Documented not by how it bulldozed audience viewing figures, or netted its stars one mil per episode (ahem, Friends), but by its consistent resilience not only by being “on the bubble” for six seasons – wherein a show doesn’t really warrant renewing, due to dwindling audience figures, yet US television network NBC believed in it anyway – but by permeating itself in the zeitgeist where you least expected it to.
Parks (just saved myself two seconds) was never the show you discovered your best friend had also discovered, same time as you – it was always the show that came up randomly in a conversation with the guy who worked on your floor but it just so happens you were never at the photocopier at the same time. It’s the show you had in common with your uni mate’s mate’s mate from home, and you were so ecstatic to find someone who appreciated it as much as you do. Or, simply, you were the one to introduce it to your friends, and they ended up seeing the light, same as you.
Parks’ problem with finding itself a British audience was two-fold; firstly, it was never given the time of day on UK airtime. BBC Three picked it up once it was well into its fourth season in the States. They soon dropped it (either due to all the drama with BBC Three or the fact that no one was watching), and Dave have decided to simply air it from Season 4 (which first aired in the States in 2012) as of about six weeks ago, airing multiple episodes at a time. Considering Parks first started airing in 2009, the British channels responsible for airing US shows severely dropped the ball on this one.
The second part of that two-fold comment is simple; when we recommend our favourite shows to our friends, we are well aware that the early seasons are crap. And you have to fight through them, to get to the good stuff. A controversial statement follows – the first series of Breaking Bad is good, but it ain’t great. That counts for half the second series too. But you may agree, that people in the know who were farther ahead of you agreed, it got better. This is due to one simple fact; when the people creating TV shows create their TV shows, they need time, themselves – they need time to get all the annoying, quote-unquote boring set-up out the way. The writers on these shows need their own time to piece together who their characters actually are, and the showrunner(s) need(s) time to figure out what their story really is. The producers need time to figure out what their show is, and the studio responsible for putting it out on the airwaves need to know if people are actually responding to it.
All of these facets are interlinked; the writers know which characters are striking a chord with the audience via feedback. The showrunner knows which storylines are striking a chord via the former. The producers knows which show they have following decisions made by the showrunner. And the studio knows if the show is striking a chord thanks to ever-increasing audience figures (one would hope). Most successful US TV shows in recent history follow a simple pattern in that the second season tends to be better than the first, because everybody understands their pros and cons a hell of a lot better after being one season on the air.
Parks and Rec is one of those shows (unfortunately, to its detriment in the UK). It’s the show we tell our friends, “just get through the first season, it’s only six episodes”. Then it finally becomes its own animal, and hits its stride. It’s easy for us to retrospectively see why the first season of Parks isn’t so great, but it’s harder to convince our friends to try it out and stick with it.
The show started life as an ostensible spinoff to the American version of The Office, and already, groans can be heard. Yet, it was already in the development process that the creators (who had previously been involved in The Office: An American Workplace) decided it could be its own thing. Sure, it still followed the mockumentary format, which you’re damn well sure it played fast-and-loose with over its seven years of existence, but US Office holdover Rashida Jones ended up having a new character crafted around her rather than her existing one – before the pilot had even started shooting, it was a separate animal to its spiritual forebear.
Parks, as it ended up being borne into creation, follows the Deputy Director of a small-town-Indiana governmental department – three guesses what the department is called – as she attempts to clean up her town’s image and provide beautiful parks and joyous recreation for the often-ungrateful inhabitants of the town she loves and calls home. Said Deputy Director is played to perfection (eventually) by Amy Poehler, who, just like the rest of the soon-to-be-rounded-out main cast, became so enamoured and involved with her character that her role in the creation of the show grew, and grew, and grew. Poehler is an alumni of comedic-proving ground Saturday Night Live in the States, and her involvement in Parks was a coup from day one.
Although, admittedly, Poehler’s character (Leslie Knope) played like a governmental-version of Michael Scott (Steve Carrell’s character in the US Office – well-meaning and likable, yet buffoonish), the writers touch upon Leslie Knope’s true, shining characteristic, early on. She’s capable, and she cares. Once Leslie becomes her own character, and not just a touchstone for people looking for the next Office, the show really took off and became its own thing.
The first season continued to stumble whilst finding its feet – even half the second season doesn’t land like it should. Knope’s crush on badboy city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) is cliché and even lifeless, the show’s producers and writers barely being able to invest effort into it – like it was a studio-mandated romance. They thankfully move on from the subplot extremely quickly. It’s very telling that Schneider more or less amicably parted ways with the show at the close of the second season, as his character had almost nothing to do apart from have a miscalculated relationship with Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). He has since gone on to say that the producers simply didn’t know what to do with the character, and it stopped being an interesting character for him to play – he was simply the perennial straight man to the wacky denizens of the Parks department, which only made him stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a shame they couldn’t do more with Schneider, as he is one of the most underrated and underutilised actors working today.
