Next door to ‘The Office’
It seemed somehow inevitable that 2009 would be an Amy Poehler year, that the actress would be lifted by the rising water that is Tina Fey -- her former “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update” co-anchor and her costar in last year’s “Baby Mama” -- and by her part in the pop-cultural wing of the 2008 election, in which she imitated Hillary Rodham Clinton and rapped like (but not as) Sarah Palin.
So here she comes now, taking up residence on the Thursday-night NBC comedy bloc alongside Fey’s “30 Rock” and “The Office,” whose producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur are also behind “Parks and Recreation,” the series formerly known as Untitled Amy Poehler Project. Reports of a “troubled” show, springing off a leaked focus group report citing, among other things, the lack of a “datable” male lead, are -- in the creative if not the commercial sense -- quite exaggerated. (The most favorable response, according to the report, came when Poehler fell into a hole, so, you know, go from there.) Tonight’s opener starts slowly but hits cruising speed soon enough.
Although it’s not the spinoff of “The Office” that was early rumored, hoped for or feared, the show most certainly plays as a variation on that series: It’s another faux documentary about a dimwitted middle-manager whose self-image jibes imperfectly with the world’s view of her, and whose dreams of glory are founded on air. But the similarities between these shows is no more a handicap than -- to go to the roots of this genre -- those between Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” and his “Best in Show.” “Parks” tells its own story on its own terms.
Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a subaltern in the Parks and Recreation Department of the fictional Indiana town of Pawnee. After six years of undimmed optimism in a job that for most of her colleagues is no more than a place to kill time between paychecks, her sense of mission finally finds its object when nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones from, yes, “The Office”) arrives at a “community outreach forum” to complain about a large pit near her house, left by a bankrupt developer.
“Frankly, I don’t care for politics,” Ann begins, to a spontaneous round of applause.
“I will help you,” Leslie tells her and, in a moment of vision and daring, “pinkie promises” to build a park on the abandoned property. The project, she believes, “could be my Hoover Dam.”
Not helping her in this quest are supervisor Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who thinks that the parks should be privatized and run for profit, “like Chuck E. Cheese,” and self-aggrandizing assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), who regards Leslie with amused contempt. Charged by Leslie with recording her thoughts for a future memoir, he writes nothing but squiggles.
“Committees are the lifeblood of our democratic system,” says Leslie. “That’s really good. Write that down.”
“Committees cover our democracy with blood,” he says, when asked to read it back to her.
“It sounded better when I said it,” says Leslie.
Her one ally is city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider, not so “undatable” as all that, it seems to me), who has lost his own enthusiasm for his work but has a kind of affectionate respect for Leslie’s.
“I would give up on that one,” he tells her, when she describes her plan.
“It sounds like you’re telling me to go for it,” she replies.
Like “The Office,” it does its work quietly -- too quietly for some, I’m sure -- and it is no more about actual small-town politics than is the “Adult Swim” cartoon “Tom Goes to the Mayor.” But it has a kind of sunny charm, a premise fit for a novel, and is built upon a pair of strong female leads, a rare enough thing in sitcoms. Poehler and Jones have a nice, contrapuntal rhythm. I stamp this show: approved.
‘Parks and Recreation’
When: 8:30 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)