Note: I have not seen any of season three like many real critics. This argument is based mostly on season two and just a bit on my own assumptions/critical acclaim for season three.
Even with my small profile as an “online television critic,” or my time at my undergraduate university newspaper, the question I’ve probably gotten the most in the last calendar year is “Why is Parks and Recreation still on?” Folks usually contextualize that question with statements like “I saw the first season, it was awful” or “It’s just an Office clone with more annoying people” or even “I hate Amy Poehler because she’s a woman.” Okay, that last person was just angry, and maybe drunk. But you get what I’m saying. The narrative has been written on the series for a lot of people and it’s been belabored to death in the criticism circles, just as the one about the series vastly improving in season two to become one of television’s best comedies has.
Unfortunately, the second narrative that those of us who write and discuss television online fervently keep circling hasn’t quite reached the general population yet. They’re still stuck on the first one and honestly, I can’t really blame them. I hated the first season. HATED it. I was disenfranchised by the series’ development process that took a lot of time, featured a number of twists and turns and by the end of it, I couldn’t deal with what was in front of me. I had trouble believing that after all that nonsense, this was the program NBC, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur decided to give us.
But now, that time is long gone. Season two of Parks and Recreation started on a higher level than anything we saw from season one and it never, ever let up. In the second half of season two, it’s almost impossible to both pick out a bad episode and determine which one is the best. They’re all just awesome.
However, those things don’t really appeal to the doubters, particularly those I talk to for three minutes in person. Someone might ask me what I’m watching, what’s good, etc. and if they’ve already made up their minds about Parks and Rec, it’s difficult for me to sell them on all the specific reasons I love this program in such a short time. Unless you’re a television critic or a die-hard fan of the series someone is talking about, discussing the intricacies of character development or whatever don’t really work in a 90 second hallway convo.
After a guest spot on my old podcasting stopping grounds for WEEKEND Watchers, I’ve realized that I just have to simplify the message. Of course I’m going to be hammering that simplified message home across 1,000 words in this post, but if there’s one thing you need to know about Parks and Recreation if you haven’t seen it since season one or at all: As an overall product, Parks and Recreation is already better than The Office has ever been. Let me say that again. Parks and Recreation is most certainly better than The Office. This includes the halcyon days of The Office in seasons two and three. I’m not saying it’s a major gap, but it is my belief that Parks and Recreation is simply the better program. And fortunately, the series is also built to be better for longer, unlike its NBC brethren.
I don’t write this column to be particularly controversial because for the most part I assume that it won’t be. I’d imagine that this sentiment is fairly common among the television critics who watch both series. This piece is more for me, I guess. I’m just generally tired of having to defend the series to people on Twitter or in person without being able to really convince them, so it’s time to try bold(ish) statements. My goal is that even a few people who read this will check out Parks and Rec tonight when it airs after The Office for the very first time ever. This is a big moment for Parks and Rec, with the apparently creative highs of the end of season two intact and presumably a whole lot more eyes ready to take a little look-see. So if you haven’t seen the program or love it and have just as much trouble convincing people that it’s now fantastic, send them my way. I’ll be more than happy to guide them through the excellence that is Parks and Recreation.
With that being said, let’s discuss some of the reasons Parks and Recreation is absolutely better than even the greatest moments of The Office. I’ll even bold them as to help hammer home my simplified, but hopefully effective plan. This is exciting! Please note that I’ve left out something like “It’s funny!” because that should be a given. I’m not going to debate which series is actually “funnier” because that’s a totally subjective and debatable conversation. Just know, Parks and Recreation is funny.
It has a more infectious, positive outlook: On The Office, everyone has been miserable from the beginning and apart from a few certain events or relationships, that hasn’t changed. In the early seasons that atmosphere was one of The Office‘s biggest strengths, but as time has passed, the characters have just become more hateful and spiteful and it’s just depressing. I understand that is presumably the point. This is what happens to people in terrible office jobs all around the world. But lord, even when the people appear to like each other, they still kind of hate each other.
On Parks and Rec, that’s not really the case. The people of the Pawnee Parks Department work in a small-scale government organization, they have just as much to be depressed about as those who work at Dunder Mifflin, hell probably more. They’re certainly getting paid less and expected to do more important things. But for the most part, everyone who works in the Parks Department actually likes one another. Sure, Donna and Tom might not want to help Leslie complete some sort of aimless task that won’t really have an impact, but that lack of desire has little to do with Leslie as a person. They understand her drive and determination, they don’t share it, but they don’t hold it against her. Even the more obvious “hateful” characters like Ron and April find themselves falling victim to the charm of goofballs like Leslie, Andy or Tom. It’s just impossible to not like these people, faults and all. This leads right in to my next point.
The lead character is more admirable and importantly, more consistent: When Parks and Rec started, Leslie Knope felt like a Michael Scott clone. She was in a position of power but didn’t seem to deserve it and often made a fool or herself in the wrong kind of ways in those six season one episodes. After the much-talked about recalibration, the writers were smart enough to use Leslie’s most obvious faults as strengths. She’s annoyingly dedicated and determined to help people, but no longer is she overtly stupid in reaching those goals. More importantly, even when Leslie does tend to go off the rails, it’s never too far that the series can’t pull her back (and oftentimes, they come with a fairly believable excuse for the behavior such as nerves, sleep deprivation or sugar rush).