The only players who tend to draw the most focus (other than Poehler, of course) in those initial six episodes are Aziz Ansari as wannabe entrepreneur Tom Haverford, and Rashida Jones as concerned citizen Ann. The bulk of the first season’s laughs come from Tom’s constant mugging at the camera in regards to Leslie’s pratfalls (again, an element which happily dies down once Parks escapes its Office roots during the second season).
Its story is given purpose by Ann, whose boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt – giving Parks fans the world over the ammunition to say how much they loved him before his current superstar status) falls into the pit “occupying” the vacant lot next to their house and breaks both his legs. Ann raises the issue at the public forum populated by Leslie and Tom, and asks what the government is going to do about it. The tenaciousness of Leslie Knope that we come to appreciate and admire throughout the show is borne for us here, and perhaps the character as well – she declares that she’s going to build a park on the lot.
The majority of the first season is propelled by the bureaucratic loopholes that the Parks team encounter en route to their mission, not limited to Leslie’s own libertarian boss (and launcher of a thousand memes) Ron Swanson. Nick Offerman invests so much of his own personality and ethos into the character that the two are currently inseparable in the zeitgeist (alpha male values; libertarianism; a fine appreciation of woodwork). He is without a doubt one of the MVPs of the entirety of the series, but saying this does a disservice to every other performer on the show, who all do absolutely sterling work.
Chris Pratt, now a global superstar and headliner of two of the highest-grossing films of the last two years (if not, all time), excels in his performance as lovable buffoon Andy Dwyer. His puppy-dog line delivery made him a fan-favourite early on, extending what was meant to be a one-season appearance into seven. Andy’s relationship with April Ludgate (another character played to perfection, by Aubrey Plaza) is one of the most wholesome parts of the show; two people who in no way should be together being that their personalities exist on opposite parts of the spectrum, for the most part – his ruthless optimism, and her outright cynicism born out of an apathy towards engaging with the world in any way – yet still they come together in a such a fashion that feels completely organic and deserved for both.
Andy and April’s shared love of shirking responsibility and playing juvenile games with each other/generally mucking about (which is as enjoyable for us as it is for them) creates one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent memory – the real dramatic relationship stuff tends to be left to Leslie, so Andy and April can represent for the viewer an idealised fun-loving young couple, a necessary counter-balance to the weight and heft certain US sitcoms tend to have, with more emotionally-engaging storylines.
There are too many great supporting actors/characters to list them all, not least of all Rob Lowe in one of his best roles of recent memory (overwhelmingly positive exercise freak City Manager Chris Traeger), and the class duo of Retta and Jim O’Heir rounding out the Parks team as Donna and Garry/Jerry/Larry Gergich (don’t ask – just watch and enjoy) respectively. Beyond this, one of the best parts of Parks is the myriad of townspeople who come through our characters’ doors and lives. The amount of weirdos and oddballs that grace the screen are comparable only with The Simpsons; arguably, one of the best elements of that television staple are the many and varied residents of Springfield, each a fantastic character unto themselves – a trend and trope repeated here.
Much like Springfield, the inhabitants of Pawnee, Illinois turn up where necessary to exacerbate our heroes’ lives and crack us up in equal measure. We can literally randomly pick any recurring guest star and it’ll be a fantastic character – Tom’s douchebag millennial best mate Jean-Ralphio, for example, with a penchant for swagger and bluster and no actual skills; or matter-of-factly news reporter Perd Hapley – one of his best quotes being from his movie review show, Lights, Camera, Perd. “It’s a heartwarming story, but it’s just not believable! Which is why I give ET – one and a half stars.”
The calibre of talent extends to such big name draws as Paul Rudd and one heck of a surprise cameo in the show’s finale, which I won’t ruin here, as the face of the town’s mysterious Mayor Gunderson is finally revealed. Rudd in particular steals the season he appears in, where he appears as Leslie’s opponent in her bid for City Council.
Having such a well-drawn out supporting cast of dozens and dozens of actually-fleshed-out (to an extent) townspeople made Pawnee a living, breathing place. You end up caring for the townspeople, frustrating though they may be, just as much as Leslie does. That is a testament to the writers and the quality of the actors, even those who appear for a fraction of a scene.
