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April 14, 2009

In style and substance, Parks photocopies Office’s approach

What do you call a spin-off that’s not a spin-off?

This isn’t the lead up to a joke; it’s a genuine question. Because after watching The Office’s new pseudo-spin-off—that’s what I’ll call it—I was left wondering where the line between spin-off and non-spin-off is drawn.

Parks and Recreation, which premiered Thursday on NBC, stars Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, an insecure, delusional bureaucrat working at the Parks and Recreation Department of a fictional Indiana town. The show was co-created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (Ken Tremendous of the erstwhile blog “Fire Joe Morgan”), both of whom were writers for The Office.

In fact, The Office’s fingerprints are all over Parks and Recreation, and no one has bothered to wipe them off. Both shows are shot in the “mockumentary” style, a good, but perhaps slightly stale, technique. More problematic are the shows’ similar messages: Oh, how depressing office life is! How we delude ourselves about our own importance! The little things that get us through the day! These themes pervade The Office, as well as the first episode of Parks. We don’t need a show that makes the exact same points as the one that precedes it.

The first episode of Parks involves Knope trying to convince her boss to allow her to build a new park on the site of a construction pit. Rashida Jones (Karen from The Office) plays a nurse whose boyfriend broke his legs falling in said construction pit; he’s a charmless loser and “musician.” Knope’s supervisor is a libertarian who doesn’t believe in public parks (a Michael Moore at an NRA convention, if you will). We also meet a couple of her colleagues, one of whom is a love-interest, the other a weirdo creeper.

Needless to say, in a single episode, none of these secondary characters are all that developed, but I left the first episode open to getting to know them. Unfortunately, Poehler herself is a retread of Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott, the boss in The Office (as well as Lisa Kudrow’s character in the HBO flop The Comeback, on which Schur was a writer). Knope is petulant, petty, obvious, insecure, delusional, and—finally—pathetic.

It works for Carrell because of a supporting cast that is so likable and aware, as is the audience, of his ridiculousness. In Parks, however, none of the characters are likable. They’re creepy, or manipulative, or lazy, or apathetic. In a vacuum, each one is quite funny; together, they’re a depressing bunch. Even Jones’ character—who I’m guessing is supposed to be the normal, relatable one—brings only apathy and exhaustion to the table, though she is effective as the straight man in her and Poehler’s comedy duo.

Daniels and Schur are clearly talented writers. Parks is quite hilarious, funnier even than The Office is now. I’ve already set my DVR on a series recording, and I’m excited to see where it will go. But the writers would do well to remember an important truth in television: For a show to be watchable, characters have to be likable—at least some of them, and at least occasionally.