There’s a brand of half-praise critics reserve for things they want to like but don’t, full of coded intimations (“admirable,” “quirky”) that while the creators may be wonderful, their project is half-baked. That’s the chorus that greeted Amy Poehler’s sitcom, Parks and Recreation, along with alarm at the show’s unsettling copycat vibe: It’s a workplace mockumentary (like The Office), starring a female Saturday Night Live star (30 Rock), featuring yet another delusional boss—Leslie Knope, a small-time Indiana bureaucrat.
But after five episodes, Parks has begun to kick free for me, mainly because the writers are onto something timely and resonant with Leslie, a fool who is also a budding heroine. On the surface, she may resemble The Office’s Michael Scott, but the gender issues are intriguingly flipped. While Michael is desperate for a family, all Leslie wants is to be president, a dream so big it makes her impervious to discouragement: When an article mocks her doomed park project with a sarcastic “We’ll see,” she smiles: “Ends on a hopeful note!”
Of course, no one except Leslie thinks she’s heading for the Oval Office. “There’s nothing wrong with being a wife and mother,” intones her monstrous underminer of a mother (Pamela Reed), who also works in government, and that’s the show’s spark: Leslie’s cluelessness is her strength. It’s her form of resistance. “A couple of ladies are coming to bust up your little boys’ club,” she announces when she crashes a drinking session, and while her motives are mixed, and her go-girl feminism goofy, she’s not wrong to see cynicism everywhere—the show satirizes her naïveté, but it’s also clear she’s the only one trying to make things better. If she’s so socally awkward that she excitedly announces, “Oh, I like this—this is banter!,” it’s just that she imagines she’s a rising star on The West Wing, not the butt of humiliation comedy.
And maybe she’s right: The show doesn’t work unless there’s something inspiring about Leslie. During the last election, female politicians couldn’t escape comparison with Election’s Tracy Flick, the villainess pundits used to pummel both Hillary and Sarah Palin. But there was always another way to see Flick: as a deserving hard worker, beaten down by the lazy and popular. At its best, Parks and Recreation provides an appealing Flick’s-eye view—the opportunity to see Leslie’s burning, bumbling ambition as noble, not merely absurd. We’ll see.