TV review: Parks and Recreation
Single-camera mockumentary style does this US comedy few favours
There are some who might think that Ricky Gervais has an awful lot to answer for, and of course he does. But maybe we shouldn’t really lay the blame for the rash of recent mockumentary work on TV entirely at his door. Sure, The Office seemed to set a benchmark as the 21st century dawned, but you can trace the genesis of the form back to the early 80s with Spinal Tap in the US and Bad News in the UK, both offering grubby fly-on-the-wall portraits of awful rock bands.
But ever since David Brent tugged on his last tie, we’ve had the TV likes of Twenty Twelve, Summer Heights High and Modern Family all ploughing the same nod-winkery furrow. And now, staggering into this generic breach is Parks and Recreation, a show which launched in the States in 2009 and is finally making its debut here on BBC Four (Wed 6 Mar, 10pm).
Essentially, P&R is another tale of ambition thwarted by impotence as we meet Leslie Knope (played by Saturday Night Live stalwart Amy Poehler), deputy director of the parks department in the fictional Indiana town of Pawnee. Pottering along with little purpose, Knope finally has a meaty cause to get her very white teeth into when a slacker wannabe rock star falls down a hole on some wasteland, triggering a campaign to turn the dumping ground into a lovely city centre park.
The man behind the show is Greg Daniels, a former Simpsons writer who also adapted The Office for a US audience. Unsurprisingly, much criticism of Parks’ first series was on its close proximity in style, content and character to the social misfits who populated Dunder Mifflin, with much audience feedback concluding that Leslie Knope was simply a female version of Michael Scott (Steve Carrell’s paper company regional manager). Given the critical acclaim chucked all over the show in later seasons, the focus group strategy appeared to work.
Certainly in the first series, Leslie Knope is a clear photofit of David Brent, Alan Partridge and Michael Scott: an awkward social misfit with vastly misguided delusions of grandeur, swiftly aligning herself to major US political women such as Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi. She may insist that all politicians will start on the bottom rung but whether Hillary ever got herself involved in excrement-throwing games with teenage boys or Palin had a haircut from a bitter barber which left her with a distinctly male barnet has never been confirmed.
It would be unfair to blame the supporting cast for offering little to mark this out as something wildly different, but the writers have done the dirty by putting them in the frontline. So, we have the stroppy young female who thinks she is better than anyone else and does little to help any given situation, a quasi-hunk who Leslie has some history with, a domineering mother, a likeable geek and a daft superior. Had Parks and Recreation been created in the 90s, it would have been as celebrated as The Larry Sanders Show. As it stands, we’ll have to wait for the second batch to consider whether this department is fit for purpose.