Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tremendous Week: Parks & Recreation Season 1 DVD review

By Rick Morris

We conclude Tremendous Week in The 21st Century Media Alliance with a look at the new Parks & Recreation Season 1 DVD release. Other elements of this week, of course, included the Fire Joe Morgan reunion on Deadspin, The Office Season 5 DVD review and The Office Season 6 Premiere liveblog right here on this site and the Parks & Recreation Season 2 Premiere liveblog on Googling Atlee Hammaker. All in all, it’s been a pretty fun week taking a whirl through elements of pop culture that we really enjoy.

So that brings us to Parks & Recreation, the highly-anticipated project that hit the airwaves last April. With obvious strong ties to The Office – both in terms of the creative team and the mockumentary format – intrigue was intense even while few knew exactly what to expect.

Well, that’s not entirely true, we knew the outlines going in. Leslie Knope (portrayed by the always-funny Amy Poehler), deputy director of Parks & Recreation in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, takes on the challenge of converting an abandoned construction pit into a fully-functioning city park. Along the way, she befriends local nurse Ann Perkins (portrayed by the smokin’ Rashida Jones in another Office connection), whose ne’er-do-well boyfriend Andy fell into the pit and broke both his legs. Intern April, smarmy co-worker Tom Haverford, shallow city planner (and would-be love interest) Mark Brendanawicz and her militant libertarian boss Ron Swanson make up the rest of her professional inner circle. We knew that Pawnee was probably supposed to be about the same size as Scranton, PA, home of The Office. We also knew that Leslie’s character would have some of the same obliviousness as Office honcho Michael Scott.

But what would be the feel of the ensemble? How would this non-spinoff-with-obvious-Office-overtones fare?

Pretty well, as a rewatch of the episodes in Season 1 demonstrated yet again. When I first viewed the episodes last spring, I enjoyed the dry humor evident with most of the characters, but I admit to worrying at the time that there might not be many others who felt the same way. After all, I’m one of the statistically-insignificant people who loves Mad Men, which will have a long leash because it does great numbers for AMC – but expectations for a Thursday night show on NBC are far higher, and probably unrealistic in terms of the ratings that night used to tally in the days when cable was far less of a threat.

In light of that thought, I waited to post a review until I had seen the first episode of Season 2, just as a point of comparison. It was by far my favorite show yet in the series, proving that they are really going to hit their stride in Season 2. As I noted in the liveblog on GAH, any show that can have me laughing my nards off when my own point of view (opposition to gay marriage) is being satirized is really hitting all the right comedic notes.

So this DVD set is probably going to go down in a historical sense as being similar to, not surprisingly, The Office’s first mini-season of its own. The Office started out in the shadow of the BBC version and really took few if any steps to carve out its own identity in that time. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t great, because it was, and “The Alliance” and “Diversity Day” had some of the best scenes in the history of the show – but it wasn’t yet separate in the public’s mind from the overseas version. In Season 2, the program branched out and reached untold creative heights as they forged their own identity. With Parks and Recreation, we can see a bit of the same process, as Season 1 was devoted to the deliberate process of fleshing out the characters and creating the dynamic for the pit project to unwittingly become a magnet for controversy. If the show endures – and I believe that it will – the Season 1 DVD will probably be viewed as the steady first step for the rest of the series in the same way that the first offering from The Office is seen.

But that’s not to indicate that the DVD is merely for completist fans of the show like me. There are a lot of laughs here, plenty of entertainment and wit. The ensemble is superb, another point in common with The Office. The skewering of municipal government is dead-on and the mishaps that ensue – from a town hall meeting less friendly than one President Obama might see these days to Andy’s eventual failure to keep Ann under his thumb by dint of obligation – are outrageous in their execution.

And Leslie Knope, the main character, anchors the show in fine fashion. While there are obvious points of comparison to Michael Scott, her defining feature is not a wish to be worshipped as a great guy and world-class entertainer like The Office’s honcho; rather, she has a vision of being a trailblazing female politician with an eventual stop in the White House. She believes, humorously and touchingly, that every one of her small triumphs in life is a step in that ultimate destination. Like Michael, though, she causes much eye-rolling in her inner circle with her antics, so the comparison is one that works in the show’s favor.

All in all, I’m a big fan of what this show is trying to do. As The Office demonstrates so ably, some of the funniest moments in life are mined from the trivialities of day-to-day life and Parks and Recreation searches for those moments in the form of local government follies. I recommend this DVD strongly and if you buy it now, you’ll be able to lord it over your friends later on when everyone is posturing to act like they were a fan from the very beginning.

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