It is fitting, in an age when our banks, automobile manufacturers, and insurance companies are owned primarily by Barack Obama and Uncle Sam, that our newest sitcom locale is not a bar, or a law firm, or the revolving-door apartment of upwardly mobile and fabulous twentysomethings. Our hero (or, in this case, heroine) is not an advertising executive, crass agent, or morally compromised lawyer. Instead, Leslie Knope, as played by Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation, which premieres this Thursday night on NBC, works for the government. Sure, she’s the deputy director for the Pawnee, Indiana, Parks Department, but hey, not everybody can work in the West Wing.
Knope is an idealistic, hopeful, and endlessly optimistic do-gooder who honestly believes that government can make the world a better place. Of course, because her show is “from the people who bring you The Office” (as you might have heard 80 times if you’ve been watching NBC at any point in the last two months), she’s also deluded, kind of vain, and completely out of her depth. But she means well, and, as the saying goes, that’s close enough for government work. Corporate red tape is one thing; we now have our first show about municipal bureaucracy. The office comedy is getting a bailout.
“When we were talking about this, we were in the middle of the election,” says Parks and Recreation co-creator (and one of those former writer-producers of The Office) Michael Schur. “The economy hadn’t collapsed yet, but we got the general sense that the government was going to be playing a more significant role in years to come. We had no idea how right we were.”
Thus, the clueless bosses are no longer reporting back to the corporate home office: They’re reporting back to Washington. (Or, as the case may be, Pawnee City Hall.) On The Office, employees are shiftless, lazy, and uninspired by their work, so nothing gets done. On Parks and Recreation, it’s the opposite: Idealistic wannabe politicians and concerned citizens strive to make the world a better place, and keep getting rebuffed by democracy. Schur says that when he was doing initial research, he talked to urban planners in Claremont, California, about the show’s central conceit of Knope trying to transform an abandoned construction site into a city park. Was Schur’s idea that the project would end up Godot-ian in its inertia—the joke is that the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department can’t get it started, let alone completed—realistic? The Claremont employees laughed, because that very week, they were breaking ground on a new park. The time between project conception and initial assembly? Eighteen years. “We thought, Okay, that’ll work,” Schur says. “If our show’s on for eighteen years, we’ll be pretty happy.”
It’s like The Office, only in the public sector! isn’t the sexiest television pitch ever, yet that’s not far from how this show came about. Notoriously overstimulated NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman initially approached Office creator Greg Daniels about a spinoff. But once Daniels signed up Schur, the duo quickly dismantled the notion of a satellite Dunder Mifflin. They claim they just “couldn’t find the right fit,” though no one seems particularly upset that this isn’t just The Office: Indiana. And Parks does keep The Office’s mockumentary format—which is how Schur would shoot every show if he could: “I think it’s the best way to tell a story on television.”
So while the connection between the two shows can’t be missed, Parks is not a spinoff at all. It is, however, something of a bellwether for NBC, which has seen better days (it is currently ranked fourth among the major networks). Since the show was announced, Jay Leno has taken five hours of prime time a week, all of Silverman’s new shows have tanked, and Parks and Recreation, because of its ties to one of NBC’s lone hits, has become the last great hope. Hence the now-infamous leaking of the results of one of the show’s test screenings by Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily, which claimed audiences found the show a “carbon copy” of The Office, that it was “slow” and “predictable,” and that its male leads were “sleazy.” Focus groups have been wrong, and their observations certainly won’t be confused with the work of Pauline Kael, but it was probably not a happy day for Silverman.
Schur isn’t concerned. “That information was presented to the world as if we had sat around nervously waiting to see if people liked it, but we had long since moved on; we’d done four or five complete edits on the pilot by the time we got the focus-group results back,” he says. But clearly the ante on the show has been raised—a situation that, sensibly, everyone on set is trying to ignore. “You can’t think about stuff like all that, or you’ll go cuckoo bananas,” says Poehler, who is the most recognizable member of the cast (which includes second-most-recognizable member Rashida Jones, another Office veteran). According to Schur, Poehler is the show’s raison d’être. “Since 1997, when I first moved to New York and first saw Amy Poehler perform, I have thought she was the funniest person I’d ever met,” he says. “My goal and dream of this show was to provide a showcase for her abilities. If it works and she gets to play this character for a long time, I will have done my job.”