Looking back on a beloved show, it’s interesting to see how different the series premiere feels from the later seasons. The tone feels a little flat. The characters aren’t as well rounded or memorable as they will be. Of course, this is when the actors and writers are finding the right tone for the show and give the characters their voices. Of course there are some shows that hit it off from scene one (Breaking Bad) or start out great but then gets weak in later season (Lost). Most of the time, tv shows spend first season finding it’s tone before it becomes it hits its stride. This is especially true with sitcoms, like the underrated and beloved Parks and Recreation. Now that the show has come to an end, I feel now is a good time to look back on how Deputy Director Leslie Knope began.
Welcome to pleasant little town of Pawnee, Indiana; home of Leslie Knope (Amy Phoeler). As Deputy Director of the Parks Department, Knope takes to her job with uncompromising enthusiasm, even when trying to push a drunk out of a slide with a broom. She lives by the belief that she can bring positive changes. But she rarely gets any opportunity with her job consisting of menial tasks like….trying to push a drunk out of a slide with a broom. It doesn’t help that barely anyone show up at the Community Outreach Forum. And anyone who does show up yells about the most ridiculous things.
That changes when Ann Perkins (Rashinda Jones) steps up to the mic. There’s a giant pit in her backyard from a failed construction project where people throw trash in. Her boyfriend and wannabe rocker Andy (Chris Pratt) has fallen in and broken his leg. Fearing for the safety of the people in the neighborhood, Ann has been trying for months to get that pit filled in. Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, Leslie “pinkie promises” Ann she will help fill the pit and make it into a park. Leslie is at first met with doubts from many. Ann thinks Leslie’s just looking for a photo op. Leslie’s disillusioned co-worker Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) doesn’t think it’s possible. Leslie’s superior Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is a libertarian who would rather see all Parks privatized. But when Leslie herself falls into the pit, she starts to win over the three and them. Leslie uses this accident to her advantage, beginning the first step to getting the park everyone wants.
When this show first premiered, Parks and Recreation was dismissed as a knockoff of The Office. It certainly doesn’t help that shared the same documentary style or that it was also co-created by Greg Daniels or that it aired right after The Office. To be honest, it certainly feels like one at first. The humour seems to be along the lines of The Office’s trademark awkward humour. And Knope seems to play on the well-meaning but clueless boss Michael Scott shares.
But underneath the similarities hides unique elements that will give the show its unique charm. First, we get a first sense of Pawnee as a town. Despite the squeaky clean, rural look, it has a vicious history of slaughtering Native Americans, which is canvased all over the walls of city hall. The officials cover the most grotesque images with bulletins. The town develops more personality as the show progresses until it becomes the rural equivalent to Springfield. And many of them are hilarious from Lil’ Sebastian the pony (sorry, “little horse”) to the worst place in the world; the Pawnee Library.
Second strength of the show is the memorable supporting characters. Most of them don’t have the traits we know and love. Tom Haverfort (Aziz Ansari) is introduced as an indifferent assistant to Leslie. Teenage Intern April(Audrey Plaza) would take the role as the indifferent assistant. He is a long ways from the Pepe Lepew-like wannabe entrepreneur the fans remember him as. Jerry (Jim O’Heir) isn’t yet the dimwitted, bad luck laced pushover fans would love. And it would take two seasons before lovable geek Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and enthusiastic health nut Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) joined the cast.
And then there are those characters who already have their personalities pre-established. Before Pratt proved himself the leading man with The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, he mastered the art of playing the pudgy dimwit with Andy. Ron Swanson already serves as the parody of libertarians and proves a great vehicle for Offerman’s parody of the macho wild man. You can see the chemistry between Jones and Phoeler with Perkins being both a best friend and straight woman to Knope.
But the real standout of the show is Knope. Sure, she was written along the lines of the oblivious but well meaning boss that Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell played in both UK and US versions of the Office. If it weren’t for Phoeler’s performance, she certainly would have remained a knockoff. But the charismatic Phoeler give Knope a beaming optimism to win you over. A lot of her humour comes from how Knope tries to keep her sunny disposition no matter how frustrating the situation is. She regards the yelling at the outreach forum as “caring loudly” and sees a fine turnout even though there’s anyone in it. Throughout the show, It becomes increasingly impossible for her to make Pawnee a better place by greedy sleazeballs, major corporations and self-absorbed idiots, some of them from her own department. We laugh at her circumstances and yet we get frustrated for her when something stands in her way. Her determination and sunny disposition keeps us rooting for her to come out on top. In the Office, the lead character is almost always wrong. In Parks and Recreation, it’s everyone else who’s wrong.
The wisest change creators Daniels and Michael Schurr made to the show was to embrace Knope’s optimism. While it still delivers strong satirical stings at all aspects of Americana, Parks and Recreation always maintains the glimmer of hope that Knope and her team will change the world for the better. Pawnee feels beautifully quirky and inviting. The character have a strong companionship, no matter how self-centered they can be. And through to the last episode, even the act of fixing a swing is a moment of triumph for Knope and the Parks Department.