It wasn’t really love at first sight. The premiere of Parks and Recreation looked like a copy of The Office, another NBC series that Greg Daniels had developed. It was a workplace sitcom done in the style of a mockumentary, and we had seen it before. Amy Poehler’s character wasn’t a hit in the first season; Leslie Knope came across as far from bright and appealing. But there was a second season, and that meant all the difference.
A conflict over a pit
Parks and Recreation took place in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, always falling in the shadow of its more affluent and successful neighbor, Eagleton. Leslie Knope served as the deputy director of the parks and recreation department and her first conflict on the show came in the shape of a huge pit. A local nurse, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), demanded that something had to be done about it after her boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt) fell into the pit and broke his legs. Leslie promised to turn the pit into a park, but faced resistance from Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the libertarian parks director who wanted to make sure the city did as little as possible. A battle for the park began, involving Leslie’s self-centered and underachieving assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and an intern, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), who couldn’t care less.
Growing in strange ways
In the second season, the pit conflict was quickly resolved, one of the leading characters (a city planner played by Paul Schneider) vanished, Leslie became more accomplished (without abandoning her silly streak) and the parks department grew in strange ways. For some reason, Anne and Andy started working there and the cast expanded in brilliant ways. Suddenly, two state auditors, Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger (Adam Scott, Rob Lowe) showed up and found so many irregularities they had to shut down the city government, echoing the real-life battles between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.. Scott and Lowe provided an extra shot in the arm to an already very attractive cast; the former was likable as a future nerdy love interest for Leslie, while the latter was a lot of fun as the handsome Chris, obsessed with his health and having a positive attitude.
The series also made stars of several actors who were perfect for their parts, including Pratt as the goofy Andy, Plaza as the cynical April and Offerman as the stubbornly masculine Ron whose diet largely consisted of steaks and whiskey; the latter’s real-life wife Megan Mullally frequently made hilarious guest appearances as Ron’s toxic ex-wife who held some strange sexual power over him. Jim O’Heir had a strange journey through the series as Garry, constantly bullied by the others but always coming out on top.
In the beginning, Parks and Recreation was partly inspired by how local politics was depicted on The Wire, and the show stayed true to that basic concept until the final season when Leslie and Ben started flirting with D.C. careers. The show found its humor in typical small-town affairs, often depicting rowdy and absurd town-hall meetings where citizens got to vent their (ill-focused) opinions.
As the series became more popular, prominent national politicians made appearances. Regardless of all the crazy things going on, the heart of Parks and Recreation remained Leslie’s child-like but stubborn, enthusiastic love of public service.
Parks and Recreation 2009-2015:U.S. Made for TV. 125 episodes. Color. Created by Greg Daniels, Michael Schur. Cast: Amy Poehler (Leslie Knope), Adam Scott (Ben Wyatt), Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins, 09-14), Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Jim O’Heir, Retta, Rob Lowe (09-14), Billy Eichner (14-15), Paul Schneider (09-10).
Golden Globe: Best Actress (Poehler) 14.
Quote: “There’s only one thing I hate more than lying: skim milk. Which is water that is lying about being milk.” (Offerman)
Last word: “I’d auditioned for the American version of The Office, specifically for Mike Schur who, unbeknownst to me, wrote my name on a Post-it and stuck it to his computer. A few years later, he remembered the Post-it and said: ‘I want this guy on my new show.’ NBC looked at me for one role and said: ‘This guy is going to have to kiss Rashida Jones at some point, and we don’t think Nick is visually in that category.’ Mike said: ‘OK, let’s cast him as Leslie Knope’s boss.'” (Offerman, The Guardian)