Parks and Recreation: Season 1 review

Parks and Recreation logoHaving waited for four years before bringing the hit US comedy Parks and Recreation to our screens, the BBC seem intent on catching UK viewers up in a hurry. We have rattled through the six-episode debut season in just three weeks of double-bills and will be hurtling straight into season two next week. If you haven’t hopped on the bus yet, catch up quick or miss out.

What’s it about?

It’s a great time to be a woman in politics: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi.

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is the deputy director of the Parks and Recreation department of the (fictional) town of Pawnee, Indiana. Inspired by her mother (a key political mover in Pawnee’s schools system) to pursue a career in public service, her cheerful enthusiasm for community projects is offset by an overly optimistic outlook and delusions of grandeur. When local nurse Ann Perkins’ (Rashida Jones) boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt) breaks his legs after falling into a construction pit near their house, Leslie embarks on a crusade to convert it into a park.

This pit, this chance to build a whole new park from scratch … This could be my Hoover Dam.

However, she encounters resistance at almost every turn. Her boss, parks director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), doesn’t believe in either government or building parks. Town residents vehemently oppose the plan after some ham-fisted canvassing. Local media is critical of her. She struggles to infiltrate and influence the local boys’ club. But she presses on regardless, surrounded by her subcommittee of willing and not-so-willing aides: Ann, city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), with whom she claims to have had a one-night stand five years previously, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and disinterested summer intern April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza).


So far, so mundane. You could be forgiven for thinking that you could easily substitute paper for parks and Slough (or Scranton) for Pawnee – and you’d be right. Parks and Recreation traces its lineage all the way back to the original Ricky Gervais version of The Office. The series was created by Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, who both worked on the US version starring Steve Carell. But if Gervais is P&R‘s grandfather, then 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey is its godmother, having co-starred alongside Amy Poehler in two of Saturday Night Live‘s most famous skits: as Sarah Palin opposite Poehler’s Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric in the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election.

Like The Office, Parks and Recreation is shot in a mockumentary style and the similarity doesn’t end there, with Leslie clearly channelling the spirit of David Brent/Michael Scott and other characters echoing counterparts in The Office. That’s no bad thing, though. As in its related shows, the characters are well sketched out and stay just the right side of caricature.

Amy Poehler stars as Leslie Knope (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Amy Poehler stars as Leslie Knope (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Indeed the one character who does seem slightly one-dimensional is Leslie herself, who is portrayed a little too much as a bumbling, self-deluded ingenue. (Although she’s way less annoying and self-serving than David Brent.) That’s no criticism of Poehler, who carries off Leslie’s constant state of wide-eyed near-mania brilliantly. And I understand some tweaks to the character from season two onwards restore more of a sense of balance to resolve this issue anyway.

The real strengths of this opening season, however, are a talented ensemble cast blessed with exquisite comic timing and chemistry, and on-point scripts. Each episode carries a good balance between genuine laugh out loud moments and cringeworthy ones, wrapped around a series of cutting observations which capture the machinations of local government: staff who range from disinterested jobsworths to those with small-town responsibilities but big-city ambitions, dealing with the local press, the perils of public town hall meetings and the difficulties of dealing with influential but uncooperative people she needs to get onside.

The plot comes nicely full circle in the finale. Having been the catalyst for Leslie’s park-building campaign by falling into the pit, Andy has the casts removed from his legs, only for a drunken Mark to fall in himself after his advances are rebuffed by Leslie in circumstances similar to her previous, imagined one-night stand with him. But first the pair share a moment of mutual admiration and an honest appraisal of the challenges ahead:

Honestly, Leslie, it’s going to be a long, uphill battle and you’re going to be super-annoyed with all the people that want you to fail. There is a sea of red tape, endless roadblocks.

Overall, it’s a strong if somewhat variable first season – the middle two episodes were the weakest for me – but one packed with obvious potential. Roll on season two.

Rating: 8/10

Season two of Parks and Recreation begins on BBC4 next Tuesday (27th March) at 10pm.

6 Comments on Parks and Recreation: Season 1 review

  1. Hi Tim, great review and I’ll start following your Twitter as much as I do UnPopCult. Aubrey is “uninterested” not “disinterested” as she is bored rather than impartial. HTH!

    • Thanks Adam. Always nice to chat with the Unpopculters either here or over there!

      You’re right about April being ‘uninterested’, I guess, although modernists will tell you that the definition of ‘disinterested’ has now shifted slightly so that it can mean uninterested as well as impartial. Which is a bit confusing, really! (Next week: the OED announces that black is now the same as grey …)

  2. Hi folks 🙂

    I was surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the series. I’m not a big fan of sitcoms but this is sharp and funny, and fast-moving, but also quite warm-hearted. I actually really like Leslie; I don’t think she’s quite as deluded as suggested in the pilot – she knows that people make fun of her, and she always has this slightly sad look in her eye as a result, but she powers on anyway because she’s so desperate to do something worthwhile and prove herself to her mum. I

    • Hey CJ. I do think Leslie becomes less deluded as the season progresses, but at times she seems almost impossibly naive for someone who’s already in a pretty senior role. Nonetheless, this is great, light-hearted fun – I’ve definitely enjoyed it and look forward to it really hitting its stride.

  3. Jed Bartlet // March 24, 2013 at 8:37 pm // Reply

    I’ve been surprised by how good it is. I mean, I was expecting it to be kind-of good, but the advance critical word has been fairly clear that season 1 was patchy, and that it’s only in season 2 that the show really gets going. In which case we have a rare treat to look forward to, because I’ve really enjoyed this season.

    If you were trying hard, I suppose you could just about discern a serious message in Parks and Rec, namely that government can be good and can improve lives, something with which I agree.

    Just one quibble, Tim: “imagined one-night-stand”? It didn’t even occur to me that there was any doubt that it had happened – in fact, unless I’m mistaken Mark acknowledges it in one of the earlier episodes. I thought the point was that Leslie is reading much more into it than Mark. But like Leslie I may too be misreading the signals.

    • It’s entirely possible I’ve got the wrong end of the stick about Leslie and Mark. Certainly it’s an unequal relationship in terms of how interested they are in each other.

      Although variable, I agree that this first season was much stronger than I expected. Most of the jokes work, and there’s a pleasing sense that the cast (and writers) aren’t trying too hard to be funny but are allowing the characters to breathe a little. Looking forward to season two.

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