Best TV Shows 2010: Parks and Recreation

The first season of NBC's Parks and Recreation, short as it was, wasn't exactly a comedic tour de force. 

parks and rec

In fact, it kind of sucked.  But even in its suckiness, there was reason to be hopeful that the show could improve in its second season.  For one thing, the creators have a pretty impressive resume.  Greg Daniels wrote, produced, developed, and/or created such hits as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and the American version of The Office.  His Parks and Recreation co-creator is Michael Schur.

And the cast isn't too shabby itself.  Amy Poehler receives a lot of unnecessary hatred because she's a female comedic actress and female comedic actresses never get the respect they deserve, but her career has included sensational stops at the Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live, and countless small television and film roles (my favorite probably being the unnamed wife of G.O.B. on Arrested Development).  Her supporting cast includes up-and-coming comedians like Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, and Aubrey Plaza balanced with more serious actors like Paul Schneider and Rashida Jones (sure, she's in a lot of comedies, but she plays the straight man most of the time).  

The pieces were all in place, and yet the first season misfired in a lot of ways.  Whether justified or not, Poehler's Leslie Knope was compared unfavorably to The Office's Michael Scott and the supporting cast was simply too undeveloped.  Even worse, the central conceit -- small town politics -- didn't seem open to as many funny set pieces as one would have hoped.  

Now none of this is to say that I thought the first season was completely abysmal.  If it was, I wouldn't have stuck around for Season Two.  There were some brief moments where the potential was realized (most notably the season finale, "Rock Show," which worked on both a comedic and sentimental level).  But it's good to see that the writers realized that some of the criticisms of the show were valid and they made appropriate-but-natural changes to improve the quality.

The first big step was making Leslie more likable and they accomplished this pretty simply by making the supporting characters actually like her.  Unlike Michael Scott, Leslie is exceedingly competent at her job and her only flaw might be an overeagerness to succeed.  But the second season treated us to a Leslie whose excitement became (at least somewhat) contagious to the rest of her staff.  They might all be more cynical about the often-depressing nature of small-town politics, but they appreciate Leslie enough to join in on her various plans to improve Pawnee, Indiana.

Which brings me to the second major improvement in Parks and Recreation between its first two seasons: Pawnee itself.  With Daniels as a formers Simpsons writer, it's pretty apparent that we are to envision Pawnee as something of a live-action Springfield.  Each week, the supporting characters grow further, making the city a character in itself.  

There's Joan Callamezzo, the unqualified host of the cable access talk-show Pawnee Today.  There's Perd Hapley, the news reporter who also knows how to sort-of do the Worm.  There's "Pawnee's most bookable personality," Denise Yearmbly.  There's the Sweetum's aging candy king Nick Newport and his wife, former Miss Pawnee 1994 Jessica Wicks.  There's even an unnamed older woman who appears at various city meetings to complain about her own pottery.  And there's embittered shoe shine customer, Kyle.  Pawnee isn't a city full of the best and brightest, but it's these gang misfits running around that makes Leslie's desire to better Pawnee all the more resonant.  We don't get why she cares so much about this silly little town, but we feel the need to support her enthusiasm anyway.

All of this would have been a strong enough improvement on Season One, but making things even better were some wildly entertaining storylines that focused on the rest of the main cast.  April and Andy's season-long will-they-or-won't-they tussle was played to perfection.  Ditto the termination of Tom's fake marriage to Wendy and the shock to see Ron kissing Wendy in the final scene of the season.  Then there's Ron's libertarian beliefs clashing wildly with Leslie's pro-government ones.  Finally, there's the continued lack of respect shown inexplicably to the otherwise nice guy Jerry.  All of these stories worked because the writing was crisp and the acting even better.

Season Three is approaching in a couple weeks (after its premiere was pushed to mid-season to make room for --ugh-- Outsourced) and some changes are on the way.  Schneider is out (though he will make occasional appearances supposedly), Party Down's Adam Scott is in (as well as Rob Lowe in a recurring capacity) as a city auditor.  A bankrupt government means a whole new ball of challenges for Leslie and company.  But unlike in the time between Seasons One and Two, Parks and Recreation no longer has to prove it is worthy of our viewership. It only needs to keep its momentum hurdling forward and it'll be impossible to ignore as one of the best (if not the very best) comedy on television.

By Mike Proper

About the author

I work hard.  And I play hard.  

Actually, I don't work that hard.

Also I Tweet. Twitter.com/MikeProper

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1 Comment
On: Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

Everything you say here is spot on Mike (as is always the case!). Only want to add that I think among a stellar cast (that got even better with the addition of Scott and Lowe), Aziz Ansari is one of the funniest guys on television. I absolutely love what he's done with a character that could be performed hideously (the guy with the boring job who wants desperately to be hipster) or easily derivative. Instead, he's unique and stunningly funny week after week, absolutely dig every scene he's a part of. 

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