Thursday, November 5, 2009

Parks and Recreation: The Second Season So Far.

When Parks and Recreation premiered last season it was met with largely negative reviews from disappointed critics. I tend to think the show's first season is better than most were giving it credit for. While those early episodes are certainly very uneven, it was nonetheless clear from the beginning that the the potential was there for a great series. The cast was uniformly excellent and the setting was particularly well established. What was lacking was a solid grasp of the characters and their relationships. The second season has seen the show fix those issues and, in so doing, largely fulfill the potential those uneven early episodes displayed.

In the first season, Amy Poehler didn't seem to know how to play Leslie Knope, and as a result Leslie often came off more as a collection of one-dimensional characters from funny bits than she did a recognizable human being. The rest of the cast seemed to do better, but their characters were thinner and privy to less screen time. All the stories revolved around Leslie, which kept the other characters one-dimensional and prevented them from establishing relationships with one another. This could have worked if Leslie had been better established, but even then it wouldn't have been ideal, as the best sitcoms are based on character interaction.

None of these problems are really unique to Parks and Recreation. These are standard-issue growing pains that most new sitcoms go through. Characters are rarely perfected within the first handful of episodes, and it always takes some time for the cast to gel and for relationships to establish themselves. But the way Parks structured its episodes--watch Leslie be funny!--did tend to highlight these early flaws, and that was probably its biggest problem of all. The self-inflicted prominence of these flaws distracted from the things the show was already doing well--specifically, the way it established a sense of place better than most sitcoms ever manage to--which resulted in critics rather underrating it, and, even more significantly, lots of viewers tuning out, viewers the show is still trying--mostly in vain--to win back.

Which is unfortunate, because Parks really does deserve to get those viewers back at this point, as it has solved every single one of its early issues. Interestingly, it seems to have solved all of its problems basically all at once, so that it's hard to point to an easy progression of improvement. But I'm going to try anyway.

The first five episodes were of pretty much uniform quality: funny in moments, incoherent overall, for all the reasons I've already discussed at length. The sixth and last episode of the first season was, as most critics noted at the time, a marked improvement. I think this improvement had a lot to do with its status as a season finale, and the writers efforts to structure it as a season finale. Season finales didn't used to be any big thing, but modern television viewers now demand that they offer something more than a regular episode. A big part of that expected something more is a sense of closure, not just for the main character, but for all the characters. And so the writers felt obligated to broaden their scope beyond Leslie. Which they did. This gave the show more of an ensemble feel that they've managed to carry over into the second season.

The other important thing that happened in the first season finale was the end of Leslie's first season character arc. The arc itself was pretty thin--Leslie is infatuated with Mark, whom she once slept with and who does not share her feelings!--but it provided an excuse to finally settle on a good way to write and play the character. Which, again, they did. Leslie rejected Mark's drunken advances and has ever since been a more grounded, self-aware character. She is not a Michael Scott retread, which is the way some early episodes indicated the character would turn out.

The result of these two huge changes--a more grounded Leslie combined with more of an ensemble feel--is a Parks and Recreation that can more than hold its own in NBC's Thursday comedy block. Indeed, through the first seven episodes of the second season, Parks has been perhaps the most consistently funny sitcom on television, in general.

Last week's episode, "Greg Pikitis," does a good job illustrating just how these changes have positively effected the show. The A-plot is still Leslie-centered, but it also incorporates Andy (Chris Pratt) and Dave (Louis C.K., who is terrific in the role). It centers around Leslie's rivalry with a juvenile Halloween prankster and involves her doing all sorts of borderline insane things in an attempt to catch him. This has become her main character trait: an overabundance of enthusiasm. In the end, however, we find out that Leslie has been correct all along, as Pikitis really is responsible for all the elaborate pranks. And so Leslie tends to be overly exhuberent, we see that she also tends to be correct much of the time. She's not clueless or mendacious or petty. She just wants to do the right thing. She's flawed, sometimes very flawed--as Dave says, he would not want to live where she was in charge of enforcing the law--but her aims are true. Michael Scott might be pitiable, but Leslie is genuinely likable.

The B-story, meanwhile, makes good use of virtually every other member of the cast. We get Rashida Jones' Ann trying to impress both her hospital coworkers and her friends at Parks and Recreation by throwing a party. We get Paul Schneider's Mark being his usual supportive self, in his usual oddly-less-effectual-than-he-thinks-he-is sort of way. We get Aubrey Plaza's April recounting her previous adventures at a gay Halloween party. We get Nick Offerman continuing to be bluntly hilarious. And we get more of Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford being far more human than the obnoxious image he tries so hard to cultivate suggests.

Parks has also done an increasingly good job putting the characters together in new and interesting ways, suggesting that each character has a unique relationship not only to the office as a whole, but to every other individual character. Which is to say, it's really building a world with a sense of place occupied by characters that feel like real human beings and relationships that feel entirely natural, regardless of the absurdities that surround them. And that bodes well for the future.

The ratings, on the other hand, not so much. Let's just hope people start to realize what they're missing.

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