In the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation" (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.), Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, an upbeat, low-level bureaucrat determined to make the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind., a better place.
Leslie's cheerful, tireless ambition in the face of cynics is echoed by series creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who previously gave us "The Office." And who can blame them? Few industry observers thought "Parks," which launched as a midseason replacement last spring, would survive this long.
First, there were production delays to accommodate Poehler's pregnancy. Then there were the early test screenings and poor scores that landed on the desk of influential Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke, who practically declared the show DOA before its premiere. Many critics said the show was needlessly similar to "The Office" - both in its mockumentary format and naive lead. Ratings for its six-episode first season were low.
"My sense is that if we had built 'Parks and Recreation' around a 90-year-old Maasai warrior, people would still have said, 'He reminds me of ["The Office's"] Michael Scott,' " Schur said. "There was just no way to escape it."
But "Parks," in its second season, has emerged as a critical darling. Time magazine's James Poniewozik, a fan from the get-go, called it a "very very good, very very funny" series that "has found its rhythm." The Star-Ledger's Alan Sepinwall declared it quite possibly "the best comedy on TV right now."
He also could add "that you're not watching." "Parks" averages a lowly 5 million viewers, which puts it roughly in the same neighborhood as first-season audiences for NBC's reigning Emmy magnet "30 Rock." The show, as they say in the industry, is gaining traction with the right crowds and already has landed a full second-season order.
A season change
So what happened between seasons 1 and 2 that flipped "Parks" from flop to hot? "We needed to tell a certain number of stories before people got it," Schur said.
NBC president of prime-time entertainment Angela Bromstad recalled the early days of "The Office" and said, "I knew Greg was great at self-assessing and evolving a show, and comedies take longer to catch on. . . . Also, I have to say, the cupboards were bare. We really needed to stick with it, and I think it's paying off."
It helped that Daniels and Schur (the latter was a writer on "The Office" before moving over to "Parks" full time) had solid track records. Daniels spent several seasons on "The Simpsons" and co-created "King of the Hill" before adapting Ricky Gervais' British hit "The Office." He and Schur credit stints on "Saturday Night Live" with shaping their comic sensibilities.
Rather than do a straight spinoff of "The Office," as many expected, the pair were inspired by the local politics of "The Wire" and the theme of optimism from the 2008 presidential election. They decided their next show would revolve around the interactions of small-town government, specifically focusing on Poehler's Leslie, an eager but often misguided parks and recreation official whose first big project is tending to an unsightly large pit in the middle of Pawnee.
"This could be my Hoover Dam," a chipper Leslie said in the pilot. This season, Leslie is a little less wacky, but she remains ever positive about making government work for the people. "She is a hard worker, very well read, very intelligent - these are not Michael Scott traits," Daniels said.
"She's not delusional. She's not crazy thinking there's a boys' club in politics," Schur added. "She has a strong point of view, and her intentions are always good and noble. She's just not always great at executing them."
And that's another thing that differentiates Daniels' two shows: "Parks" is, well, less of a boys' club. Despite such successes as "30 Rock" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," it's still unusual to see women drive the action in a network comedy. (And even then, Liz Lemon is nothing if not surrounded by a boys' club of crazy guys.)
Daniels and Schur also have let the rest of Pawnee's finest come out to play. "Park's" motley ensemble includes Rashida Jones as her friend Ann; Aziz Ansari as Leslie's undermining lieutenant Tom; Chris Pratt as Ann's bungling but well-meaning ex-boyfriend Andy; Paul Schneider as Leslie's cynical colleague Mark; Nick Offerman as her disinterested boss Ron; and Aubrey Plaza as her equally disinterested intern April.
Tax dollars at work
To come up with the world and people of "Parks," Daniels and Schur spent time in different local governments to make sure their ideas were at least grounded in reality. In Burbank, they found the basis for Ron.
"We were talking to one official about wanting to make Leslie's boss opposed to government," Daniels said. "Like, 'Wouldn't it be funny if she's trying so hard to get stuff accomplished, but her boss was like one of those Bush appointees who doesn't believe in the mission of the branch of government he's supposed to be overseeing?' And she looks at us and goes, 'Well, I'm a Libertarian, so I don't really believe in the mission of my job.' "
"That was an amazing response," Schur recalled. "We went, 'Really?' and she goes, 'Yes, I'm aware of the irony.' "
Poehler said talks with Daniels and Schur about Leslie's long-term journey are ongoing. "Her struggle throughout the series is trying not to become jaded. Can she fight feeling like she'll never be able to change anything? Will she get caught up in political gain in a way that will make her lose track of why she started in the first place?
"Ultimately, we do want her to succeed - and I love that! - but in really small ways and with very little power. I love that, too. I'm a sucker for pathos."