Sunday, May 24, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Parks and Recreation

This season’s best new comedy has been criticized by some for essentially being a copy of “The Office” from the same creators. Friends of mine have cited originality as their prime need for new series, but I think that this one has been able to survive and endure despite what some might consider its handicap. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Nope is not Michael Scott. She’s a similarly dim-witted character who speaks to the camera like she’s the center of attention all the time, but she’s definitely different. She’s a more genuinely kind and motivated public servant, who wants to do her best to make her mark on the world. And Amy Poehler is the perfect person to play that role.

She’s surrounded by an excellent cast who work stunningly with her. While “The Office” initially had a mere five central characters, there were tons of smaller players who came along as the show progressed. It’s possible that the same could occur here over time, but the tight net of personalities on “Parks & Recreation” has allowed, for its brief six-episode run, its characters to be fleshed out in wonderful and surprising ways. Leslie’s boss Ron, for instance, seemed like he might just be a grumpy talking head without anything to offer, but his affection for Tom’s suck-up routine and that curious unhealthy snack in the finale have been pleasant, hilarious treats. April hasn’t really had a chance to shine, but like Ryan on “The Office,” I think that’s something in store for her later on in the show’s run. Rashida Jones is a good serious counterpoint to everyone else, but I think she has a funny bone in her somewhere yet to be seen. Aziz Ansari, fresh off an overdone recurring arc on “Scrubs” that I imagine would have been longer had he not been cast in this series, is terrific fun as the obnoxious but very funny Tom. The way he reacts to Leslie is just spot-on and I think that’s my favorite character interaction of any duo on the show. Then there’s Mark Brandanowitz, who’s a likeable enough character with more than a bit of shallowness buried beneath the surface, as touched upon in the finale. He’s a superb character with a lot more to reveal, and I’m extremely happy to see the talented Paul Schneider, who appeared in several supporting roles a few years ago in buzz-worthy films (“The Assassination of Jesse James” and “Lars and the Real Girl”), in a regular role that allows him to display his emotions and be funny at the same time.

And then there’s Leslie. Poehler is absolutely hilarious, and here she’s the bushy-eyed, hopelessly naïve (or is it naively hopeful?) lead character in a show about small-time government. Thus far, she’s had some great interactions with her co-workers, most notably in the pilot episode and the season ender. Some things haven’t worked tremendously well, like her Hilary/men’s haircut, but for the most part, the writing has been great and all of the cast, especially Poehler, has been adept about making this show endearing and still pitiable enough at the same time. I’m thrilled that it’s been picked up for a second season, since that other show people always compare it to also had a six-episode first season and then came into its own and seized an Emmy for best comedy series for its sophomore run. Here’s hoping this show follows a similar trajectory, and that Poehler can make it onto Emmy’s radar much quicker than Carrell did. She deserved commendation for her comedic work this year, and only former SNL costar Tina Fey should be a legitimate obstacle in her way.

Pilot: B+
Season finale: B+
Season grade: B+
Season MVP: Amy Poehler

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