Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TV review: 'Parks and Recreation' an 'Office' copy, and not as funny

Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation.

By John Thomason

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then Greg Daniels and Michael Schur are narcissists.

The TV gurus who created NBC’s successful The Office have gone beyond a mere repetition of theme and style with their latest effort for the network, Parks and Recreation (8:30 p.m. Thursdays): They’ve photocopied The Office and slapped a new name on it.

At the head of the cast is Amy Poehler, whose eternally optimistic Leslie Knope is a Xerox of Michael Scott, just with a second X chromosome instead of a Y. As the deputy director of a Parks and Recreation department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind., she holds a position of faux power, even as her crack staff laughs at her behind her back.

Her intellect and intuition, two areas she prides herself on, are lower than anyone's on her team. She’s driven by naïve delusions of grandeur and frequently puts her foot in her mouth with racially insensitive comments. Sound familiar?

Ditto to the pseudo-documentary style, which hasn’t been novel since the around the dawn of the millennium. Just as in The Office, characters address the camera in sit-down interviews and elsewhere, and the cinematography peeks through office corners and crevasses with typical ersatz voyeurism.

This style -- self-conscious and self-effacing, lazy and unoriginal – hampers a show that has an otherwise strong, relevant foundation. In a Newsweek profile on Poehler, Joshua Alston said, “Of all the television characters to emerge in the era of Obama, none captures the zeitgeist quite like Leslie Knope.”

The show’s protagonist is driven by hope and idealism, blindly confident that the government can enact real change. She wants to turn a dangerous neighborhood pit into a public park, a seemingly doable task that would feasibly have the Obama administration’s stimulus-project logo all over it. But as the show progresses, the ideal becomes an ordeal as Leslie jumps through one bureaucratic hoop after another.

In the series’ second episode, she canvasses the neighborhood and hosts a public forum to gin up support for the park, but both efforts turn disastrous. In episode three, she seeks the help of the city’s major daily, The Pawnee Journal (“It’s like our town’s Washington Post,” beams Leslie), whose reporter ends up uncovering embarrassing facts that set the project back further.

Leslie is helped in her mission by an affable supporting cast of government and community figures, including a Muslim-American co-worker (Aziz Ansari), a colleague from another department who once mistakenly slept with Leslie (Paul Schneider) and a nurse from the neighborhood who brought the pit problem to Leslie’s attention (the lovely Rashida Jones, an Office alum).

The supporting players are all memorable, even Leslie’s boss (Nick Offerman), a right-wing, anti-government government bureaucrat, and the show offers a few genuine chuckles each episode. Leslie asking a toddler in a sandbox to respond to a technical park questionnaire is hilarious, and so is the team’s canvassing mission, whose only successful convert is the town pedophile.

But after three episodes, I’ve laughed about as much as I would in any given half-hour of 30 Rock. Part of the problem may the unwarranted buzz. Amy Poehler has been on the cover of everything but Popular Mechanics this past month, and this oversaturation made me sick of Parks and Recreation before the pilot even aired. But mostly, it comes down to a show willing to rest on the stylistic laurels of its stronger predecessor and not bringing enough of its own material.

Nielsen tends to agree. The show brought nearly 7 million viewers for the pilot, but the numbers have dropped to almost 5 million by Week Three. One can assume Leslie will eventually get her park built – if the show lasts that long.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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