Test Pilot: File #53, Parks and Recreation

Test Pilot #53: Parks and Recreation

Debut date: April 9, 2009

Series legacy: On the shortlist of great contemporary sitcoms

First impressions mean a lot in television, and that’s why writers, producers, studios, networks, etc. put more time, effort and money into pilots than they do just about any other episode that could possibly be made. Obviously though, not all pilots are good – most are just mediocre and many are terrible – but the ingredients for a successful series remain, bubbling beneath the surface. Some of television’s most curious cases see great series come from pretty tepid pilot episodes. In the next five Test Pilot entries, we will explore a few of these cases of Bad Pilot, Good Series and think about what important changes each series made from one step to the other.

Hiya, folks. Welcome back to Test Pilot and our exploration of bad pilots of generally good programs. Today’s top of discussion was the most-suggested for coverage by you, so hopefully we can do it justice. Parks and Recreation is a very easy comedy to love in 2012, but as most everyone who loves the series knows, it didn’t begin that way. After initially being developed as a direct Office spin-off, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur changed course, resulting in an uneven opening batch of episodes that few people seemed to enjoy. Of course, though, things changed and we are here to discuss how and why.

Joining me today is Les Chappell. Les is a fellow co-founder of This Was Television and you can also find his criticism work at The A.V. Club and A Helpless Compiler and follow him on Twitter. Les, take it away:

Between the ever-growing availability of television shows on DVD or streaming, and the never-ending conversation on Twitter and in comment sections, it’s easier than ever to get a recommendation on what shows you should be watching. People love talking about their favorite shows, and they love seeing people experience their favorite shows for the first time. And given how few shows are perfect out of the box, they’re also quick to warn first-time viewers of the rough patches, and reassure them that eventually it gets better. As an example, this summer I’m going through a first-time watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and there’s no shortage of people eager to tell me what episodes I should be looking forward to (“Becoming,” “Innocence”) or which ones I’m going to have to grit my teeth to get through (“Inca Mummy Girl,” “I Robot… You, Jane.”).

Out of all the shows currently on the air, it’s hard to think of one that gets more early warnings from fans than Parks and Recreation. Now approaching its fifth season, Parks and Recreation is almost unanimously considered by critics one of the best comedies on television—for me, it fights an eternal struggle with Community and Archer for the top spot. It’s got a rock-solid ensemble headlined by the brilliant Amy Poehler, a small-town setting that’s grown into a live-action Springfield, a writing staff possessed of a good-natured and optimistic sense of humor, and one of the great iconic sitcom characters in Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson.

Yet for all its critical adulation, it’s also a show that whenever anyone recommends it, they typically add the caveat you should skip ahead and start watching with the second season. Parks and Recreation came on the NBC schedule as a mid-season fill-in and only received six episodes to start out, episodes that weren’t well-reviewed and started dropping in the ratings almost immediately. Had it not come from Greg Daniels and Mike Schur—people who worked on The Office, NBC’s sole comedy hit in recent years—it almost certainly would have suffered the same fate as a Bent or Best Friends Forever. And over time, those early episodes have taken on an almost mythical state of badness, with Schur even going on record as admitting the whole thing could all be written off as the show’s growing pains.

However, I’m a completionist when it comes to my television, so when I started watching Parks and Recreation after the second season wrapped up, I started with the pilot. And after finishing the pilot, I understood why everyone suggests skipping ahead. It’s not as offensively bad as many other comedy pilots, but it’s a clunky, awkward start* for a show, one where you can see flickers of what the show would but they’re so faint I only noticed them with the context of three seasons spent watching these characters.

*The rest of the first season isn’t much better. I actively hated the second episode “Canvassing,” couldn’t get through more than half of the third episode “The Reporter,” and still haven’t watched the fourth or fifth episodes. The season finale “Rock Show” is the best of the batch, and my own recommended point of entry to new viewers.

A large part of that awkwardness comes from the fact that the show was originally green-lit as a spinoff of The Office, and while Daniels and Schur abandoned that idea early in development it structurally still feels very much like that earlier show. It’s shot in the same documentary fashion as The Office, where the action is interspersed with talking head interview segments and characters occasionally addressing the camera directly in the middle of the action. There’s nothing wrong with this format intrinsically (even though I’ve never liked The Office even a little bit) but at the same time you can see the sense that it’s not precisely the format they want to be using. Schur and Daniels have admitted since that they were actively trying to set a different tone than the former show, using techniques such as jump cuts and multiple shot angles in the interview segments. You can see the difference between shows, but it comes across as hesitant in spots, as if they don’t know exactly what they want to do.

And Office parallels aside, the episode’s most obvious sticking point is that it’s not particularly funny. I think during the course of re-watching this pilot I only laughed once (at Tom’s extended proposition to Ann during the town hall meeting), only chuckled a couple times at particularly outlandish things that Leslie or Ron said, and the rest of the time averaged a half-smile. It also doesn’t help that some of the characters, like Rashida Jones’ Ann and Paul Schneider’s Mark, are clearly there to serve as straight men, but that only works when there’s something to react to. The show’s trying to get humor out of bureaucratic inanities, and it’s just not inane or odd enough to serve as a fountain for comedy.

