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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ollowing the monumental success of “The Office,” it was only a matter of time before rumors of a spin-off emerged. In what capacity the spin-off would exist, however, remained a mystery. Would it feature one of the original cast members à la “Frasier,” or would it focus on a different branch of Dunder-Mifflin like the “CSI” franchise? As it turns out, it was neither. Instead, executive producer Greg Daniels created a show that was a spin-off strictly in spirit – another mockumentary about the American workplace, except this time, in place of the more generic paper company setting, "Parks and Recreation" goes behind the scenes of a city government office. And as expected, it's a topic ripe for plenty of comedy.
Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, the show stars “Saturday Night Live” veteran Amy Poehler as Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department, Leslie Knope. Desperate to make a name for herself, Leslie goes above and beyond the typical duties of her job, much to the amusement of her deadbeat co-worker, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), who spends his days ridiculing Leslie when he isn’t busy pandering to their lackadaisical boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), in online Scrabble. When a local nurse named Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) speaks out at a weekly community meeting regarding an unsightly dirt pit in the middle of the city – one that her boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), broke both of his legs falling into – Leslie promises to turn it into a public park. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that making the park a reality is going to take a lot of work, and in order to convince her bosses otherwise, Leslie forms a committee made up of her peers, including Tom and Ann, as well as city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) and insipid college intern, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza).
Premiering several months after the typical mid-season replacement (conceivably because production was halted by Poehler’s latest pregnancy), the first season of “Parks and Recreation” only ran for six episodes before closing up shop for the summer. As a result, the writers weren’t given much of a chance to expand the story beyond the main plotline, and even that will continue to play a major role in the immediate future. Still, while a lot of viewers had mixed feelings about the show’s debut season, it featured all the right ingredients needed to become a hit series. Don’t forget, “The Office” wasn’t a commercial success in its first year, and in fact, wasn’t even guaranteed a second season until Steve Carell hit it big with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Amy Poehler has no such summer blockbuster to lean on, but “Parks and Recreation” arguably boasts an even better cast than its sister program. Poehler is essentially playing a female version of Michael Scott, but she does it with a hint of genuine cluelessness that differs from Carell’s blissful naïveté. It’s also nice to see Rashida Jones back in the mockumentary mix after her character was written out of “The Office” (though a spin-off featuring Karen Filippelli would have been welcomed with open arms), and though she plays a great straight man here, I’m not totally convinced that her character can exist on the show beyond the “pit beautification” plotline. The same can be said of season-long guest star Chris Pratt, who’s so hilarious as Ann’s ultra-dependent boyfriend that he really needs to be promoted to series regular. The scene of him bathing (while also cleaning his shorts) in a kiddy pool in the front yard is one of the funniest moments of these six episodes, and though he’s definitely funnier while confined to a pair of leg casts, I’m sure the writers could find something for him do.
Aubrey Plaza and Paul Schneider are equally effective in their respective roles, but the real standouts of the show are Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman. Already a growing force in the comedy world, Ansari steals every scene he’s in – especially those that involve him mocking the woefully oblivious Leslie. Offerman isn't given nearly as much to do, but he does get the best talking heads of the group. His Ron is the kind of guy who, despite working in government, doesn’t believe in it, but instead dreams of the day when it will be “privatized and run entirely for profit by corporations like Chuck E. Cheese.” He speaks further on the topic later in the season, stating the following:
“My idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he's allowed to decide is who to nuke. The man is chosen based on some kind of IQ test, and maybe also a physical tournament, like a decathlon. And women are brought to him, maybe...when he desires them.”
Okay, so maybe the show isn’t quite as quotable as “The Office,” but with only six episodes to impress, “Parks and Recreation” does a far better job convincing its audience to tune in for a second season than its counterpart did in its freshman year. In fact, there’s really no point in even comparing the two shows anymore, because while “Parks and Recreation” was born out of “The Office,” the former has done just enough (and will no doubt continue to do even more) to distinguish itself from the award-winning comedy series. Now that I think of it, it sounds a lot like another show that had to live up to a certain pop cultural phenomenon. And we all know how that turned out.
Special Features: I wasn’t expecting very much in terms of bonus material for the Season One DVD, but Universal has really outdone themselves. Along with cast and crew audio commentaries for all six episodes, the single-disc release also includes over 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a producer’s extended cut of the season finale, an unused cold open, and two music videos by the show’s fictional rock band, Mouse Rat.