Parks and Recreation had a bumpy ride, starting off as a decent The Office knock off, before developing into a brilliant sitcom that often outclasses The Office. Unfortunately, audiences never really found the show, and despite its excellence, it often fails in the ratings, making its future ambiguous each season. It’s a shame because during each season it grows artistically, and the fourth season shows the crew of writers and actors at their peak.
The third season ended Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the deputy head of the parks department, being courted for city council, by a political exploratory committee. When asked if there was any potential scandal, Leslie lied about her relationship with Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), the state auditor who was brought in to fix the catastrophic finances of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. To help Leslie’s political ambitions as well as to help her keep her job, Ben quits his job and begins a spiral toward depression and a crisis of identity. Leslie’s campaign doesn’t start so well, and is quickly abandoned by the committee, but is resurrected by her crew of friends who each take on tasks to help with Leslie’s campaign.
I was initially concerned about the direction of the show – I always liked seeing the characters interact in the parks and rec office or in one of their parks. I was concerned about pulling Leslie out of the environment, but these concerns were unfounded. In fact, the campaign injected a great story arc that created some fantastic stakes for Leslie and Ben. But it’d be a mistake to think that it’s all about Leslie. Her assistant, Tom (Aziz Ansari) has indulged in his entrepreneurial spirit and sunk his savings into Entertainment 720, an entertainment company that’s in charge of doing stuff like movies, parties, records, happenings – the company gets a huge promo for doing the memorial service for local hero Lil’ Sebastian in the seventh season, but Tom and his business partner Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz), don’t know what they’re doing, and quickly Entertainment 720 becomes an unmitigated disaster.
Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson (a superb Nick Offerman), continues to be a great comic presence for the show. He’s still battling his ex-wives Tammy (they’re both named Tammy – nuts, I know…). He also must deal with the campaign and the possibility of losing Leslie as his deputy – it’s interesting because Ron’s always had an ambivalent relationship toward his work – he obviously loves it and the people he works for, but his proudly anti-government views, prevent him from taking too much time and investing too much energy into his work, lest he allows his image to be sullied by perceptions from others that he gives a crap.
If there is one thing that the show still hasn’t been able to figure out is Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). Leslie’s best friend was given a token job at the public health department so that it makes sense that the woman hangs around city hall all the time. Still, the writers haven’t gotten a real comic handle on the woman, which is a shame because Jones is a funny actress, and should be given more to do than just being the straight man to the antics of Poehler. In a head-scratching move, the writers have begun to explore a relationship between Ann and Tom – it doesn’t make sense, and though I love Tom, I think Ann’s way out of his league; still, in past seasons, sour romances have brought out the best in Ann: for example, when she breaks up with Indiana state auditor, Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), her even-keeled demeanor slips and she becomes wonderfully neurotic (she even painted a red stripe in her hair).
The genius of Parks and Recreation is that instead of wallowing in cringe-worthy humor and slamming on its characters, the writers have genuine love and affection for the characters. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope initially was a bizarre, pencil-pushing bureaucrat, that was so wrapped up in herself, she blundered through her work, without a trace of self awareness; from the second season on, we got another Leslie – a better one: a hyper competent, uber-intelligent lady, whose enthusiasm and love for her job and friends sometimes gets her in trouble. Instead of the lovable loser, we get the lovable winner. Poehler, a comedienne of a manic, pixie energy, has also been given some lovely low-key moments, and she’s proven herself the best comedic actress working on TV this year (there is no excuse for her not winning an Emmy).
The excellent thing about the show is how invested viewers become in Leslie’s quest for political ascendency. It’s no secret that the woman has political ambitions – her office has framed photos of her heroes: Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and her mother Marlene Griggs-Knope (a brilliant Pamela Reed), who heads Pawnee’s school system. Whether she wins or loses, her journey and how her friends rally behind her is beautiful – and really funny because of the rag tag, homemade nature of her campaign (there’s a ridiculously awesome scene where the crew have to inch their way across an ice rink, when Tom fails to order enough red carpet to reach a makeshift stage).
Parks and Recreation is a great show, with each episode hitting some fantastic comedic notes: some painful, some touching, but all very funny.