Pawnee has a gay bar, the Bulge, and everyone there is fabulous.
It's one of the revelations on the season premiere of "Parks and Recreation" (NBC, 8:30 tonight), though it alters the town's -- and the show's -- dynamic only a smidge. Mainly, it's another opportunity for misadventure for Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a mid-level city government employee with outsized ambition for her role in the parks department (and undersized talent to pull it off).
The boys at the Bulge fete Leslie for marrying two male penguins at the city zoo, which she did inadvertently. It made her a gay rights champion and a family-values pariah, neither a role for which she was prepared. Conservatives call for her resignation -- "It's Flipper & Eve, not Flipper & Steve," reads a protest graffito -- and the gay community commemorates her Shepard Fairey-style, with a silhouetted head shot that reads KNOPE. Of the Bulge, Leslie says with a sigh, "the nights I've wasted there."
Much more so than "The Office," the show from which it is a conceptual spinoff, "Parks & Recreation" is virtually a procedural: Leslie tries something well-intentioned and innocuous. Mayhem ensues, but with unintended import, Leslie flirts with embracing the meaning, then fumbles before getting the chance to be fully redeemed.
Last season revolved around Leslie's efforts to turn a large construction-site pit, left fallow, into a park. As this season begins, a tiny amount of the pit has become a community garden, but still, it's a hole. A big one.
A doddering do-gooder who occasionally happens upon grace, and even then doesn't know what to do with it, can be an unsteady anchor for a show. Tougher still, Poehler is far too knowing of an actress for Leslie's aw-shucks cluelessness.
On "Saturday Night Live," her sharpest characters were often her darkest. Best were her impressions -- blank pop stars, a Hillary Rodham Clinton full of hang-ups -- that had something savage about them. (Her finest moment may have been popping up from the "Weekend Update" desk to rap on behalf of Sarah Palin.) She also excelled at off-kilter seduction, a master at the sexually charged awkward look.
In short, goofy was never Poehler's thing, and Leslie's persistent daffiness is an ill fit for her. Because she is the show's center, she doesn't have the room to play with character in the way that Aziz Ansari has taken to his role as Leslie's co-worker Tom Haverford. Last season he was hapless, a would-be slickster full of talk but no game, perpetually in awe of Mark (Paul Schneider), the office Lothario.
In this season's first two episodes, though, Tom stands taller and squarer. His shirts bark loudly, in shades of orange and melon. (Cue clumsy Details magazine joke.)
It's as if he's been left unchecked, a surrealist parachuted in from somewhere far loopier. On a local talk show, "Pawnee Today," he slouches deeply in the guest's chair, feet kicked up on a table, and seduces the middle-aged host: "You have the softest skin of any woman in Pawnee."
He shines in a way no other character here does. Mark is anonymously handsome, his romantic tension with Leslie a nonissue, as is his budding relationship with local nurse Ann (Rashida Jones). Leslie's supervisor, Ron (Nick Offerman), is charmingly one-note, gruff and reluctant. Intern April (Aubrey Plaza) finally smiles in the season premiere, a needed break from a long streak of glowering and eye-rolling indifference. (She also introduces Leslie to her boyfriend, who also has a boyfriend, perhaps the first functioning polyamory on network prime time.)
In the penguin wedding scene, April adds in a dash of the oddball, wearing a wedding gown that hangs roughly off her, strangling her with tulle. Tom, in the audience, grins madly when it's revealed that both penguins are male. Amid the folly, Leslie's straight face is a burden.
'Parks and Recreation'
When: 8:30 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)