This is of course unlike The Office‘s handling of Michael. Even in the earlier seasons when the series was firing on all cylinders, Michael was inconsistently written. One week he’s socially awkward but well-meaning, the next he’s pathetic and bitter and the next he’s warming and misguided. It didn’t matter as much when the episodes around Michael were so good and quickly became a huge problem once the rest of the program was a mess, but the writers have always had difficulty with finding the happy medium for Michael. With Leslie, that seems to be less difficult and the program is much better off for it. With Michael, we’re often left to feel sorry for his actions and outbursts and then get surprised when he actually makes a right call at work. Leslie is sort of the opposite. She’s always making admirable choices even if those choices get her into some minor trouble.
If I can refer back to the first point just a bit, Leslie’s consistency trickles down to the infectious nature of the series in general. The people at the Parks Department are held together by Leslie, not in spite of her — which is the case with Michael on The Office — and that means a lot of good things. For one, it means the aforementioned supporting characters get along and are willing to participate in Leslie’s hair-brained schemes. For another, it often means that characters who would have been consistently made fun of in a more aggressive manner — Jerry, Andy most specifically — are viewed as lovable losers who while totally flawed, deserve a lot of the same sort of respect that everyone in the office gets.*
*Of course, this is fully debatable when it comes to Jerry, who is certainly the most attacked member of the staff. But even the jokes at his expense are light-hearted and fluffy compared to some of the things people like Dwight, Angela, Oscar, Ryan or even Michael say on The Office.
It is much more of an ensemble: People like to think of The Office as a series with a deep ensemble cast and in some ways, that is true. But there are few episodes of The Office that aren’t powered by Michael and to a lesser extent, Jim, Pam, Dwight and Andy. That’s just how it works. The rest of the cast members get their time in the spotlight once an episode and then a few times a season, the writers come calling and they get to drive some of the action themselves throughout an entire effort. But even then, they’re usually flanked by one of the lead characters. This makes me think of “Fun Run” when Michael hits Meredith with his car or “Did I Stutter?” when Stanley chews Michael out. Those supporting players get to do more than just a random talking head segment, but it’s still not their story.
With the supporting characters on Parks and Recreation, there is much more involvement with the ongoing narratives and more regularly, the episodic plots. Part of that has to do with the smaller casts, but when Leslie starts addressing the whole department for help, they’re usually active in that conversation instead of looking around at the camera confused or incredulous. That’s not always the case, but it is certainly more often so in comparison to The Office. There, when Michael addresses them for help, a few might shout out some answers, but it’s typically Jim or Pam that take Michael into his office for a more personal approach. Here, everyone’s involved, they’re all kicking around solutions together, etc.
Furthermore, most of the characters have their own ongoing stories that actually get addressed on a regular basis. Leslie clearly anchors the action and Ron, Ann and Tom are right there in terms of ongoing importance, but the series did a fantastic job at developing April, Andy, Mark and even Donna and Jerry in season two. All of them both Donna and Jerry had fairly substantial stories in the second season and even though some of them weren’t always as successful — like Mark and Ann’s relationship, for example — the series never wavered in its commitment to tell those stories. So even though Leslie, Ron, Tom and Ann the lead characters, Andy has been able to grow from an awful D bag to a lovable goofball and April’s developed much in the same way. And with the late additions of Ben and Chris, the series seems primed to be able to integrate new characters in with little difficulty.
This of course also has something to do with the performers. No disrespect to the people from The Office because they are very talented people, but the bigger group over there means people can blend in more without having the same kind of chemistry. Here, the smaller cast and tighter bonds of the characters means the actors have to actually make us buy into those circumstances and they sell it with little difficulty. Everyone, from Aubrey Plaza to Aziz Ansari to Chris Pratt, has been able to really embody their role and make their characters seem like real people instead of one-note jokes (which, even in the early seasons, a lot of the Dunder Mifflin people were).
This is a series that is definitely led by Amy Poehler’s charming performance as Leslie Knope, but it doesn’t have to be each week. In contrast, The Office needs, or at least appears to desire to need, to rely on Steve Carell’s Michael Scott each week.
There is a greater attachment to ongoing narrative: Some of this stems from it being a younger series because The Office most certainly was better at working through continuing narratives in the first few seasons, but I still think what Parks and Recreation has done is an improvement. The Office, even in those younger days, tends to introduce big ideas and then execute them with laser-like focus for a few episodes before moving on. The downsizing thing hung over the series from the very beginning, but it wasn’t quickly sort of sidestepped for the merger, then Michael Scott Paper Company, then Sabre, etc. I mean each season sort of has its own thing, but even within that season, those stories didn’t always carry over as well or for as long as they should have. In the best seasons of The Office, the only major things the audience had to worry about dealt with Michael’s love life, Jim and Pam and whatever crazy thing was happening to the company. And those things would come and go in terms of focus and importance, depending on the week.
