Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Check it Out : "First in Friendship -- Fourth in Obesity"
As the sun sets on the mandatory work-retreat camping trip of the Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department, Deputy Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) stands contemplating the horizon with her City Hall colleague Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), who is quite impressed:
"It's so beautiful."
"It's pollution from the Sweetums plant. It's gorgeous, but is it worth the asthma?"
Meanwhile, back at the campsite, Leslie's co-workers want to leave. And they would, except that Leslie's underling, Tom Haveford (Aziz Ansari) has drained the battery of the city van they arrived in to power the various gadgets in his luxury tent, which he has dubbed "The Thunderdome." (Said gadgets include a wide-screen TV, stereo system, soft ice-cream maker, and a panini grill--he expects a certain level of comfort. All items were purchased from the Sky Mall catalog, and will be returned immediately after the trip as defective--Tom's already over his head in debt as it is.) Still, at least Leslie's boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), got in some fishing. (It's like yoga--except that I still get to kill something.") Alas, Ron's assistant, April (Aubrey Plaza) is miserable; her boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt), who promised to come along on the trip, has managed to get lost in the park. Not surprising, really, and at least Andy made it to the campground proper . . .
Parks and Recreation has been renewed for a fourth season, which is pretty good for a show that barely survived its first. The show is the creation of Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who are responsible for the American re-boot of The Office, and it faced a similar problem of tone in that first season that its sister show did; a cold mean-spiritedness that made it impossible to care about the characters. And just as they found ways to soften and deepen the characters in the other series, they did the same here.
Which is nice, because they had assembled one of the best sit-com casts imaginable. Amy Poehler had already established herself as a gifted sketch-comedy performer during her years on Saturday Night Live, and she brought the same sharp timing and sense of absurdity to her turn as Leslie, but also a sense of humanity. Leslie is one of those rare creatures who believes in the idea of Public Service; she isn't working in government because she couldn't hack it in the private sector, she's doing this because she wants to help people, if only by making sure that the swing sets are up to code and the sandboxes aren't full of chiggers . . .
And what a supporting cast. Most prominent is Nick Offerman as Leslie's boss, Ron Swanson. Ron is a classic American type--the government-bashing conservative who holds on for dear life to his government job, his government pension, and his government health benefits. Offerman makes incredible use of a deadpan face and a soft, measured voice. And eyes that shine with insanity every once in a while, usually when Ron has the bad luck to run into his ex-wife Tammy (Meagan Mullaly)--his second ex-wife named Tammy. His mom was named Tammy as well, and that's all the further I care to go down that particular line of inquiry . . .
Right behind Offerman are Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford, would-be fashion plate and big-time operator and Aubrey Plaza as Ron's assistant, April Ludgate, whose major asset in the job is that she can't stand it or the people she has to deal with (in Ron's words, she's both "aggressively mean and apathetic . . . She really is the whole package.") Tom is one of those people working in government because he can't hack it in the private sector, and his struggles to become the Kind of Man Who Reads Playboy are both very funny and quietly pathetic. When the show began, Tom had a very beautiful medical-student wife, but it transpired that he married her so she could get a green card, and their inevitable split in the wake of her becoming a doctor is both predictable and oddly poignant (and doesn't mean that Tom stops behaving like an idiot, as Thunderdome demonstrates). As for Plaza, she is one of the true masters of the slow, passive/aggressive burn and quite willing at times to be absolutely hateful onscreen in her character's less pleasant moments. And yet her slow defrosting in the presence of Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), who runs the shoe-shine stand at City Hall has been both convincing and believable. And rather touching.
As for Pratt, he's made Andy into something of a Holy Fool. Yes, Andy is out there and then some (let's face it, he lives in an Alternate Universe -- a very cheerful one), but he is also one of Nature's Gentlemen much of the time, and doesn't seem to have a devious bone in his body.
There are times when April and Andy are rather like Bottom and Titania, if Shakespeare had relocated the story from ancient Greece to southern Indiana.
The character of Lesley's best friend, Ann Perkins, is finally coming into focus this season, and proving to be almost as silly at times as everybody else. For much of the show's run, Ann has been stranded on the sidelines, quietly shaking her head as Lesley and her colleagues made idiots of themselves (but also had more fun). In the first season, she was dating Andy, a relationship I could never quite buy (Ann is rather more experienced that April) and that the writers never bothered to explain or develop so that its absurdity would carry you along. Mind you, Rashida Jones was always delightful and poised in the role, but so was Paul Schneider, who played Lesley's city-planner ex-boyfriend, Mark Brendanawicz, a character that was dropped at the end of the second season because the writers never figured out what to do with him. This season, Ann has become involved with Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), originally a rep from the State Budget Office (Pawnee had managed to go broke at the end of Season Two) and now the Acting City Manager (the regular City Manager suffered a massive heart attack in the middle of a press conference and managed to unintentionally grope Leslie as he collapsed--with the press getting lots of nice pictures). The contrast between sensible, grounded Ann and the relentlessly upbeat, oddly impersonal Chris (he tends to refer to everyone by their full name) is wonderfully goofy and Lowe is probably doing just about the best work of his career in this role (he's one of those actors who started in film but found their best work in television--a trend that started with Lucille Ball and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon). And Adam Scott is amusing as his more common-sense colleague, Ben Wyatt (although Ben has his unhinged side as well--elected mayor of his hometown at 18, he managed to nearly bankrupt the burg trying to build a winter-sports complex called Snow Town, which led to his impeachment. Or as the local paper phrased it--SNOW TOWN COSTS SNOW CLOWN TOWN CROWN "They were really in to rhymes.") Jim O'Heir and Retta, as two other members of the Parks Department staff, are starting to get more time in each episode, finally, which is nice because she packs a lot of dry sparkle into here scenes, and he has made his character, Jerry, into one of the great woobies in sit-com history.
One of the things that has helped the show find its way has been the fact that it ventures out of the Parks Department offices into the wilds of Pawnee itself. There's the Library Department, where the dreaded Tammy works (they get what they want through ruthlessness and political savvy--and shushing), the ghastly local media, personified by vicious, empty-headed talk-show host Joan Callamezzo (the wonderful Mo Collins) and idiot TV anchor Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), The awful Newport family who run the Sweetums Candy factory (the patriarch, Nick Newport, Sr., is married to ex-beauty queen and full-time monster Trish Ianetta [April Marie Eden]) and their smarmy PR guy Randall (Don McManus), and local morality maven Marcia Langman (Darlene Hunt), who went ballistic when Leslie, at the beginning of Season Two, refused to annul the Penguin Marriage between two male penguins, which makes her a hero to all of the fellows at The Bulge (one of the 12 gay bars in Pawnee--it's the one right behind Ron's house). The result is probably the most surrealistic portrait of small-town life in a sit-com since Green Acres. And with the appearance of Lil' Sebastian during the Harvest Festival towards which most of the current season has been building, it even has its own version of Arnold Ziffel. Who knows, he might get drafted, too . . .