The largest problem with the show’s humor comes from the character at the center of these inanities, Leslie Knope. Cory, we talked midway through the fourth season about whether or not Parks and Recreation had a Leslie Knope problem, and looking back on that discussion in context of this pilot, I think one of my chief problems with her character at that point was it felt like she was falling back into bad habits. The Leslie we’re seeing here comes across as committed to her job, but committed to the point where she seems deluded, a small-town lower-level bureaucrat discussing herself in the same language as national female politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. Her obsession over little things—carrying a torch for Mark after a hook-up five years prior, determination to see every complaining citizen of Pawnee as “caring loudly at her”—is played without a shred of self-awareness, and after a while it’s just uncomfortable to watch.

Seeing this version of Leslie, it’s very clear the smartest decision Schur and company made between seasons was to recalibrate the way that character behaved—and more to the point, how that character was perceived by others. Parks and Recreation has a reputation as a very affectionate show to the weirdos who populate it, but the pilot Leslie’s commitment to government as almost desperate, and as presented everyone else on the show treats it (and her) as a subject of mockery. Ron actively dismisses her as “a little dog with a chew toy” as she keeps nagging him to sign off on her committee, and Tom actively anticipates getting her drunk because it leads to her humiliating herself publicly. (“On Halloween she was dressed up as Batman, and I convinced her to try to stop a crime outside. And it was my favorite thing in the world.”) The Leslie of season four has an entire office willing to push her to city council; here, all she can get out of them is humiliating pictures sent to the entire government.

Then again, no one in the show is the same person they’d be. Much as Leslie didn’t become a real character until they embraced Amy Poehler’s somewhat wackier strengths as a performer, all of the characters here come across as devoid of real personality. Beyond the above-mentioned flatness of Ann and Mark*, Aziz Ansari plays Leslie’s lieutenant Tom Haverford only as the picture of disinterested employee, putting forward the minimum effort at everything. Aubrey Plaza’s April says a grand total of around a dozen words and conveys the rest in sullen glowering, while Chris Pratt’s Andy (still credited as a guest star) is a lazy jerk taking advantage of his broken legs so Ann can wait on him hand and foot. And of course, Ron Swanson isn’t Ron Effing Swanson yet, his only defined character trait being the now famous attitude to have the park system privatized and run entirely for profit by corporations. (“Like Chuck E. Cheese. They have an impeccable business model.”)

*Truth be told, I was almost surprised to remember Mark Brendanawicz was once a central character on this show. No disrespect to Paul Schneider, but his character never quite fit in with the rest of the ensemble, and the introduction of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott at the end of season two quickly eclipsed whatever impression he made.

It’s certainly easy to tear this pilot down, but at the same time you can see it’s still generating those sparks that would become what I consider Parks and Recreation. The multiple takes of Leslie going into Ron’s office to ask for the planning committee are one of the few structural changes that work from the get-go, and the rapid-fire pace of entries indicates a show that’s willing to try lots of jokes to see what sticks. This tendency will produce many of the classic moments: Leslie rattling off lists of her bad dates, Andy running through every possible band name, Tom coming up with the trendiest terms for food. And while Pawnee is depicted here mostly as straight small-town America, there are hints of a deeper-rooted insanity: cranks at the town hall meeting who “want to say a few things about Laura Linney,” murals that depict such violence on Native Americans they’re covered up during school tours.   

It’s not even close to what it’ll be come, but there are seeds planted there: seeds that are going to grow, over time, into such things as Mouse Rat, Harvest Festival, the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness, Lil’ Sebastian, Treat Yo’ Self, Entertainment 720 and the Knope 2012 campaign. Re-watching it, I’m finding myself feeling much more charitable to it than I was on the original viewing. It’s not that they made a bad piece of television, it’s just that they had no idea what they were doing or what talent they had at their disposal. And thankfully for all parties, eventually they’d figure it out.

–LC

Thanks, Les. My thoughts:

The problems with Parks and Recreation’s pilot episode—and really its entire first season—begin and end with the same thing that has made the series so darn good in every episode since those first six: Leslie Knope.

Over the last few seasons of Parks, Leslie has grown into one of the best characters on all of television (no offense to Nick Offerman or Ron Swanson), someone who, in equal fashion, makes me laugh, fist-pump and cry. She is one of the most admirable and smartest characters we have on television. Long-story short, Leslie Knope is amazing.

However, when the series began in 2009, Leslie Knope was quite far from amazing. As Les discussed in his portion, the early version of Leslie fails as a lead character because she is borderline delusional and dysfunctional, despite her obvious commitment to the job. While Parks didn’t end up being an Office spin-off, certain elements of that series remain in this pilot (and the whole first season), most notably the way Leslie is positioned within the series’ world. Unfortunately, she mostly comes off as a “female Michael Scott,” which is what critics and fans were ready to pigeon-hold her as anyway due to the series’ production history and team.

