In the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation," Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, an upbeat, low-level bureaucrat determined to make the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind., a better place.
Leslie's cheerful, tireless ambition in the face of cynics is echoed by series creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who previously gave us "The Office." And who can blame them? Few industry observers thought "Parks," which launched as a midseason replacement last spring, would survive even this long.
First, there were production delays to accommodate Poehler's pregnancy. Then there were the early test screenings and poor scores that landed on the desk of influential Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke, who practically declared the show DOA before its premiere. Many critics said the show was needlessly similar to "The Office" -- both in its mock documentary format and naive lead. With all the bad vibes, it was no wonder that ratings slid throughout its six-episode first season.
"My sense is that if we had built 'Parks and Recreation' around a 90-year-old Maasai warrior people would still have said, 'He reminds me of ["The Office's"] Michael Scott,' " Schur said. "There was just no way to escape it. "
Until Daniels and Schur did.
Rashida "Parks," in its second season, has emerged as a critical darling that can stand on its own. Time magazine's James Poniewozik, a fan of Pawnee's finest from the get-go, called it a "very very good, very very funny" series that "has found its rhythm" and The Star Ledger's Alan Sepinwall declared it quite possibly "the best comedy on TV right now."
He could also add "that you're not watching." "Parks" averages a lowly 5 million viewers, and its most recent episode posted a decent-for-NBC-but-not-great 2.1 rating/6 share in adults 18-49.
The show, as they say in the industry, is gaining traction with the right crowds and has already landed a full second-season order. And in some ways, the creative victory of an original series in "Parks and Recreation" is an even bigger coup than Daniels' successful adaptation of Ricky Gervais' droll, uncomfortable British workplace comedy "The Office" -- a series he originally deemed "brilliant -- and not achievable in America." He gave it a shot anyway, hopeful that "maybe it will steer the great ship of network TV comedy slightly, like 5 degrees, in a different direction. That's what I kept thinking in my head." The U.S. "Office" is now NBC's signature comedy.
So what happened between Season 1 and 2 that flipped "Parks" from flop to hot? "We needed to tell a certain number of stories before people got it," Schur said.
NBC President of Primetime Entertainment Angela Bromstad recalled the early days of "The Office" and said, "I knew Greg was great at self-assessing and evolving a show, and comedies take longer to catch on. ... Also, I have to say, the cupboards were bare. We really needed to stick with it, and I think it's paying off."
It helped that Daniels and Schur (the latter was a writer on "The Office" before moving to "Parks" full time) had solid track records. Daniels spent several seasons on "The Simpsons" and co-created "King of the Hill" before adapting "The Office," and both he and Schur credit stints on "Saturday Night Live" with shaping their comic sensibilities. (Viewers might recognize Schur as Dwight's neck beard-wearing, fellow beet farming cousin Mose from "The Office." Sports fans might know him under his former pen name -- and current Twitter handle -- Ken Tremendous, which he used to write for the now-defunct sports media criticism blog Fire Joe Morgan.)
Rather than do a straight spinoff of "The Office," as many expected, the pair instead were inspired by the local politics of "The Wire" and the theme of optimism from the 2008 presidential election.
They decided that their next show would revolve around the interactions of small-town government, specifically focusing on Poehler's Leslie, an eager but often misguided parks and recreation official whose first big project is tending to an unsightly large pit in the middle of Pawnee. "This could be my Hoover Dam," a chipper Leslie says in the pilot.
This season Leslie is a little less wacky, but she remains ever-positive about making government work for the people. "She is a hard worker, very well read, very intelligent -- these are not Michael Scott traits," Daniels said.
"She's not delusional. She's not crazy thinking there's a boys club in politics," Schur added. "She has a strong point of view, and her intentions are always good and noble. She's just not always great at executing them."
And that's another thing that differentiates Daniels' shows: "Parks" is, well, less of a boys club. Despite such successes as "30 Rock" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," it's unusual to see smart women drive the action in a network comedy. (And even then, Liz Lemon is nothing if not surrounded by a boys club of crazy guys.)
Daniels and Schur have also let the rest of Pawnee's finest come out to play. "Park's" motley ensemble includes Rashida Jones as her friend Ann, Aziz Ansari as Leslie's undermining lieutenant Tom, Chris Pratt as Ann's bungling but well-meaning ex-boyfriend Andy, Paul Schneider as Leslie's cynical colleague Mark, Nick Offerman as her disinterested boss Ron, and Aubrey Plaza as her equally disinterested intern April.
Poehler To come up with the world and people of "Parks," Daniels and Schur spent time in different local governments to make sure their ideas were at least grounded in reality. In Burbank, they found the basis for Ron. "We were talking to one official about wanting to make Leslie's boss opposed to government," Daniels said. "Like, 'Wouldn't it be funny if she's trying so hard to get stuff accomplished but her boss was like one of those Bush appointees who doesn't believe in the mission of the branch of government he's supposed to be overseeing?' And she looks as us and goes, 'Well, I'm a libertarian, so I don't really believe in the mission of my job.'
"That was an amazing response," Schur recalled. "We went, 'Really?' and she goes, 'Yes, I'm aware of the irony.' "
"I think we were feeling that the first six episodes were like one big pilot, we shot it so fast," Daniels said. "But we had plenty of ideas about what we wanted to do, and part of what takes time is learning how to write for and collaborate with the actors."
Discovering that Offerman played the saxophone turned into an episode where Tom spied Ron's sax-playing alter ego Duke Silver holding court with Pawnee's frisky older ladies. ("Nick's also a master carpenter and canoe builder, and that'll come up at some point," Daniels said. Offerman's real-life wife, actress Megan Mullally, guest starred in a recent episode as Ron's ex-wife and library employee Tammy.) Then there's Pratt, who "loves taking his clothes off," at least according to Schur. So far, Andy has chased a thieving neighbor and showed up to Ann's house in the buff.
Poehler said talks with Daniels and Schur about Leslie's long-term journey are ongoing too. "Her struggle throughout the series is trying not to become jaded. Can she fight feeling like she'll never be able to change anything? Will she get caught up in political gain in a way that will make her lose track of why she started in the first place?'
"Ultimately, we do want her to succeed and I love that! -- but in really small ways and with very little power. I love that too. I'm a sucker for pathos."