TV: Can “Parks and Recreation” Upstage “The Office”?

It’s easy to be hard on “Parks and Recreation.”It’s a mockumentary about the day-to-day shenanigans of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana, a fictional bastion of bureaucracy and small-town Midwestern life. The show was co-created by “The Office” innovator, writer, and producer Greg Daniels, and is closely modeled after its predecessor. The show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope, is second-in-command as Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation. She’s a goofy, astoundingly self-unaware, and redeemingly well-meaning bureaucrat. Her department is staffed by an amusing handful of diverse, quirky characters.It’s a formula that worked for “The Office,” and it works for “Parks and Recreation,” too. The show is consistently witty, tactfully sardonic, and occasionally, gently poignant.Despite its charm, which has now become more consistent in the show’s second season, “Parks and Recreation” feels like Da Vinci’s second Mona Lisa, the fourth-place finisher, or Macaulay Culkin’s less-famous little brother.Episodes are engrossing, but after the credits roll, the show loses its potency. Daniels and company have created a buffet of zany characters, including the town of Pawnee, which glimmers with comedic savvy. But in the shadow of “The Office,” the beloved first-born, “Parks and Recreation” is forgettable.But, like I said, it’s easy to be hard on “Parks and Recreation.”It may not be reinventing the Thursday-night sitcom a la “The Office,” but it is consistently, rambunctiously funny. And although the premise and characters aren’t novel, “Parks and Recreation” has sidled into a space of its own.The endearing and comical Amy Poehler stars as Leslie, an incompetent and empathetic character. Her idols, displayed prominently in frames around her office, are Hilary Clinton, Condi Rice, Madeline Albright, and other strong, female political actors. She aspires to build her legacy as a deputy director and one day be worthy of putting her headshot on her own mantle.Leslie, though, is far from Secretary of State material. Her days are spent holding inefficient meetings about filling giant holes, judging beauty pageants, and redesigning the racist Pawnee city hall mural. The seriousness with which Leslie takes her position is both cringe-worthy and touching. It is terrifying to imagine how many Leslie-like incompetents must fill the real-world government, and yet it is impossible not to root for Leslie.Leslie’s primary project is to fill in a swimming pool-sized hole behind the house of Ann Perkins, a nurse whose (now ex-) boyfriend’s drunken fall into the pit thrust her into local politics. Ann’s quest to replace the hole with a park led her into Leslie’s world. The two have become unlikely gal pals.Played by Rashida Jones, a former star of “The Office,” Ann is bland in contrast to the show’s oddballs. But rather than boredom, her lack of eccentricity provides balance. Ann’s primary role on the show is to interject sanity. She often looks at her fellow Pawneeans as if they’re bonkers, which reflects and accentuates viewers’ likely responses.Supporting characters include Ron Swanson, the monotoned, unrousable boss of the Parks Department who has an affinity for smooth jazz and women named Tammy. Tom, Leslie’s assistant, is a pipsqueak wannabe womanizer with very little mojo.

April, the department’s college intern, is miserable, unenthusiastic, and possibly, albeit harmlessly psychologically disturbed.Like “The Office,” this show focuses mostly on at-work antics. We know that characters go home at the end of the day, but that reality is largely left to our imaginations. Brief forays into characters’ personal worlds—Leslie’s date with a smitten police officer, Tom’s green card marriage to a Canadian hottie, April’s polyamorous relationship with her boyfriend and his boyfriend—are comical and intriguing, and cull investment in the show’s characters.That“Parks and Recreation” focuses on the uninspired office lives of its characters is entertaining, and for many working viewers watching in the privacy of their out-of-office worlds, it is likely somewhat cathartic.“Parks and Recreation” frequently pokes fun at the stunted nature of bureaucracy. Just filling in the hazardous hole behind Ann’s house is Leslie’s Everest. Once the hole is filled, a territorial battle ensues between Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation Department and their rivals, the Pawnee Librarians.It’s easy to be hard on “Parks and Recreation.” But perhaps we shouldn’t be. Best to sit back, relax, roll our eyes, and laugh as Leslie and company remind us why we don’t want to know what goes on behind the doors of city hall.

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