Amy Poehler earned my undying admiration for her work during the 2008 election on Saturday Night Live – particularly the Sarah Palin rap she delivered from the Weekend Update desk along with that fabulous chorus line of dancing moose. Because of her work during this monumental election, I will go to my grave singing her praises.
I need to say that because the preview of her new NBC series, Parks and Recreation, which premieres Thursday night at 8:30, is going to seem like a mixed one based on my reluctance to predict success for the show despite its several winning elements.
With all the pre-air hype and snippets that NBC has shown during other prime-time shows everyone knows that it is intended to be a companion piece for The Office, another mockumentary workplace sitcom featuring a mid-level manager with a wildly inflated self-concept. It is created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, executive producers of The Office, and it will debut Thursday night sandwiched between two episodes of NBC's most successful comedy. Nice launch if you can get it.
Rather than the corporate workplace, the object of satire in this show is local government with Poehler playing Leslie Knope, deputy director of the Department of Parks and Recreation in Pawnee, Indiana. She sees herself as the next "Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton," though most viewers will quickly understand that she will be lucky to rise to the level of director of the Department of Parks and Recreation in Pawnee by the time she is ready for retirement. As one character describes Leslie in the pilot, "She's a little doofy, but sweet."
The doofy side of her personality is nicely revealed through conversations she has with a subordinate in the office, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a bit of a hustler who she thinks is true blue and devoted to her. The tone of the pilot is set as she and Haverford arrive for a public forum at a school gymnasium.
"This," she says importantly to Haverford as they are about to enter the gym, "is where the rubber of government meets the road of human needs. When I walk through that door, I have to be on like a White House press secretary."
And then, after she squares her shoulders to enter the room, she pulls on the door, only to find it locked. When they finally do get into the sparsely attended meeting, she hears a complaint about an open pit in a neighborhood. Instead of just trying to get the pit filled in, she decides to try and build a park on it: "This could be my Hoover Dam," she says with a far way look in her eye.
What saves Leslie from only being a fool are sweetness and optimism in the face of her own limitations and some of her low-rent colleagues. The most interesting of the bunch is her boss, Russ Swanson (Nick Offerman), a cleverly crafted personification of the George W. Bush administration.
He's a government official who is ideologically opposed to government – a TV version of a libertarian. Not only does he not want to spend a nickel on letting Leslie do things like turning the pit into a park, he wants to privatize the whole Parks and Recreation Department.
This would have been a brilliant character had he been on the tube during the Bush administration rather than after. Still, he proves this is a series about more than silly laughs.
The problem with the pilot is in tone. Self-important and silly, but optimistic and sweet is a hard mark to hit week after week. If anyone can do it, Poehler would be my candidate who can. But if she and the producers miss by just a little in the first few weeks, it is going to be hard to find the kind of mass audience needed for success on network TV.
Don't forget, The Office had marginal ratings once upon a time. They are not yet exactly blockbuster.
There is also the question of how funny the foibles of government are going to seem to millions of viewers when so many of us now realize how desperately dependent we are on government to try and pull us out of the nosedive in which this nation now finds itself.
Again, during the Bush administration, this show would have been a brilliant satire. Today, in these new and desperate times, I wonder if we will want to be reminded of how delusional and silly the people in government can be.