Parks and Recreation should never have survived. The six-episode first season of this comedy about local politics, which starts on BBC 4 tomorrow night, was a mess, a half-hearted copy of the US Office, written by former writers on that show, given a female lead (Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler) and a quirky setting (the parks department of the fictional town of Pawnee in Indiana). You’d never have picked it to become the funniest comedy on American network TV.
That it did, maturing into a wonderfully warm, slyly funny look at one woman’s Quixotic determination to prove local politics can be a force for good, is down to the fact it can take time for a show to click. As with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so much stronger in its second season than its scene-setting first, it happened with Parks and Recreation, which started to embrace its star’s natural warmth instead of playing against it, creating America’s most unlikely hit in the process. At the heart of Parks and Recreation’s success lies the idea that Poehler’s character, the unstoppable Leslie Knope, deputy parks director of Pawnee, is not a fool or an incompetent, a bully or a bigot. She’s an optimist. Many shows would mock that, sending up Leslie’s ever-present good cheer, her devotion to her job and her sincere belief that the three most important things in life are “friends, waffles and work”. Parks and Recreation celebrates it. Leslie might be occasionally power-crazed, suffer the odd moment of tunnel vision and have a collection of “all 193 National Flags” but she is never mean-spirited – and neither is the show.
It finds a rich vein of humour in the daily drudgery of municipal government, but it never sneers. We love Leslie’s belief in her job, her firmly held conviction that Vice-President Joe Biden is the sexiest man on earth and her whole-hearted commitment to everything from penguin marriage ceremonies to harvest festivals. That combination of good-natured mockery and believability extends to the supporting cast. Rob Lowe brings a puppy dog charm to the role of Chris Traeger, Pawnee’s acting city manager; comedian Aziz Ansari gives the sarcastic Tom a surprising warmth and Nick Offerman gets away with Parks director Ron Swanson’s mean-spirited moments because we know his swagger’s a pose.
Parks and Recreation pulls off the neat trick of making you love the characters even as you laugh at them. Whereas with most sitcoms you would run a mile from the cast if you met it in real life, in the case of Parks and Recreation you’d bound straight up and ask if you could be friends.
‘Parks and Recreation’ starts on BBC 4 on Wednesday at 9pm