When "Parks and Recreation" premiered on NBC last spring, I didn't review it, which is unusual for me. But little about the disappointed ambivalence I felt for the show inspired me to shoot off 1000 words that could be boiled down to "Talented people deserve more funny." I could have tightened it even further with a one-word review now recognized in some dictionaries: "Meh."
I kept watching both because of its proximity to shows I preferred and because Sepinwall kept insisting it was funny (it wasn't) through til the finale which, for the first time, offered hope in laughter form.
I've seen the first two episodes of the "Parks and Recreation" second season -- premiering at 8:30 tonight on NBC -- and now seems like a decent time to actually review it, since it's suddenly a pretty good show.
Also premiering on Thursday? "The Office." It was already a pretty good show. It still is.
[Reviews of both comedy returns after the break...]
Watching the new "Parks and Recreation" episodes, there's a temptation to try doing a field diagnostic to figure out why a show which was not funny for most of last season is suddenly funny now.
On a practical level, the answer is probably easy: Time. NBC wanted "Parks and Recreation" on the air last spring and it hardly mattered if creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur had the show where they ideally wanted it to be. The pilot was rushed and subsequent episodes were rushed and no matter how talented the people involved with the show are, if they weren't necessarily making the show they wanted to be making, it's almost regrettable that viewers had to be party to the growing pains at all. If "Parks and Recreation" has become the show Daniels and Schur wanted to make then five or six stumbling episodes isn't really that long.
That's a practical answer.
But is "Parks and Recreation" a different show? Nope. Or should I say, "Knope"? No I shouldn't.
The mockumentary structure that many viewers found superfluous and too "Office"-esque last season remains intact. There are still interviews, cut-aways and breaking of the fourth wall and the show is still visually jittery, though it may be more polished this season. Suffice to say that structurally, "Parks and Recreation" hasn't suddenly become any more conventional a single-camera comedy while you were away.
Sepinwall's explanation is that the writers have found a way to make Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope, still a low-level public official in a small Indiana town, into a human. In early episodes, Leslie was so deluded and socially retarded that it was difficult to understand why anybody tolerated her or humored her. Michael Scott had a similar condition in early episodes of "The Office" and the writers eventually found a balance wherein he could be irredeemable and redeemed within the same episode. Leslie isn't Michael Scott because she's essentially altruistic, albeit in a misguidedly political fashion.
Poehler, in turn, is playing Leslie with less severity and the writers have added new ways to play to the Emmy nominee's strengths. I can offer no better example of this improvement than the cold-open of the "Parks and Recreation" final. Making Leslie more human has made it easier for other characters to interact with her without unavoidable and off-hand cruelty, so the possibility of actual friendship (albeit not without some mockery) with Aziz Ansari's Tom and Rashida Jones' Ann.
I guess you could say that "Parks and Recreation" may have been pushed into more of a workplace ensemble comedy than merely a portrait of one woman's unobtainable political ambition. One of last season's biggest crimes was the underuse of Ansari, Nick Offerman and Aubrey Plaza and both Ansari and Plaza have good moments in the premiere and Offerman's Episode Two storyline is a study in how a gifted comic actor can get laughs almost without moving a muscle. Jones, Paul Schneider and Chris Pratt continue to make the most with what they're offered, though Jones and Schneider often have to be satisfied with playing the straight-men.
The ensemble is still so deep that working everybody into every episode doesn't seem to be the goal and the addition of Louis C.K. for multiple episodes is only going to make it harder to spread the wealth. Daniels and Schur have done a great job on "The Office" of keeping every member of the supporting cast relevant, even if they only have one line or eye-roll per episode, but with "Parks and Recreation," they may be forced to make Poehler more of a first-among-equals.
It also helps that the universe of Pawnee, Indiana is expanding. The first season was mostly The Pit, the municipal building and a couple intentionally bland interiors, but we've already gone to the Pawnee Zoo and the town's gay bar (The Bulge) in early episodes.
If you tuned out of "Parks and Recreation" after an episode or two in the spring, you weren't wrong, but I'd recommend giving it another shot.
As for "The Office"? It's not like there's much point in telling people to tune in for one of TV's five funniest shows. At this point, the show has its audience and even a post-Super Bowl airing didn't exactly open the eyes of the unwatching masses.
So, of the premiere, I'll say these things:
*** The cold-open involves parkour. It's not as good as the Kevin's Chili cold-open, but nothing in the world could be. It's still pretty great.
*** The episode's set-up -- Michael spreads a true rumor, feels bad and decides to spread a dozen fake rumors as subterfuge -- is clumsy, but it pays off in the end.
*** Ed Helms is a movie star now, but "The Office" isn't about to make itself into The Michael-and-Andy Show. That doesn't mean the Andy-centric rumor isn't one of the episode's highlights.
*** Michael Scott thinks "Spartacus" is a "classic whodunnit."
*** Poop ball? Spaniard Fly?
*** Eh. No more spoilers. It's a funny episode. Just watch. And then stick around for the premiere of "Community" afterwards. Feel free to skip "The Jay Leno Show," though.
"Parks & Recreation" and "The Office" premiere from 8:30 to 9:30 on Thursday, Sept. 17 on NBC.