When it first aired in 2009, "Parks and Recreation" suffered both poor reception and little acclaim in its first season; many critics failed to see how the show was any different from "The Office." Both sitcoms are set in nondescript locations in the United States and make great use of the single-camera mockumentary style. Especially in the first few episodes of "Parks and Rec," the parallels between the two shows' main characters, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in "Parks and Rec" and Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) in "The Office," are undeniable. The fact that the show was conceived by two of the same writer-producers (Greg Daniels and Michael Schur) responsible for "The Office" also didn't help "Parks and Rec"'s claim that it was all that different from its predecessor.
Largely thanks to a turnaround in the quality of writing at the end of the first season, however, "Parks and Rec" has been able to wrest free of overly close associations with "The Office." Its characters are what makes the series a true stand-out.
The show follows the wheelings and dealings of the workers in one of the smallest branches of the Pawnee, Ind., town government. "Parks and Rec" continually proves most successful when it focuses on these characters' relationships outside of the office.
Take, for example, "End of the World," the sixth episode of "Parks and Rec"'s fourth—and current—season.
"End of the World" follows a harmless cult called the Reasonabilists as they camp out in one of Pawnee's parks awaiting the coming of the 27-foot tall lizard and creator of the universe, Zorp, who is expected to arrive and "burn your face off."
Most of the characters on the show (including those we only see once every few episodes) are fleshed out in several dimensions. I'm convinced that there is no one else like Leslie's boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), on television today. Head of the parks department, Ron is, ironically enough, a libertarian. He's also a man's man with enough of a sensitive side to be able to lead the Reasonabilists on flute playing "Symphony for the Righteous Destruction of Humanity in E Minor." At the same time, Ron is only joining them for the night in hopes of pocketing some profit off sales of his homemade flutes and recorders.
Leslie approaches Ron (who often delivers the show's best one-liners) at one point in the episode to ask if she can speak with him about her inability to get over her ex-boyfriend Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). To this, he answers, "Normally, no. But given that there's only 20 minutes until the end of the world, also no."
Nonetheless, Ron's stubbornness rarely persists around Leslie.
When she tells him that she'd want to be with Ben tonight if Zorp were really coming, Ron points out that the problem is that, unfortunately, Zorp is not coming. He explains that Leslie is still in the same bind as she was before (having broken up with Ben at the beginning of the season). This may be hard love, but it still shows that Ron is willing to care for Leslie.
Then there's the sarcastic, petty, but ultimately warm-hearted Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and his annoying friend Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz). In this episode, the duo tries to plan the perfect party "for the end of the world."
In what initially appears to be a caring act, Jean-Ralphio gets Tom's ex-girlfriend Lucy to show up for their party.
"I actually forgot they ever dated," Jean-Ralphio admits to us privately. "I was trying to hit that." He nonetheless gives up in his pursuit once he sees how happy Tom is to have her there. So even the seemingly shallow Jean-Ralphio is given more complexity. His character is reason enough himself to tune into "Parks and Rec" if you haven't already.
Some characters, however, are more one-dimensional in this episode. Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) is presented as the voice of reason and nothing more, while Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) is narrowly confined to playing an optimist isolated by his sunny outlook.
"Parks and Rec" might be marketed as a comedy, but it's probably not the show for you if you're only looking for laughs. Many scenes are more sentimental than comical, and although I generally dislike it when TV shows get all sappy, "Parks and Rec"'s less humorous scenes are effective at making me empathize with its characters.
Leslie's part in this episode revolves around her attempts to put a stop to what she sees as a budding romance between her ex-boyfriend and co-worker, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), and a newspaper reporter named Shauna Malwae-Tweep.
While Leslie can be extremely thoughtful with those whom she is not actually close with, she frequently lacks concern for good friends. This brilliantly-written flaw finds form in the second act of "End of the World," when Leslie drives Ben to an abandoned gas station that she claims was owned by Mick Jagger in the '50s.
Ben immediately realizes Leslie's charade is a desperate attempt to keep him and Shauna from "making out and having babies," as Leslie puts it later. He tells Leslie that she can't keep hanging onto their old relationship, given how hard it is for them to spend time together without stirring up old feelings. The pain is palpable in this scene and we can't help but hope that Leslie and Ben will ultimately get back together.
The characters on "Parks and Rec" seem to connect in ways you'd never expect. The relatively newlywed office couple, the ever-cynical April and ever-nave Andy, spend "End of the World" crossing off items from Andy's bucket list. Toward the end of the episode, April gives Andy the talking-to he needs to live out one of the biggest items on his list, telling him, "Look, this is a stupid idea, but right at this exact second, we have enough momentum to do something stupid before we realize how stupid this is."
It seems somewhat counterintuitive that these two personalities could mesh so well. At the same time, maybe it actually makes a lot of sense that the most world-weary character on the show gets along best with the character who is only starting to understand it.
As we watch Andy and April's relationship progress, we are led to believe in ever-widening possibilities for whom we might relate to in our daily lives and how we might relate to them.
With such realistic characters and a perfect balance of humor and gravitas, "Parks and Rec" forces us to empathize with those we see on screen. As we see how they are connected to one another outside of the office, we begin to feel connected to them, too.