Parks and Recreation’s second season has been all about the thrill of watching a show find its footing in real time. What began (in rumor, anyway) as an Office spinoff premiered last year instead as something closer to an Office reboot: small-town fluorescent-lit cubicle drones toiling thanklessly under a hapless blowhard and followed, for some reason, by a documentary crew. But a funny thing happened on the way to Xeroxing a successful formula: Parks and Recreation hasn’t just eclipsed its forbearer, it’s done so by replacing the No Exit vibe with something more amiable and, ultimately, more believable. (The saying doesn’t go, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true” for nothin’.)
Originally, Amy Poehler’s parks commissioner Leslie Knope was purposefully grating — Tracey Flick by way of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute — a toxic and all too sitcom-y stew of ambition and incompetence. Meanwhile, her counterpart Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman, quickly and deservedly gaining cult-hero status) was a civil servant oozing Paultard-ian contempt for government. Neither character has fundamentally changed in season two, but they’ve been dialed down just so — her earnestness and his stoicism playing off one another with a grace that’s giddily infected the entire ensemble.
The force of nature that is Will Arnett could conceivably rupture that grace. And, of course, he does not. The series’ return from Christmas break brings with it Mr. Amy Poehler guest-starring as Chris, Leslie’s blind date, an MRI technician who doesn’t feel he knows a person until he does a full-body scan. Though Chris is no less a sociopath than G.O.B. Bluth or Devin Banks, he is the reserved and well-meaning kind, which is how we like them in Pawnee. He may lack “the brains of George Clooney in the body of Joe Biden” that Leslie tells Ann she’s looking for in a man, but she’s a sport, even as the date progresses from dinner to the inside of an MRI tube. She’s not mad, she’s just … disappointed. And maybe more than a little creeped out. Chris, on the other hand, can’t get past the one-two punch of learning that Leslie went to the University of Indiana and does not, in fact, oversee amusement parks.
As far as narrative goes, Parks and Recreation won’t ever be confused with The Wire (it is, in basic terms, a show about a giant hole in the ground and the people who are thinking about perhaps, if possible, filling it), but this episode took what felt like giant strides in setting up the second half of the season. Aubrey Plaza’s sullen April was already there way too long for an intern, so the decision to make her Ron’s assistant/gatekeeper ties up that loose end. The prospect of seeing disgruntled Pawnee residents barge into Ron’s office to complain about the scarcity of benches and throw homemade pottery could be reason enough to tune in every week. (His slow burn while meeting would-be assistant Jean-Ralphio, which culminates in his wanting to punch Tom in the face, is perfect Swanson and a perfect reminder of the show’s refusal to shout when a hiss will suffice.) And if there was any question as to why April would continue to voluntarily hang around people that make her roll her eyes with such alarming frequency and intensity, that’s a one-word answer: Andy.
Rivaling Offerman for scene-stealing (as opposed to scenery-chewing … we’re looking at you, nearly everyone on The Office) is Chris Pratt, who saves Andy from being a one-joke loser by being plain ol’ likable, and it’s easy to see why the perpetually tardy April spends whatever few hours she does at City Hall getting her leather purse shined. The faint traces of blushing and even — if you squint hard enough, you can see it — smiling as she conspires to help Andy sell his (unnamed?) band’s CDs render them already a far more compelling couple than the resident Jim-and-Pam stand-ins, Mark and Ann.
And why not root for April and Andy? Why not hope that Leslie gets a fair shake from Justin Theroux’s seemingly perfect civil litigator? Sure, working in an Indiana parks department might be thankless bureaucratic drudgery, but we should still want to hang around the office, not feel trapped there.