By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Heaven help us all, NBC has managed to come up with a prime-time network sitcom that suffers from an excess of subtlety -- a flaw so utterly unprecedented that it has considerable novelty value on its own.
"Parks and Recreation," premiering tonight, was conceived as a vehicle for Amy Poehler, one of the many alumni of "Saturday Night Live" -- TV's great Kollege of Komedy Knowledge -- who have fanned out ubiquitously into movies, Internet videos and prime-time TV shows. But Poehler's show unfortunately isn't worthy of her. It's dry and hesitant when one longs for it to be raucous and madcap.
A too-obvious imitation of the network's imported hit "The Office," the series is set instead in the bureaucracy of a city government and has been rendered in what NBC calls "mockumentary" style -- as popularized in the movies of Christopher Guest ("Waiting for Guffman," "Best of Show," etc.) and others.
Poehler does have inescapably funny moments impersonating Leslie Knope, whose domain is right there in the title and who enlivens every scene in which she appears; she appears in most, but too many do indeed need enlivening. Knope is a terminally naive little civil servant whose transparent smile can't hide a world of woe and worry, anxieties that seem all the more obvious the harder she tries to conceal them.
Poehler occasionally speaks to the camera, in character (at one point favorably comparing herself to Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi), as if her life were being filmed for a documentary that would probably air, if anywhere, on PBS -- and not during pledge weeks, either. Poehler still has the antic twinkle in her eye -- actually, both eyes -- that made her a delight for eight seasons on "SNL," where her versatility got a thorough workout. She bounced from character to character with the kind of merry elan that made her probably the most lovable of the show's stunning new generation of talented women.
In truth, current cast member Kristen Wiig has probably surpassed Poehler in the wondrous virtuoso department, but Poehler dominated the show during her tenure and became the star to see. She could save a stale sketch with her charisma and inventiveness, but, sad to say, that doesn't mean she can salvage a tepid series, which "Parks and Recreation" unfortunately is.
As with "The Office," the comedy depends on wry observations of everyday trivialities in a universe of stupefying banality. Poehler's Knope is gung-ho all the way and able to summon false enthusiasm even after, say, tumbling into a giant ditch that's supposedly going to become a new recreation center. At the office, she moons unnoticed over city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) and is ridiculed regularly by co-worker Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari). "I'm what you might call a redneck," Haverford incongruously declares.
Poor little Leslie's attempts at office bonhomie include addressing Mark as a "crazy old Polish person" and attempting to rally the troops over one cockamamie brainstorm or another. One annoyed co-worker compares her to "a dog with a chew toy -- insatiable." But for all that, the show and its humor seem muted -- too dry, too deadpan. Even if the cast of characters suffers from lethargy, the comedy shouldn't.
Maybe tonight's episode, the only one available for preview, is suffering from pilot pallor -- a malaise that sometimes infects the opening episodes of sitcoms -- but how many viewers will want to give it additional chances to break out of its torpor?
People might tune in, as the cliche goes, to watch Amy Poehler read the telephone book. The premiere is not without laughs, and yet it is almost without interest, except as an answer to the question, "I wonder what Amy Poehler is up to these days." As it turns out, not quite enough.
Parks and Recreation (30 minutes) premieres at 8:30 p.m. on