it drew criticism even before it hit the airwaves, with many denouncing it as nothing more than a rip-off of The Office. Certainly, there are similarities, as Parks and Rec is a workplace-based show which plays out in a faux-documentary style, and it was created by those behind the American version of The Office. But it didn’t take long for the show to take off, swiftly finding its own voice and style after a few episodes, and settling into a comfortable groove. Populated with a cavalcade of superlative actors perfectly playing colourful roles, and blessed with razor-sharp writing and strong technical contributions right down the line, Parks and Rec is a genuine winner; an endlessly enjoyable and insanely quotable television show that deserves your attention.
Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, the show focuses on a group of government officials from the Parks and Recreation department. The deputy director is Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a bubbly, optimistic woman who loves her town and feels determined to do good things. In the first season, Knope proposes to build a community park on an abandoned lot located next to the home of nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and her live-in boyfriend Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt). The director of the parks department is cynical Libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who detests the government and abhors his colleagues. Also working with Leslie is underachieving goof Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), as well as uninterested intern April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), among others. As the show progresses, it introduces health-conscious government official Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and the socially awkward Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), the latter of whom develops a romantic relationship with Leslie. The show mostly concentrates on the everyday antics of these people, with Leslie navigating the frustrating world of bureaucracy and dealing with the eccentricities of both the townsfolk and her friends. A number of larger story arcs are pursued, too, with Leslie running for city council and with Andy eventually developing a sweet relationship with April after being dumped by Ann.
That’s about the best synopsis which can be provided for the first five seasons without spoiling the experience. Indeed, Parks and Recreation is the type of TV show that you should watch without knowing how things will pan out, as it’s easy to get emotionally invested in these characters and care about what happens to them. One of the show’s key strengths is the way it develops all of the characters so effortlessly. It’s a massive ensemble and it should be difficult to keep tabs on them all, but you get to know each and every one of them, and you’ll never mistake one supporting character for another. It also helps that Parks and Rec is so damn funny. Comedy is subjective, to be sure, yet this reviewer laughed heartily and frequently while working through the seasons. The characters are highly quotable; it’s no surprise that Ron Swanson quotes appear on t-shirts.
The large selection of writers and directors (including Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, King of Kong director Seth Gordon, Arrested Development veteran Troy Miller, and even Poehler) pack a huge amount into every episode, working to keep the storytelling taut but effective. Literally hours of material is excised from each season, demonstrating that only the best stuff was left in the bite-sized twenty-minute episodes. Some are more successful than others, of course, and there is some plodding from time to time, but Parks and Recreation is, for the most part, smart, sharp and consistently funny, emerging from the shadow of The Office to become its own independent entity. The mockumentary style makes for involving viewing, with big laughs generated from both the ridiculous situations that occur as well as the direct-to-camera interviews interspersed throughout.
What’s most remarkable about Parks and Recreation is the cast; every member of the group is so entertaining, astutely-written and perfectly-performed that they could all front their own show. The production’s secret weapon is Offerman as Swanson. This is a career-defining turn from him, infusing his iconic role with a distinctive personality and many quirky traits. Swanson is the best character on the show, and that’s saying something, with Offerman turning a potentially one-dimensional curmudgeon into a brilliant character with an unlimited armoury of side-splitting one-liners. Equally good is Poehler, who’s almost always on-screen, and who seems utterly incapable of taking a false step or sounding a contrived note. Poehler has a gift for comedy, and she understands the character of Leslie Knope to her very core. It’s the sincerity of the acting which really sells it, as Poehler commits to saying and doing some of the most outlandish things. Also memorable is Plaza, who nails the deadpan style of comedy as the jaded April. She hates everything and everyone, and it’s uproarious to see her projecting her hatred for the world on everyone around her. April becomes Ron’s personal assistant, which is a match made in heaven. Pratt was meant to leave the show after Ann dumps him in season one, but his dumb, underachieving, goofily charming Andy became a fan-favourite, so he was given a permanent spot in the ensemble. Pratt is terrific, making Andy a believable, endearing character.
Another pivotal cast member is Ansari, who’s extraordinarily funny as Tom Haverford. Rashida Jones plays more of a Straight Man in the show, but she’s no less valuable than the rest of the cast; she’s extraordinarily beautiful and she has a flair for comedy. Retta and Jim O’Heir also feature here as Leslie’s co-workers, and both are given times to shine. Rob Lowe and Adam Scott are introduced in the second season, and they’re great. Scott brings real depth to his role, while Lowe is pure comedy dynamite. Parks and Rec has seen its fair share of guest stars, too; Will Forte, Pamela Reed, Justin Theroux, Nick Kroll and Ben Schwartz all appear, while Paul Rudd shows up to play Leslie’s political rival in season four, and Offerman’s real-life spouse Megan Mullaly plays Ron’s second ex-wife Tammy. Patricia Clarkson is Ron’s first ex-wife, also named Tammy, and she’s excellent; her ice-cold, uncaring demeanour frightens everyone… except April, who grows to idolise her.
To be sure, Parks and Recreation hit its peak in its second and third seasons, but although signs of fatigue are beginning to emerge, this nevertheless remains one of the most enjoyable shows on TV. It’s delightful to spend time in the company of these characters, and it’s interesting to see which paths they tread. With season six right around the corner, this reviewer will continue to watch. And if you haven’t seen a single episode of this show, give it a shot – you won’t regret it.