Classic Television

Revisiting Parks & Recreation – Pilot

Beginning with the very first shot of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, is introduced as a force of nature, seen pestering a kid on a playground with a survey and then trying with a broomstick to flush a drunk man out of one of the slides. With the show’s first of many talking-heads following these two scenes, she makes plain her rosy views on government and you can immediately see the optimism and manic intensity that will come to define her as a character, although here, Poehler seemed just a hair bit stiff in her mannerisms compared to how she would later inhabit Leslie’s full range of quirks and verbal tics as the show progressed.

In a meeting with the rest of the parks department, the subject of Pawnee, Indiana’s monthly Community Outreach Public Forum comes up and Leslie’s ardor both in general and for this engagement specifically gets its first chance on the show to rub like a grinding stone against the perennial and more recognizable do-nothingness from her coworkers. The forum is happening that night and no one is willing to accompany her to the event until Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) is volunteered by Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) to do so.

At the forum, “where the rubber of government meets the road of actual human beings,” just as soon as Leslie calls the meeting to order, we get a nice visual gag with the lights in the auditorium shutting off row after row until the all the attendees are shrouded in darkness. A quick change of venue later, we get our first ever glimpse of Pawnee’s lovably deranged citizenry and their complaints run the gamut from masons in the local police department to obscenities at the park to Laura Linney.

After the more bizarre complaints have been heard, a hand goes up and a young woman (Rashida Jones) stands and introduces herself as Ann Perkins before she’s called on. It isn’t mentioned explicitly here but it becomes pretty plain (her impatience, Tom hitting on her) that she isn’t one of the regulars at the forum. For all the comedic tirades that are their complaints, the others in attendance seem to have settled into a rhythm with the parks department reps that Ann doesn’t follow or even seem aware of. She however draws applause from the attendees and leaves Leslie and Tom dumbstruck before proceeding to log her complaint: a developer dug a basement out of a lot close to her house but went bankrupt before building began and left the pit unfilled. The city has done nothing about the pit in the time since and recently, her boyfriend broke both his legs falling into it. Ann’s frustration with the city’s sluggishness in doing something about the pit strikes a chord with Leslie and she pinky-promises to fill it in and put a park on top of it.

Leslie has found her “Hoover Dam” and the rest of the episode concerns itself with her relentless efforts to get approval for an exploratory subcommittee. In the process, we spend a little more time getting to know Ron and we meet another character rounding out the main cast when Leslie takes a lunch meeting with Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider). Mark’s patience and deadpan refusal to meet Leslie’s level of urgency during their meeting does a better job comedically and just in general than the pre-forum meeting with her coworkers did at conveying how Leslie is generally regarded within the parks department. Leslie listening to Mark list off the many reasons pursuing the project is a bad idea and hearing tacit approval instead is a nice and funny character moment for her that will continue to repeat itself throughout the show’s run. Mark for his part is introduced here as something of a stock character for Leslie’s wackiness to bounce off of but there’s something funny in the way he words his pessimism about her latest project. “Is it likely? No… but is it possible?….. no.” There’s bitterness brimming below his easy-going facade.

Ann’s boyfriend Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) leaves a great first impression after he asks Leslie to pass him his itch-stick. April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) the college intern chews gum and stares as he works at an itch under his cast, she’s too bored to be grossed out. It isn’t much of an introduction for Plaza’s character but as a stealth meet-cute between April and Andy, it’s fitting. April’s death-stare at Ann is also fun to observe for the first time, knowing how both characters grow to regard each other as the show progresses. A be-hardhatted Leslie tries to film a short video at the mouth of the pit for the parks department’s website and, in the episode’s funniest moment of physical comedy, she slips and tumbles and the pit claims its second victim.

Ron’s incredulity at her physical appearance the next day (“is that a travel pillow around your neck?”) while getting ready to turn down her request for a subcommittee hilariously signals that Leslie, six years into her employment at the parks department, is still capable of surprising her coworkers. Ron confessing that he doesn’t believe in government and making known his pro-corporation bona-fides is a nice reminder that showrunner Michael Shur and actor Nick Offerman pulled off one of the biggest heists in sitcom history – creating a likable libertarian.

Toward the end of the episode, Mark, feeling a combination of sympathy for Leslie and perhaps pent-up annoyance at the same roadblocks he listed off to her during their lunch meeting, goes to see Ron and convince him to give her Lot 48, green-lighting the subcommittee. The occasion calls for drinks at the office and an inebriated Ann swears to an equally inebriated Leslie that she’s in for the long haul, however long it takes to build the park, even if it takes two whole months.


A game I tried playing with myself while rewatching this episode was picking out an audience surrogate. There’s always the obvious choice. Here, just as in The Office, Parks’s spiritual predecessor (toss in Arrested Development to a lesser extent) the obvious surrogates as written were the “straight-man” characters propped up around the main cast of characters partially as reaction-shot delivery devices. In the Office, you had Jim Halpert. In Arrested Development, you had Michael Bluth. In Community, you had Jeff Winger. All of them reacting reasonably to hijinks around them, wincing, breaking the fourth wall in some cases by staring directly into the camera. You can return to the pilot episodes of those shows and still have an easy time picking out the characters the majority of the shows’ audiences probably projected their thoughts and observations onto.

