When it was originally on: 2009-2015
Original network: NBC
Where you can stream it now: Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon
Had I seen it before: Yes, I’ve seen all seven seasons in their entirety.
What IMDb says: The absurd antics of an Indiana town’s public officials as they pursue sundry projects to make their city a better place.
Why I picked it: Parks and Recreation is one of my favorite sitcoms, and is also the first major success of Michael Schur, one of my favorite tv creators working today. It was probably 2014ish when I first got serious about about watching it based on friends’ suggestions, and I fell in love almost instantly.
It wasn’t until later that I learned the general consensus about Parks and Recreation is that Season 1 sucks, which makes it an even more interesting pilot to study. Was my initial enjoyment of this show only because I lacked the insight of what this show eventually became? Was it simply because I had enough personal experience with self-important government bureaucrats and local politicians to see what the show was trying to do before it fully got there? Either way, it seemed like revisiting the pilot with the now that I know what this show grew to be would be a fun exercise.
What I liked: I One of my favorite things about this is that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. It didn’t fully register with me at the time, but investing the bulk of the pilot in a conflict that does NOT get resolved within 22 minutes is a somewhat courageous move for a network sitcom in 2009. It creates forward momentum that oftentimes doesn’t happen in the very first episode of a workplace comedy.
I also love how the show very clearly establishes different viewpoints on government without really taking a side. Leslie Knope is a bushy tailed optimist who fully believes in government’s power to affect positive change if only she tries hard enough. Ron Swanson is cynical libertarian who says he would rather the parks be privatized. Both characters make for friendly caricatures of their respective viewpoints.
The fact that this show centers on the Parks department also means that its relatively low stakes compared to other political shows, and so it’s able to make fun of the government and its bureaucracy without ever feeling mean. A government organization that fails to build a park in a timely manner is funny in a way that a government organization failing to fix poverty or healthcare accessibility or police misconduct never can be. I think this is a big part of why people of various political persuasions can still rally behind this show.
What I didn’t like: Let’s just say that after knowing what kind of magic this show works around seasons 3-5ish, I can totally see why Season 1 gets a bad rep. Like many sitcoms, Parks and Recreation’s strengths lie in the chemistry of a great ensemble cast, and the pilot is perhaps too ensemble-y and not ensemble-y enough all at the same time. Many of the show’s most best characters are still here (not counting Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger), but many of them are only here for brief snippets, unable to show demonstrate the character’s full potential.
The pilot hangs its hat on Leslie Knope. Not only does she drive our story line forward, but one of the first things we learn about most of the other characters is how they feel about Leslie Knope. I can understand why you’d make this choice since she is our central protagonist, but unfortunately Leslie is essentially a human sugar high that actually gets kind of annoying when the show doesn’t appropriately balance her out with other characters. And I suppose they try. The dry stoicism of Ron Swanson and April Ludgate are both here… but in small doses. The relatively normal personalities of Ann Perkins and Mark Brendanawicz are both here… but in small doses. Characters such as Andy Dwyer and Tom Haverford who develop some endearing qualities later are both here, but those endearing qualities are not. Instead, both are primarily defined by how rude they’re being to Ann.
The result is a pilot where there’s really no one that I find exceptionally likable or funny right away. I can see how people who are new to the show would fail to see its potential, since we essentially just get 22 minutes of Leslie being Leslie, and everyone else rolling their eyes at her. The show doesn’t hit its stride until it learns how to shine more of a spotlight on its other characters, and that just hasn’t happened yet.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: As much as I love this show, I don’t really feel the need to ever go back again and watch it episode-by-episode beginning to end. When I’m craving it, I can always just skip to my favorite episodes and the pilot is just not one of them.