When this show debuted, viewers went into it thinking they knew what to expect. It was another The Office, with a “female Michael Scott.” In fact, this mockumentary was originally conceived by creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur and a spin-off of The Office. You would be forgiven for maintaining that assumption even after viewing the pilot, although there are hints here of greater potential. To be sure, Parks and Recreation took a little time to find its own voice, and with a powerful comedienne like Amy Poehler in the lead, it’s not surprising that it did so. Here is what audiences saw in April 2009.
The pilot gets right to the funny. It opens with Leslie, a bureaucrat in a suit bent uncomfortably over a little girl in a sandbox, administering a survey.
“Would you say that you are enjoying yourself and having fun, having a moderate amount of fun and somewhat enjoying yourself, or having no fun?”
She then, while removing a drunk from a playground slide, spouts a few words of inspiration about being a woman in politics, a theme she will return to time and again. Leslie Knope, age barely-34, proudly works for the Parks and Recreation Department of the little city of Pawnee, Indiana. (Despite being fictitious, Pawnee has an entertaining website.) Just the name conjures images of small town backward-ness; it can’t be more than 100 miles from Lima, Ohio (the real city where Glee is set). And those Hollywood city-slickers love to have fun with those wholesome Midwesterners.
Next Leslie is delighted to find herself leading a community forum, in which the town is invited to “ask questions” a.k.a. bitch. Her colleague Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a young wannabe playboy unwillingly accompanies her. After struggling with a locked door, then having the auditorium lights turned off on them, they finally get down to business. Just a few quick cuts of people’s gripes paint a pitiful picture of life in local government. (“The head of police is a ninth degree Mason…”)
The dialogue makes this thing. “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me,” Leslie attests. And like any good politician, she loves her cliches. “This is where the rubber of govenment meets the road of… human beings.”
When a jarringly normal resident, young and pretty Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones, who I keep wanting to call Karen, her character’s name on The Office), stands up to demand that a pit near her house be filled in, Leslie finds her true calling. She resolves to build a new park on the site of the pit. The friendship between Leslie and Ann, started in this pinky-promise moment, begins here and grows across the coming seasons.
Leslie and Tom, accompanied by intern April (Aubrey Plaza) pay a visit to Ann’s house, where they meet her loser boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt). Andy broke both his legs falling into the pit and now spends all of his time on the couch. It’s a little hard to respect Karen, I mean Ann, an educated professional woman who puts up with an ass like Andy taking advantage of her. What’s interesting about this scene, looking back, is it’s the first meeting between Andy and April. There is nothing to suggest the writers had any plans to eventually get these two characters together, but it’s kind of amazing to think any woman, even hilariously dour April, could see anything in Andy after this first impression. He’s become a lot more likeable over the seasons.
Leslie approaches city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), with whom she has a “history,” ’cause you always have to have two characters with a “history,” to support her park-building aspirations. Despite his reticence, he calls in a favor to the Big Boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), to get the ball rolling. What Mark sees in Leslie is the same thing we do: her indefatigable optimism.
In fact, Leslie’s motivation is enough to set her apart from the Michael Scotts of the world, male or female. Michael always wants to succeed for his own glory–basically, to be popular. Leslie has true passion for what she does, and every desire to make the world a better place. She’s got an ego for sure, but she’s got a good heart, too. We should all be so lucky to love our jobs like this, no matter how trivial they are in the grand scheme of things. And that’s probably why audiences have stuck with her.