In the early stages of the series’ run, Leslie is emotionally off-kilter in a way that single-handedly alters the fabric of the atmosphere. She mugs for the camera in a Michael Scott-like fashion, awkwardly monologues about her belief in government and generally seems deluded about the importance of her job. These problems are only exacerbated further by the way that the rest of the cast interacts with Leslie throughout these opening episodes. She is consistently made to look like a fool, or at least a big goofball, and there is never anyone there earnestly supporting her crusades, or even her intelligence. The reactions of Tom, Ron, Mark and others only further confirm that Leslie is ill-equipped to pull off the Lot 48 project, or anything at all. If we react to Leslie with a questioning scowl and the supporting characters do the same, there is little room for sympathy.

The pilot’s portrayal and treatment of Leslie is the catalyst for a prevailing sense of cynicism and uncomfortable monotony, which is yet another grafted-on carry-over from Daniels’ and Schur’s work on The Office. Ron and Tom aren’t particularly friendly to Leslie but they also aren’t particularly friendly in general. Meanwhile, Mark and Ann are their typical milquetoast selves, while April is admittedly charming in that Aubrey Plaza-kind-of-way, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do here other than scowl. Andy, who has become one of the more playful, puppy dog-like characters around, is a miserable asshole. No one would characterize these characters as “happy” or throw around adjectives like “warm” or “caring.”  

I understand that there might be some humor in allowing us to watch local government figures try to change the world with pointless legislation, and I think that is what Parks attempts to do too often at the beginning here. Maybe that could have worked, and maybe Leslie could have been a Michael-like figure in that narrative, but Parks did not originally have its Jim and Pam characters to provide the sympathetic entry point into its world like The Office did/does.

Plus, The Office‘s cynicism fit the drab, stale air of the contemporary workforce. It was easy for audiences to relate to the world of Dunder-Mifflin, to see themselves as Jims or Pams and see their annoying bosses in Michael Scott. But it isn’t so easy for us to embrace a somewhat similar set-up with the primary difference being the characters working for the government. There is a general assumption that many people working for the government are A.) awful B.) incompetent or C.) all of the above and in today’s political/cultural climate, sympathy for the government probably isn’t high on too many folks’ list of things to do. Thus, Parks was already facing challenges when it hit the airwaves, and then the series only made things worse (initially) by presenting us with a slew of generally unlikable characters and no real admirable audience surrogate.

Again, it all comes back to Leslie. There are times in later season one episodes where the series allows Leslie to be more competent and more aware of her surroundings, a clear sign that Daniels and Schur had recognized the miscalculation and were willing to re-calibrate in hopes of finding that sweet spot where Leslie could be both the butt of the joke and still someone the audience really cared for. And as Leslie appeared more put-together, so did the rest of the series. The last episode of season one, as Les mentioned, is the strongest of the season primarily because it presents a Leslie who is driven, but also smart; vulnerable, but also emotionally-centered enough to put a stop to Mark’s drunken kiss. From that episode onward, Leslie was (mostly) a different person and Parks and Recreation was a different, better series. 

Claiming that fixing Leslie is all that was needed to fix Parks is likely simplistic but I think that the approach the writers took to tinkering with that character is the sole catalyst for great change that the series needed. Making Leslie smarter and altering her drive to seem admirable instead of delusional forced the show to soften other characters as well. Ron’s, Tom’s and April’s inherent cynicism fell away a little bit, Mark didn’t walk over her once she stood up to him and Ann grew to find Leslie charming instead of annoying because she knew that Leslie was a dedicated friend. Andy underwent the same sort of softening process. And most importantly, everyone has respected Leslie from season two onward. They might disagree with her, or try to subvert her unbelievable schemes, but they all know that she makes these choices for the good of the people. In retrospect, then, her speech to the camera about the power of government in the pilot is more fitting and less hokey that it initially seemed. Leslie has always believed those things, the show just had to catch up to her optimistic viewpoint.

And at that point, the series had its sympathetic figure. Instead of a cynical, depressing look at the ineptitude of government, the series became a humorous but uplifting story about the positive things the government can do. It’s likely that Parks and Recreation became a less “realistic” story when it shifted from away from cynicism but I don’t think the audience would have it any other way. The warmth that Parks consistently displays is unlike anything else on television and even now, it’s still a little hard to believe that the same people who were behind this first episode helped crafted something like “Win, Lose or Draw.” 

Yet, that big fissure between what the series was and what it is makes for great discussion, and honestly, great viewing. Previously, we’ve discussed pilots that weren’t worthy to the various series that came later, but those pilots and series didn’t reflect the same kind of wholesale changes that we’ve seen with Parks. With Bob Newhart and Star Trek: The Next Generation, the pilots play like pretty-bad episodes of the series but still of the same sort of piece. The Seinfeld pilot isn’t as bad as people told me it was, and importantly still “feels” like Seinfeld. With Parks, the big differences between the pilot and most everything that came after the season two premiere are more compelling and reflective of the kind of tinkering that can only really be done on television. I don’t particularly enjoy watching those season one episodes of Parks and Recreation but they are worthwhile nonetheless. 

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Great series with a poor pilot that doesn’t look much better in retrospect — but is still worth watching

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