When Parks and Recreation first aired in 2009, it seemed like one of the least original shows on television. NBC was obligated* to give Amy Poehler a pilot and a mockumentary style-sitcom was just the most trendy option. The Christopher Guest, everyone-talks–to-the-camera style was gaining steam in the new millennium with The Comeback, The Office (both U.S. and U.K.) and the soon to air Modern Family being the most popular and successful adherents.
*Not literally, but nine good years on Saturday Night Live gets you more than a Peacock giftbag.
The formula was simple: hire Office writer (Michael Schur), put SNL star in front of camera for confessional, find some wacky characters, rinse and repeat. Parks and Rec, was in fact, a tired, unoriginal show… for three or four episodes. Then it morphed into something much better, something special.
Michael Schur and his writers came to a realization within a few episodes that took the American version of the Office a few seasons: that comedies didn’t have to be cynical to be funny. Pawnee is Mayberry with fatter citizens and the Parks and Rec department is made of people who are good at their jobs, follow their bliss and enjoy one another’s company.
The transition to this happier, funnier show began with its star. Leslie Knope was always ambitious and always passionate but earlier episodes positioned her energy as something to be laughed at, not celebrated, while also being laughed at. The forceful, positive personality of Amy Poehler quickly turned Leslie into a worthwhile leading character. Leslie is driven, which is unsurprisingly something a comedy needs from its star. The more driven she is to make Pawnee a better place, the better the show is able to escalate its plotlines. Over six seasons, Leslie’s passion for her work has taken her and the show through a town-saving Harvest festival, a benefit for a tiny dead horse, an election, a marriage, a recall and a job at the federal Parks department.
As Leslie’s personality grew to benefit the show, the supporting characters filled in behind her as examples of good, hard-working and ultimately, happy people in their own way. Andy is essentially a golden retriever that can play the guitar. Ann learned to value friendship and built a family. Ben rediscovered his passion for working for something he cares about after having it taken away from him as a boy-Mayor*. And Chris is almost a parody of the show’s own spirit. Everything is literally the greatest thing in the world, which is a wonderful attitude to adopt when you sit in front of your TV every week.
*Ice Town Costs Ice Clown his Town Crown.
Even characters who are more curmudgeonly or selfish fit into Parks and Rec’s optimistic outlook enough to make a functional sociologist cry with joy. Ron does not care for his government job, but he cares about a shocking number of other things, including: whiskey, steak, his wife, his kids, his wood-working and all of the bacon and eggs you have. Tom’s inherent personality is selfish and values style over substance but he always comes through for his coworkers and learns to harness his quirks to run a successful business in his own way. April is a dark, dark individual. But she loves Andy and she loves animals. Donna can get it. And Jerry/Gerry/Gary, despite being the most unlucky and made fun of individual in Indiana, relishes the abuse because it means he gets to spend more time with his friends.
Television post-Letterman has traditionally been a cynical place that distrusts any and all sentiment. This is not inherently a bad thing and the world would be a much worse place without shows like It’s Always Sunny, Seinfeld or the original Office. But Parks and Rec deserves the television community’s eternal respect for taking a different path, and arguably a harder one. It’s easy to tear something down. It’s harder to create something from scratch – especially a believable Midwestern town where everyone follows their dreams.
Leslie best explains the appeal of Parks and Rec as only she can: with waffles.
“Look I’m not crazy. I know Pawnee isn’t Paris or London or Chicago. But it’s a great place to live and work. And serving the goof balls in this town is an honor and a privilege. And yes, every town claims its diners’ waffles are the best in the world, but somewhere, in some town, there really are the best waffles in the world… Why can’t it be here?”
Why can’t it be, indeed.