It’s a little tricky with the pilot episode of Parks and Recreation, a show that didn’t only influence culture immensely both online and off but served in addition as a formative introduction to governing and politics (albeit at a local level) for many. It’s also tricky because the pilot presents Leslie almost as the lone eccentric of the show’s main cast and surrounds her with characters each different in their own way yet seeming to share the singular opinion that Leslie is zany and generally to be avoided. Even Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) who in later episodes would jump at any chance to be of use at the parks department, can briefly be seen pretending to be occupied with papers so as to avoid being stuck with Leslie at the Community Outreach Public Forum.

Seeing the episode for the first time in 2009, that dynamic just kinda sat there and is probably part of what led to many critics calling it an inferior copy of The Office. By that time, The Office had long established the various social quirks of the characters surrounding Michael Scott (even boring-ass Jim). Having very little idea then what Parks’s writers had in store for all the main characters, it was forgivable to overlay The Office’s character template onto the show in effort to map who was who in the supporting cast: Tom Haverford was Kelly Kapoor, Ann Perkins was Pam Beesly, and Mark Brendanawicz was Jim Halpert. It gets messier with the remaining characters since they didn’t get featured as much in the pilot – Ron probably stood out as the most original creation at the time. On the subject of audience surrogates however, using the Office as a guide, it seemed clear to me on that first viewing that the majority of viewers would gravitate either toward Brendanawicz’s laid-back charm and reluctant heroism (aspirational self-realization) or Perkins’s doe-eyed frustration with government (the painful truth about most people).

On this most recent viewing, having seen the full series and in context of what the show and its characters went on to represent in the broader cultural landscape, Mark’s surrogate quality takes the biggest hit from his very first appearance on screen, knowing he eventually goes on to be a bit of a nonentity and is written off the show not long after. Ann retains most of hers. Frustration and bewilderment at how government is run is even more widespread now than it was in 2009. Tom doesn’t much rise to the occasion on this viewing but it’s still funny and relatable to me personally, as a brown-skinned immigrant, watching him subvert any trope you’d assign to someone who looks like him in an American sitcom from the moment he moves his mouth to speak.

Leslie’s unbridled optimism however goes down a lot easier for me this go-round, which is good even if it doesn’t elevate her enough to make up for a particularly cringe-inducing line the writers put in her mouth which, in retrospect, was probably the earliest sign that we would all come back nearly a decade later to view the entire show in a more conflicting light politically.

It’s a great time to be a woman in politics. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi.

In a word, yikes! The argument should be made here that the line by itself doesn’t imply Leslie’s endorsement of Palin and is instead probably just an unfortunate byproduct of either Shur or NBC not wanting conservative viewers feeling left out. It was a different time, everyone was doing it and so on and so forth. Nonetheless, it’s a line that rankles for a few reasons, one of which is how factions on both sides of the political aisle have now perfected the formula for cynically weaponizing identity politics.

Putting the line in context of the episode much later in the show’s run that featured a John McCain cameo, putting it in context of what Palin and other tea-partiers went on to usher into power seven years later, it ends up being for me upon rewatch the most distracting and glaringly off-putting moment in an otherwise adequate pilot episode. And more to the point of this post, it disqualifies her from being a useful audience surrogate for a lot of viewers currently angry at our state of affairs.

I bring up the audience surrogate concept here and might explore it more as I continue with these reviews/recaps because even though Parks & Recreation went on to be known as a capital L liberal show, in the early years of its run, it was just a show about local government that, in spite of that premise, managed to amass viewers of differing political persuasions while also cultivating a reputation as the nice show with nice people who did nice things for each other.

At polar ends of a spectrum containing viewers who watched the show for Tom and viewers who tuned in weekly for April were people who soon saw a lot of themselves in Leslie’s outsized positivity and people who came to identify most with Ron’s closed-off machismo. It took till later in the show’s run for analyses to begin in the thinkpiece-sphere on what identifying with each character spelled politically. Coincidentally, it may have also been around that time the show began weathering backlash pertaining to it being a nice show with nice people who do nice things for each other and how divorced from reality that was.

Agreeing with some of those criticisms, I think it would be good to explore how latching on to a character like Ron might have kept conservative types watching week after week and how latching on to Leslie’s relentless liberal optimism might’ve clouded liberal viewers’ perceptions of actual politics and governance out in the real world. And perhaps how Ann’s skepticism about the pit being filled can be tied to widespread disenchantment with the current roster of legislators and their proven inability to actually make people’s lives better.

All that said, I think I fancy this show and I would very much like to continue with it.

Sub’s Low-Cal Calzone Zones

Tom pretending to jot down lines Leslie dictates to him and recited something entirely different back is a gag I wish they’d kept going. Here, Leslie’s words are “Committees are the lifeblood of our democratic system.” Tom reads it back as “Committees cover our democracy with blood.”

“This could be my Hoover Dam.”

Andy Dwyer is less of a presence in the pilot than I remembered but the sight of him and Leslie both sitting on that couch and bugging Ann must’ve spooked Ann a bit. First her boyfriend, then the person she tries to get to help with the pit. Perhaps she should try hearing the pit’s terms before involving anyone else.

Mark meeting with Ron reminded me of how he was the person who would often reel Ron back to reality in earlier episodes. I like to think the favor he asks to cash in on to help Leslie has something to do with keeping Tammy 2 off his scent sometime in the past.

This was the point in the show when Ron was still coming to work in suits and ties. If I remember correctly that continued until sometime in season 2.

Donna Meagle (Retta) and Jerry get the shortest screen time of the people who would go on to make up the main cast. Briefly, Donna is visible in the background while they’re having wine.