an unbiased view by the MostlyFilm poster known only as Ron Swanson
Good news everyone! Parks and Recreation begins this week on BBC Four. It kicks off with a double episode tonight (Wednesday) at 22:00, and is repeated on Sunday at 20:00. It is, quite simply, the best of the current crop of American TV comedy, and, thus, it’d be a terrible shame if you missed it.
It’s taken a long time for the show to reach UK screens – it’s now in season 5 in the US, and while it’s never become the huge hit it deserves to be, it has a devoted following; and in terms of quality, it goes from strength to strength. I actually find it confusing why it’s never been a big hit in the USA. Its creators are Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (who is the show-runner), who previously teamed up on The Office (An American Workplace), where Daniels was the showrunner, and which has been an enormous success. Amy Poehler was a highly popular star on Saturday Night Live, and the show, in its early days, doesn’t move too far from The Office’s formula for success.
In fact, you could argue that it was held back by that familiarity, in much the same way that The (US) Office was slow to start due to its slavish following of the UK version’s plots in its first series. In the first series of Parks…, Leslie Knope (Poehler), the Deputy Director of the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana, is little more than a goofy clone of Steve Carell’s character from Daniels’ earlier show. She’s a little socially awkward, doesn’t hear negative things about herself and is a little too cartoonish to be believable.
The brilliance of the show lies in the way that character was subtly changed, and developed, to the point where she’s gone from being the sort of person nobody knows, and never could, to the sort of person everybody wishes that they did. She is, without doubt, TV’s brightest and best hero – an inspirationally capable, intelligent, unfailingly honest, self-confident, funny, loyal, resilient, fun-loving, more than a little sexy idealist, whose whole personality is infectious, not just for the audience, but for her fellow characters.
That evolution is not limited to Leslie. Take Andy Dwyer, played by (the soon to be huge) Chris Pratt. In the first series, he’s the catalyst for the whole plot, but, he’s an annoyance. He falls down a pit, which causes Leslie to resolve to turn said pit into a park, which brings her into contact with Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), Andy’s girlfriend. Leslie and Ann become best friends, and it is immediately clear that Andy is an enormous drain on Ann, so we come to resent him. Once they resolve that, though, Andy is transformed (although, not really in terms of his core personality) into the show’s second most likable character – he becomes the very definition of an amiable buffoon.
Pratt and Poehler, though, are just two pieces of the best ensemble cast on TV; a cast filled out by Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Nick Offerman, amongst others. The Parks department is made up of uninspired, incompetent and downright intransient government employees, from Ron Swanson (Offerman), Leslie’s boss whose attitude to government is best summed up by the following quote – “I have so many ideas. Some are simple, like take down traffic lights and eliminate the post office. The bigger ones will be tougher, like, bring all this crumbling to the ground.”, to Tom Haverford (Ansari), a wannabe player whose obsession with hip hop icons, swag and hare-brained business schemes stand in the way of him ever doing any work, at all.
The performances are perfect, and alongside Pratt; Ansari, Offerman and Aubrey Plaza are breakout stars. Plaza, who had a small but very effective role in Funny People, and played the lead in last year’s underseen Safety Not Guaranteed, plays the apathetic college student, April Ludgate, on a placement and bewildered and bemused by Leslie’s energy and indefatigability. It’s probably Offerman whose star has risen the most, thanks to the show, however. Ron is the breakout character of the show – an unremittingly hilarious presence, whose viewpoint differs from Leslie’s in every single way, yet their friendship is a touchstone for the programme. Behold, below, the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness.
All of the show’s highpoints come from the mixture of humour and heart. In the first series, which is, as mentioned, a slow start to a great show, they don’t get that balance quite right because you cannot care enough about the characters to ground the wackiness to anything real. From season 2, onwards, Schur gets that balance as close to perfect as any show has managed. That that happens is down to Poehler, playing the character embodying that heart.
I’ve eulogised the character, already, but the performance is incredible. Poehler is a wonderful actress. She’s never won an award for her work here, being overlooked in favour of Laura Dern and Lena Dunham in the last couple of years, decisions that I find absolutely incredible (in spite of loving both Enlightened and Girls). Nobody else could play Leslie Knope like Amy Poehler does, it’s a performance that relies upon her natural charm, and while Leslie knocks down boundaries, we see her fleeting moments of doubt and insecurity writ exquisitely on her face.
One of my favourite sit-com types is the hang-out show. You get that from New Girl and How I Met Your Mother, but Parks and Recreation delivers it in spades. These characters feel like friends that you’re dropping in on, and the writers have crystallised that quite beautifully. It’s a show which embraces silly humour, and mixes it with heart-rending romance and some of the most accurate depictions of friendship you’ll find anywhere on TV.
It’s hard to pick a favourite episode from the show’s outstanding resume, but if pushed, I would choose ‘The Fight’, from about half-way through season 3. Tom, by this point a minority share-holder in hot Pawnee nightspot The Snakehole Lounge invites his friends to try his new alcoholic drink, Snake Juice. Andy and April embark on a bit of roleplay, taking on pseudonyms of an FBI agent and a nefarious widow with a dark secret, Ann and Leslie have their first fight, and everybody gets absolutely slaughtered. It’s a hilarious episode, with a number of stand-out moments (RON SWANSON DANCES!), and as always, the friendship between Ann and Leslie is judged to perfection. It encapsulates everything great about this show – and showcases its trump emotional card, which is that small personal moments of decency can have an impact on your friends and on the world at large.
While Parks… has never become a huge hit, it has lasted for 84 episodes, and counting, and is a fairly sure bet to reach a sixth series, so it enters syndication, and earns big bucks for the creators and exceptional cast. You certainly won’t be wasting your time by tuning in this week, and joining the small, but growing band, of Parks and Rec fanatics. Just remember, that what you’re watching right now, is a dry run for the best show on television*, which is about six weeks away.
* Aside from Breaking Bad. DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE!