By Yvonne Villarreal
4:00 PM EDT, September 20, 2013
On a scorching August day in Studio City, Metro buses screech down Ventura Boulevard stamped with NBC advertisements boasting its revamped Thursday block: "NBC's New Family of Comedies." Inside Stage 21 on the CBS Radford Studios, the "Parks and Recreation" cast — the well-tested denizens of said night — appear unfazed by the burden that brings.
Jim O'Heir, who plays clumsy Jerry, has his nose in the pages of People magazine, getting up to speed on reality tabloid star Kate Gosselin's whereabouts. When not scrolling through his phone, Aziz Ansari — a.k.a. the narcissistic and delusional Tom Haverford — can be heard blathering about his newfound obsession with "Scandal." And every so often Amy Poehler, queen bee, sends waves through the set with her cackle, like when Aubrey Plaza, who plays consistently bored April Ludgate, predicts that "unibrows and leather satchels" will be the new trend on the red carpet this season.
The luxury of newfound security? Or the familiarity with tuning out the noise?
The sweet and singular workplace comedy about low-level government employees is proof that little shows are not to be underestimated. The comedy adored by critics and second-screen junkies has been on the bubble season after season; time slot changes and shortened seasons added to its battle wounds. But for a network with few smash hits and more than a few duds, "Parks and Recreation" represents the breed of admired shows that manage to trudge on, giving pleasure and profit amid ratings topsy-turviness (along with cohorts such as "Parenthood" and "Community").
The show's new promotion prompts Poehler to dish up some spontaneous headline options for her baby: "Last show standing"? "And then there was one"? "Parks and determination"?
As the TV world assembles to pay homage to its big players on Emmy Sunday (once again, Poehler is a nominee) and the platoon of new fall shows step up to await their fates, the little show that could is heading into its sixth season. Premiering with a one-hour episode Sept. 26, it finds itself at a challenging juncture: actors are leaving for other pastures, its producers are busy with new gigs, and there's that matter of being the last of a dying breed on a network shifting its comedic brand of comedy.
"A lot is changing," says co-creator and executive producer Michael Schur. "It's a weird bizarro world. It feels like the end of some kind of special era. It's sad, but it's not necessarily a bad thing."
After a precarious start, the show once thought of as little more than a knockoff of "The Office" managed to form its own identity with its style of humor — a mix of silly funny (e.g. those tastefully tasteless murals) and charmingly sweet; a fitting recruit to stand alongside the network's other faster-paced, niche comedies, "The Office" and "30 Rock," and — for a while — "Community."
But that era is slowly making way for comedies with broad appeal in the network's bid to draw a larger audience on Thursday nights, some fraction of the glory it had for decades when it ruled the night with sitcoms such as "The Cosby Show," "Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "Friends." "Parks and Recreation," whose time slot will change to 8 p.m. ET/PT, will lead into three new family-heavy programs: "Welcome to the Family," dealing with teenage pregnancy and culture clashing; "Sean Saves the World," starring NBC Thursday alum Sean Hayes of "Will & Grace" as a single father juggling a teenage daughter and work; and "The Michael J. Fox Show," in which the beloved star appears as a version of himself, juggling his ailment, family life and work.
"We always get stuck in semantics," says Jennifer Salke, NBC's president of entertainment. "We said we want 'broad,' and what we meant was we want the reach of something like 'Modern Family' in concert with other things we have on our schedule." Salke tried to dispel the notion that the new lineup — being branded as a "New Family of Comedy" — means the shows are strictly about families, strictly for families. 'It's a family of comedy stars."
"Parks and Recreation's" newfound time slot also presents other duties: It will serve as the challenger to CBS heavyweight "The Big Bang Theory." It's a joust that seems to elicit one of April's signature eye rolls from nearly the whole cast in terms of the inevitable outcome. "The Big Bang Theory" is broad all right — it averaged nearly 19 million total viewers last season, about six times that of Poehler's crew.
"A lot of people like to drink Budweiser," says Nick Offerman, who plays bacon-loving Ron Swanson and has a metaphor for the competition. "I prefer Guinness myself. I don't go into any bars and say, 'Let me try some Budweiser and let's see if they have improved it any. Beers are precious. I'm going to choose the ones that are thick and full-bodied."
