Monday, March 28, 2011

TV on DVD: Parks and Recreation (Seasons 1 and 2)

Creators: Greg Daniels and Michael Schur 
Starring: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Jim O' Heir, Paul Schneider 
Original Airdate: 2009-2010 

Season 1: (★★★ out of ★★★★)

Season 2: (★ out of ★)

So, after two years complaining about Netflix, I've finally discovered its biggest benefit. It ties you down and forces you to watch things you either have little interest in or can't motivate yourself into making time for. It's a benefit that's rarely paid off to the extent it has with Parks and Recreation, a show I wouldn't have otherwise watched in its regular Thursday time slot on NBC. It's likely no amount of critical praise or glowing recommendations could have possibly convinced me NBC could actually be airing smart or edgy entertainment, much less what Entertainment Weekly calls the "smartest comedy on TV." The show sharing the same creators and mockumentary style as The Office has caused many to inaccurately label it as a "spin-off" when in it has absolutely nothing in common with that series at at all beyond a mild similarity in presentation. In comedic approach its closer to Arrested Development, and in being the sharpest comedy to air since that ingenious show ended in 2006, it's now filled a giant void . They'll be those who break down and watch, only to get this strange urge to jump ship after the six episode long first season, thinking it just doesn't meet the hype. Don't do it. Throwing in the towel too early is a mistake at the level of abandoning Lost toward the middle of its run. The show builds slowly, with every episode getting a little stronger along the way. That's not to imply there's anything horribly wrong with the first season (other than it being way too short), but it serves mainly as an introduction to the characters and situation, laying the groundwork and planting the seeds for one of the funniest seasons of sitcom comedy in years.

After this methodical start, the writing starts firing on all cylinders in the second season and the show embarks on this creative hot streak, picking up steam with each passing episode, all while hysterically fleshing out every character and finding the perfect tone. If the term "jumping the shark" describes when a show unofficially reaches its expiration date, maybe a new phrase should be instituted to describe when it really finds its groove creatively and there's no looking back. For Parks and Rec it happens toward the end of the first season in an episode entitled "The Banquet." In it, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) the Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks Department in fictional Pawnee, Indiana arrives at a dinner honoring her mother in a suit with a boyish haircut and her embarrassingly overdressed friend Ann (Rashida Jones) while her boss, Parks Director Ron Swanson (Ken Offerman) proceeds to deliver a speech based entirely on fact ("It is true that you have won this award."). From that moment and the next 25 episodes that followed I couldn't stop laughing once, but to explain to someone who hasn't seen Parks and Rec what makes it so great is difficult. There's definitely a "you had to be there" vibe to this kind of humor that, like Arrested Development, won't hit the mark with everyone and the ratings already reflect that. Comedy is probably the most subjective of all genres, but for those who like it really dry, this hits huge.

The first season mainly centers around a pit that upbeat do-gooder Leslie wants to turn into a park after Ann's freeloading boyfriend Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) falls into it, breaking both legs and temporarily derailing his aspiring music "career," which he enthusiastically describes as "Matchbox Twenty meets The Fray." If I ever accidentally fall into a pit I can only hope nurse Ann is there to serve my lazy ass pancakes on the couch and I get to write a song about about my experience as memorable as "The Pit," which Andy eventually performs with his band "Mouse Rat," or whatever they're known as that week, since he continuously changes their name. Leslie's unmotivated local government underlings are initially only window dressing in a first season that focuses on Leslie's social ineptness and overall cluelessness, especially when it comes to her dating life or any kind of decision making. Again, not to say the first six episodes are worthless, but they only serve as an introduction to the workplace setting and a surface glimpse into some of the personalities. It's only when the writers figure out how to flesh out the supporting characters' crazy personal lives and humanize Leslie that the show takes off to absurd heights. There's Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), wannabe club impresario, self-proclaimed ladies' man and "Miss Pawnee" judge who landed a wife way out of his league because she would be deported back to Canada. He's also discovered the most creative use yet for the Roomba vacuum. Look up "deadpan" in the dictionary you'll find a picture of apathetic, eye-rolling college student April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), Ron's eventual assistant who after learning her lesson the hard way now knows to schedule his meetings for "Marchtember Oneteenth." Even seemingly the most minor and hapless of supporting characters, like the clumsy and frequently mocked Jerry Gergich (Jim O' Heir), who's spotlighted in two of the seasons funniest episodes, one involving the design of a new mural (or "murinal" as he mistakenly calls it) and aother centered around his alleged mugging.

