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'Parks and Recreation' recap: Change we can believe in

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parks_and_recreation_lBefore we get to last night’s season 2 premiere of Parks and Recreation, I want us to take a journey together. Through time! (No flux capacitor required; just close your eyes….) We transport ourselves to September 2005, right before the American version of The Office was slated to start its second season. After six so-so episodes in the spring, enthusiasm for the show was middling at best. “Nothing will ever compare to the British Office, man,” your coolest friend said. “Why try and replicate it? It’s like trying to re-do Guernica or something.” Professional critics had given the show weak reviews as well, feeling it had not yet distinguished itself enough from its older brother. No one had high hopes for another season.

But then something magical happened.

As if overnight, The Office seemed to find its rhythm. Writers made Michael Scott (Steve Carell) a little more competent and a little less pathetic. They gave lines and stories to the supporting characters, who brought new life to the office environment. And they generally settled on a sweeter, more forgiving tone — something that definitively set the show apart from Ricky Gervais’ BBC original. The Office became its own dynamic show.

Four years later (we got back in our time machine) Parks and Recreation is trying to do the same thing: find a groove that will distinguish it from the show that came before it…The Office. Similarly, Parks struggled in its first season to make its cartoonish, socially maladjusted lead, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), more than just Michael Scott in a skirt. Has the show made the necessary changes?

For the most part, yes. Although things got off to a bit of an Office start with Leslie interrupting Ron to sing “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (learning afterward that he had wanted to tell her about a fire across town), the episode quickly launched into its topic du jour: gay marriage. Or sort of. Helping with various promotions for the local zoo, Leslie was officiating a “wedding ceremony” for two penguins when she learned that the animals — engaged in…animal behaviors, at the time — were both male. Scandal! Soon, the head of a family-first organization was in Leslie’s office explaining the seriousness of her crime. Oh, and asking for her resignation. This kind of problem needs a commercial break!

After getting back, we learned that Anne (Rashida Jones) 1. broke up with her lying boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), who went to “climb some mountains” and soon after 2. found herself more attracted to Mark (Paul Schnieder), Leslie’s unrequited love interest. The friendship between Anne and Leslie — a local government official and…a nurse? — still feels slightly forced, but I’m confident the writers will strengthen their bond over time.

Leslie’s role in the penguin matrimony made her something of a celebrity in the gay community, intern April (Aubrey Plaza) drawing up a Shepard Fairy-ish “Knope” poster and introducing her at local watering hole “The Bulge” with Harvey Milk’s “…and I’m here to recruit you!” I wouldn’t expect nor want Parks to take on South Park in the topical humor department, but I think bringing real social issues to the fore could be a positive direction for the show. Last season’s “pit” story felt authentic, sure…but perhaps too authentic in that it moved barely an inch. Speed is of the essence for a show like this.

Leslie defended her position on local news show Pawnee Today, debating the woman who had earlier asked her to resign. The host, a non-confrontational woman easily charmed by Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) on her show many times in the past, tried to stay out of the fracas. When calls started coming in, Leslie manned the phone. “I think you should resign,” said one. And the next. Leslie kept taking new calls. “I like the zoo,” a little girl told Leslie. “That’s so sweet!” “…And I think you should resign.”

That was it for Leslie’s story, apart from the ending scene of her driving the gay penguins to Iowa (where they could legally marry) and wondering if she could go with them to a water park along the way. Meanwhile, Andy asked for Anne’s forgiveness, telling her that he’d “grown” as a person and that it “would behoove us to give [our relationship] another shot.” No dice. Andy returned to the pit (always with the pit!), where he’s been sleeping in a tent for some amount of time.

Not the stellar season premiere many of us were hoping for, but Parks‘ characters feel significantly more real and the groundwork seems laid for a sophomore effort. Just like The Office. See you next week!

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