The quirky comedy, from Greg Daniels and Schur, was originally conceived as a spinoff of "The Office." But with Poehler onboard, the pair saw an opportunity to carve a new path, inspired by the local politics of "The Wire" and the theme of optimism rising out of the 2008 presidential election to touch on public life and public service. What resulted was a show centered on small-town government, with Poehler's overly enthusiastic Leslie as the misguided parks and recreation official in Pawnee, Ind.
Nothing would be boring in this small town. Where some comedies might tread lightly in embracing change, "Parks and Recreation" cuddles with it, unafraid of life-transforming events. Characters pairing up as couples. New characters coming in. And Poehler's Leslie isn't doomed to a lifetime of inertia. The fourth season saw Leslie become a member of the city council (a step up!) and, last season, she got married.
It's been a practice born out of necessity. "Because we have always been a bubble show, our philosophy has always been to go for it — it's the TV equivalent of live every day like it's your last," says Schur, citing cable groundbreaker "The Shield" as inspiration. "We've never saved anything for later because we never knew if there would be a later."
Critics seemed to be charmed by it all. James Poniewozick of Time magazine ranked it the No. 1 TV series of 2012. "In an election year, there is ample reason to feel depressed about politics and the people involved in it. So it was doubly welcome to have this full-hearted, brilliant civil-servant sitcom expand its purview from the Pawnee, Ind., parks department to the city council and Washington itself."
Already contending with the temporary absence of Chris Pratt, who stars as lovably oafish Andy Dwyer, who took on a role in a Marvel film, the show will endure more permanent truancies. Rashida Jones, who plays Leslie's BFF Ann Perkins, and Rob Lowe, who joined the series in the second season as excessively optimistic Chris Traeger, will depart in the middle of the season.
"Storytelling-wise it was sort of a perfect storm of a lot of things coming to a head," says Lowe, who was originally tapped to do eight episodes. His deal was up, and Jones was looking to focus on other projects. "This show did something really special for me. I mean, the amount of people who come up to me on the street and say 'Pooping my pants' or point to me and say 'Ann Perkins' is insane."
Their departure, centered on their decision to conceive a baby, is a slow-burn story line this season — the episode The Times sat in on saw Leslie struggling with the news by making abandonment jabs aimed at Ann. "Ann and Leslie are handling it all as well as Rashida and Amy are handling it," Jones says. "Leslie is in denial, she's angry. She's in the stages of grief. I like that the writers are letting the audience and the actors go through this together."
Its crossroads don't stop there. The show is no longer a spring chicken. This season it will celebrate its 100th episode. It's a sensitive time when a series typically shows its age. The numbers have demonstrated that little by little, season after season. The series, a favorite among young viewers attracted to the meta comedy style, drew just a 1.2 rating among the 18-34 demographic last season, according to Nielsen.
It's maturing pains make it all the more trying that Schur and fellow "Parks" executive producer Dan Goor have a new comedy out this fall — "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" on another network (Fox).
Focus hasn't slipped, the producers assure. Goor is more heavily involved with the day-to-day running of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Schur splits his time between the two. It helps that both shows are just a golf cart ride away from each other on the Radford lot.
"They've set up such a crazy factory here that if Mike is spending a lot of time away, I haven't noticed," says Ansari.
Plus Poehler is always there. Rather than chase after a movie career post-"Saturday Night Live," she sought sturdier ground in TV much in the way Tina Fey found an afterlife in "30 Rock." The 42-year-old comedian's passion and focus on the show are palpable. Midway through scenes and after, Poehler, who serves as a producer, firmly suggests which jokes should be cut or what cadence to take on a particular line.
Poehler received her fourth Emmy nomination in the lead actress in a comedy series category for "Parks and Recreation," with no win under her belt. This year she's up against Lena Dunham ("Girls"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Veep"), Tina Fey ("30 Rock"), Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie") and Laura Dern ("Enlightened").
She'll write that speech before she'll comment on how her "little weird child" is now the last one standing on Thursday nights. She instead bears in mind the journey of getting here.
"I remember that anxiety of being at the bottom of show mountain," she recalls, sitting near the craft service table. "When we just had two or three episodes down, I was going crazy. I could hear the knives sharpening and everyone ready to give a very quick opinion of a show — recaps and Twitter have made it terrifying to be out there. But that's part of the demented reason we're all in this business. We like to sweat."
Maybe some recreation is finally in order.
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