The aforementioned (half-)season-long story arcs are great touchstones for this reviewer in determining what the high- and low-points of the series are. The first series’ plot is obviously a servile mechanism for the show to find itself, the pit beside Ann’s house being a forward motion device used to get the show underway and its characters all interacting with each other, seeing what works and what doesn’t. No judgement can be passed on a new television show in its first season, as even the creators might know they have a good idea – but not how good it can really be.
The second series sees further goings-on with the pit, and a governmental shutdown which introduces the sterling Adam Scott as state auditor Ben Wyatt, who teams up with Rob Lowe to get Pawnee back on its feet financially. The majority of the second series remains to be the writers finding their feet and finding out more about their cast of characters, as we learn more about Donna and Jerry this season – the latter becoming a tour de force of sad-sack schadenfreude in his own right during this time.
The third and fourth seasons are undoubtedly the best, as the Parks Department undertakes the resurrection of the town’s Harvest Festival to fantastic results (both comedically and otherwise), and Leslie undertakes the previously-mentioned City Council bid. Seasons five and six tend to go through the motions a bit as the writers seemingly get too relaxed, and a lot of the saccharine nature of Parks takes over the proceedings and things tend to get rather twee – especially for a mainstream British audience used to such cynical sitcom output.
By the time we roll around to the seventh and final season, there’s a great three-year time jump which spices everything up just enough to give a show that is slightly lagging creatively one final boost in the arm. The two-part series finale as well does that great TV trope of jumping around to all our favourite characters’ futures, so we get a good idea of where they finally end up and how well things go for them, whilst reuniting all the characters in the “present” (which is still a few years off for us) so they can have one final party in the hallowed halls of the Parks Department.
The thing to remember about Parks is that it all comes to a natural, logical, emotional conclusion so well and truly deserving not only of the characters but the actors playing them and the entire crew who threw seven years of their life into the making of the show. Once you finish watching all seven seasons (which could take you a month, tops, depending on how much of a predilection you have for binge-watching and how much you fall in love with the show), you get this inescapable feeling of being told that you’re never going to be able to see your friends again – like you have lived in Pawnee for some time, and now you’re leaving, moving away to pastures new to try and recreate these relationships with people who will be different, but not necessarily better. It’s a bittersweet realisation.
Through it all, the anchor remains Leslie Knope. Amy Poehler won her one Emmy many times over, as far as anyone who’s worth a damn and watches the show will agree. Her whole arc on the show is not only insanely well-portrayed (iffy characterisation in the first season aside), but frequently fist-pumpingly awesome. Knope works as a character we care about because she so clearly relishes what she does, along with the opportunity to help the town she loves in any way that she can. When she gets inevitable pushback from political opponents and rabble-rousing townspeople who don’t know what’s good for them, we cry out to the skies in frustration right along with her. It makes the small moments of victory for her ever sweeter.
The showrunners decide early on to end the character’s inherent unlucky-in-love streak because it’d simply be too much for both Leslie and viewers to deal with if she’s unlucky-in-work as well as love. Her eventual pairing with another character (without giving anything away) works because on a spiritual, karmic level she deserves it. The ire she receives from the town she constantly tries to help would break the most wilful of people – and it’s a testament to her character that she keeps-on-keeping-on through all of it. She needs to have consistent personal wins; when the town hates her (which is alarmingly often), it helps that she has the love of another.
It still doesn’t mean the writers make it easy on her in her relationship(s); no one wants to see characters on TV being one hundred per cent happy all the time because it’s just not true to life, and there’s no drama gleaned from satisfaction. But a sitcom where the main character is beat down emotionally not only by her job but a lack of ability to connect with even one other person would be too much; it’s too bleak, even for hard-shelled British audiences. This is the sweet spot where Parks lives, with its mantra that work is hard – but as long as you have surrounded yourself with people who you love and love you in return, the hardest of challenges can be overcome.
There is so much on offer here that there is no legit way to cover it all without going on for another thousand words. Just rest assured, die-hard boxed set fanatics will be well-appeased with the special features on offer. Deleted scenes, extended Producer’s Cuts of episodes, sterling commentary tracks (which are as funny as the content of the episodes themselves), webisodes, behind the scenes footage in abundance, a prescient Chris Pratt viral video from 2010 where he pretends to reject an offer from Steven Spielberg to do Jurassic Park IV because he’d rather do Parks, and the gag reels – oh, my, the gag reels. Among the best you’ve ever seen. Chris Pratt is as funny as his on-screen self, and just wait till you see Adam Scott and Aziz Ansari try and sit through the former’s reaction to Mo Collins’ line “I’m gonna go powder my nose… amongst other things.”
Review by Dan Woburn
Parks and Recreation: The Complete Series is out now.