Whether it’s the plotting with the Lot (which, admittedly, felt a lot like the downsizing in the early part of the series), the current arc with the economic crisis or just the ongoing personal relationships between the characters, Parks and Recreation seems to have a better handle on how to work these larger concerns into the weekly efforts. There is a sense that things are continuously building and even if we don’t really know the destination, we can still point how the relationship between Ron and Leslie has changed or how April and Andy have grown closer. The Office, from the beginning, seemed much more interested in telling the best 22-minute story it could and then worrying about how to move forward from there in the next script. Though that’s probably still the main concern with Parks and Rec, there is certainly more care given to how the jokes actually mean or develop something about the characters and the narratives.
This feels like one of those things that’s hard to explain, but trust me. If you watch the first few episodes of season three without seeing anything from the series before, I promise you’ll still be able to see it.
Ron F’ing Swanson: This is sort of a meme inside the criticism circles at this point, but my lord is Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson one of the best characters on television. Even in the dreadful first season, the only thing I remember is Ron’s rant about the greatness of Bobby Knight from the pilot. Literally, that’s the only thing I’ve decided to remember from that short period of time. Obviously, Ron is a really great comedic foil for Leslie with his anti-government, pro-breakfast rants and general antagonism towards doing anything at work. So many of the second season’s best moments stem from Ron screwing with Leslie or anyone else in the office.
But as season two progressed it became clear that Ron was a lot more than a cool mustache and privatization ramblings. Despite his issues with her beliefs and general energy, Ron fully respects and cares for Leslie and the relationship between the two of them has become the emotional anchor of the series. It’s not the most flashy relationship because there aren’t really any hints of romantic tension or something more obvious like that — though I do believe Leslie mentioned one dream in some throwaway gag — but I think that’s what makes it so satisfying to critics. The Office succeeded in those earlier years because we were all on bended knee waiting for Jim and Pam to get together and that’s never going to be Ron and Leslie. Different people, different circumstances, etc., but if viewers are willing to give a more complicated relationship like this a chance, I think they could grow to love it almost as much as they love Jim and Pam. Which leads me to my final point…
It’s built to last: I think all my previous bolded points help hammer this one home. If we think back to The Office one final time, we can really point out three main reasons why it sort of derailed over the years: 1.) The inconsistencies with Michael 2.) The lack of commitment to ongoing narratives and 3.) A lack of direction after the romantic tension between Jim and Pam was fulfilled. Though Parks and Recreation could theoretically fall victim to the first and second points on this small list, thus far, it has shown a better resolve in staying on track than The Office did.
In any event, it seems as if when we combine the characters, the concept and the writing, Parks and Recreation could overcome the usual television industry issues like cast changes, sweeps, etc. The government is a place where weird things can happen with relative ease whereas the private paper business has apparently been hampered in the economy in only a few ways (downsizing, mergers, etc.). Next season of Parks and Recreation could be about the department suddenly being flush with money! Or a crazy mayor could be elected that just loves parks and so he expands the department by 10! I mean these are obviously broad and goofy examples, but there appears to be more to work with than simple business restructuring and purchasing that have made so many of The Office‘s overarching stories.
As far as the third point goes, I think the lack of main romantic pairing actually helps Parks and Recreation in the long run. That kind of couple is a good thing to have in the beginning because it hooks people in, but before long, it can consume the series and as we saw with The Office, after it’s dealt with, there’s sometimes nowhere else to go for emotional anchoring. If this series continues to present us with the great relationship of Ron and Leslie and all the other rock-solid friendships, it can survive. The people don’t hate each other and so presumably those relationships will only get stronger over time and if more romantic entanglements pop up over time, so be it. But at least there isn’t a situation where the audience has long-running expectations for one thing, that thing happens and then there’s really a stalling feeling in where to go next.
Moreover because the cast is smaller and the characters are better-written at this point, it will, in the worst, take longer for them to become broad extensions of themselves. Hopefully. This is definitely a goofy argument, but usually it takes a while for great characters to lose their luster and when the series is already starting from such a strong place, we will hopefully have more seasons of good material from theme before things start getting weaker — if that ever happens at all.
In general, I think Parks and Recreation will never be as successful as The Office because of some of the things that will help it succeed over a long period of time. Wild and “big” characters like Michael Scott and more obvious personal relationships such as Jim and Pam pull in the viewers at first, but if those people just stuck around for an extended period of time with Leslie, Ron, Tom, Ann, April and the rest of the Pawnee gang, I think they’d begin to realize that the connection between this group of people is much stronger and more real. It’s not as obvious, but it’s ultimately more satisfying.
I think that’s enough. I sought out to simplify my message about Parks and Recreation and I ended up writing 3,000 words in defense of that message. Of course, a number of these things have already been said before, but it was nice to get my words out there because I haven’t really written about this program thus far here at the blog. And even if you didn’t read all of this or the people who pass it on to don’t read it all, that’s okay. Just remember: Parks and Recreation is better than The Office has ever been.