Mustachioed legend Ron Swanson is who everyone will justifiably be talking about by the end of the second season, largely because of the performance given by Nick Offerman, who needs an Emmy handed to him right now. To even call this a performance wouldn't do it justice. As the stoic ant-government libertarian he spends most of the first season grimacing behind his desk which happens to be equipped with a loaded rifle. But by the time the second season opens I can't even begin to describe the direction this character takes. Whether he's moonlighting as saxophonist Duke Silver, nursing his unhealthy obsession with breakfast foods, feuding with crazy ex-wife Tammy (guest star Megan Mullally), dressing like Tiger Woods, accepting his "Woman of the Year" award, being aroused by a shoeshine or demonstrating his woodworking skills, Ron Swanson is, quite simply, an American hero. In contrast to his initial appearances as merely a cranky antagonist to Leslie, it's at the start of the second season when Offerman is let loose to lighten up and go in a million different crazy directions with the role, eventually becoming the linchpin of the entire show. And only you see an interview with the actor out of character do you realize how little he resembles the strangely feline-looking man he plays and just how much of a departure it is for this gifted comedian to bring that creation to the screen. 

How registered nurse Ann finds the time to hang out at city hall all the time (even long after the pit is filled in) and becomes Leslie's BFF is kind of a hilarious mystery, but her relationship with city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) does open the door for the bizarre antics of the now fully recovered Andy Dwyer in season 2, who for my money not only tops Ron as the show's most hilarious character, but qualifies as the funniest character on TV today. If Offerman deserves an Emmy he should cut it in half and split it with Chris Pratt, who some might remember from his stints on Everwood and The O.C. if not for the fact that he's now gained almost as much weight as DeNiro did for Raging Bull. To say he's "let himself go" for this role as 29-year-old with a 5-year-old's brain would be understatement but the transformation isn't just limited to packing the pounds on as he reveals himself to be a brilliant comic actor capable of so much with just a quick physical gesture or expression. Stalking your ex-girlfriend and harassing her current boyfriend should be creepy but Pratt makes Andy seem endearing and almost child-like in his obsession, making all the uncomfortable laughs comfortable. When he actually gets a "real job" as a shoeshinist at city hall in Season 2 it seems like the profession Andy's always been waiting for, second only to his brief stint as FBI agent Bert Macklin.  The romance between he and another character in the second season is brilliant for just how unexpectedly it develops over the course of just a few episodes.

The idea of characters talking to the camera is used much more effectively here than it ever was on The Office, mainly because here it actually seems like they're letting us in on something no one else knows about. Occasionally you'll catch Plaza giving April's "you can't be serious" look of disgust right into the camera while Azari flashes his mischeivous grin that lets you when know Tom is up to no good or hatching a perverted scheme, which is pretty much all the time. It also gives Ron an opportunity to share his anti-government views while delivering some of the show's most quote worthy lines.  Given that there's such a gigantic leap in quality from the first to second season you may wonder what the point is of even watching the first. I don't have an answer for that. No one would be lost with what's happening if they skipped it but for background purposes its advantageous if you're tolerant of giving a show time to grow and come into its own. And truthfully, 6 episodes is quicker than it takes most sitcoms to gain their footing. Most sitcoms never find it. While there isn't an ongoing narrative requiring the level of commitment that was needed for similarly ratings challenged Arrested Development, some of humor does come with the expectation viewers are familiar with previous storylines and inside jokes so I wouldn't recommend just hopping on board mid-run expecting to be blown away. Also like Arrested Development the series thrives on memorable guest stars that actually add something worthwhile and are incorporated seamlessly. In addition to Mullally, just the first two seasons alone have featured appearances from Louis C.K. Fred Armisen, Will Arnett, Andy Samberg, Pamela Reed, Justin Theroux, John Larroquette, Paul Scheer, Michael Gross and most memorable of all, former Indiana Pacer Detlef Schrempf.

If there's one character on the show that always seemed disposable it was Paul Schneider's Mark, so the writers made a reasonable call eliminating him at the end of the second season. That's not a slight on the actor who's laid back coolness provided a nice contrast to the rest of the cast but he really wasn't doing much and could conceivably return in a guest role down the line. The jury's still out on the addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as auditors sent to rescue the Parks department from bankruptcy in the final few episodes and become regular cast members in season 3, but I keep hearing nothing but positives about both of them so it should be interesting to see what they can offer. It's difficult thinking the show could possibly get better than this, its catchy opening theme song can leave my head or I'll eventually be able to adjust to watching it in its regularly scheduled time slot instead of on DVD. That after such an incredibly strong run of episodes it was still almost axed and ordered as a mid-season replacement earlier this year proves just how hard it is to hook viewers and how frustrating it can be for fans trying to spread the word. The "best show you're not watching" is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot but in the case of Parks and Rec it's actually true.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Couldn't agree more. Without a doubt, my favorite sitcom on TV right now.