Series Premiere: 'Parks and Recreation' Suffers from 'Office' Double Bind
Series Premiere: 'Parks and Recreation' Suffers from 'Office' Double Bind
Meghan Carlson
Meghan Carlson
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
When the American adaptation of The Office premiered in mid-spring of 2005, four years after Ricky Gervais’s original British mockumentary-style comedy began and two years after it has successfully wooed audiences on both shores, critics were quick and harsh in their evaluations. The American show starring Steve Carell as a mid-level boss at a regional paper company was "so diluted there's little left but muddy water,” said the New York Times. Even ever-jovial USA Today gave a backhanded assessment, calling it a “passable imitation of a miles-better BBC original.” Reviewers saw potential, but were wary that the American show could grow from shoddy reproduction to original interpretation when it retained the same premise, same tone, and same style of the British Office.

Now, four years later, the American Office has forged its own way, becoming one of the sharpest and best-loved comedies on television. The show managed what first seemed impossible: paying due respect to its original source while constructing its own identity within that space.

And now, still four years later, NBC is putting their faith in comedienne Amy Poehler to make a similar jump from replica to real thing with Parks and Recreation, a mockumentary about city government official Leslie Knope, the pilot episode of which airs this Thursday, April 9 at 8:30 on NBC.

The two programs share more common ground than even the two Office series did. They share the same producers, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. Set in Pawnee, Indiana, Parks centers on the frustrations of small-town city politics instead of small-town business branch politics. Poehler’s Knope is, as far as we see in the pilot, a female Michael Scott: painfully lacking in self-awareness and over-abundant in self-confidence. Her surrounding circle is a diverse group of rational beings who tolerate her to her face and mock her behind her back as she attempts to advance her political career in humorously off-the-mark ways. The show retains the same mockumentary style, deadpan tone, and restrained pacing that the Office has gotten down to a science. It even takes on a familiar face from the Dunder-Mifflin office, with Rashida Jones playing nurse Ann Perkins, the citizen who inspires Knope to take on the large project that promises to dominate the running plot of the series’ first six episodes: turning an abandoned construction pit into a new community park.

If the past has taught us anything, it is to be careful before writing off an openly derivative show still trying to find its footing as too derivative. One episode is not enough by which to judge a series, especially one with such impossibly high expectations coming in. But with all this hype established from the get-go, Poehler has an even more challenging assignment than Carell had—and that is to overcome a tricky double bind. The Office is still going strong, and NBC cannot seem to make up their minds on how, or even whether, Parks and Recreation should get out of its shadow. The Parks series premiere airs on Thursday night, sandwiched between two brand-new episodes of the established sit-com. If the show, which NBC adamantly insists is not a spin-off, is too much like The Office, why should viewers tune in? But then again, if the show (that is not a spin-off, but is clearly a sort of spin-around or spin-under or spin-uncomfortably-near) isn’t enough like The Office… why should viewers tune in?

The bottom-line is simple enough, for such a complex question: if it’s funny. But even for the pilot’s moments of true chuckle-aloud comedy (and they are there, though they are more sparse than they should be) and a few distinctive characters that show real promise for big laughs (Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford, an Indian self-professed “redneck” is especially compelling), the funny is dangerously lacking in the critical pilot.

Parks needs to work impossibly hard in five episodes if it wants to compete in laugh-ratio with The Office. Extra impossibly hard if it wants to shirk the sense of competition altogether. But what first seemed impossible has been done before.

Watch it: Parks and Recreation airs Thursday, April 9 at 8:30 PM on NBC.

-Meghan Carlson, BuddyTV Staff Writer
Image courtesy of NBC