Paul Schneider and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation.
Most comedies famously take a long time to find their footing, but even by those standards, Parks and Recreation was a special case. The sitcom shot all six episodes of its first season back-to-back, which meant it had to do the usual post-pilot tooling with no feedback from the public. Popular opinion says that these episodes are among the worst the series ever did, with only the season finale, “Rock Show,” approaching the comedic highs the show would later reach. But are they really that bad? As Parks approaches its finale, we revisited the show’s first season to see how far it’s come. Here’s what we learned:
It’s sort of bad, but not that bad.
In some ways, Parks has been dealing with the legacy of its first season for its entire life. Many viewers, enticed by the idea of an Office sorta-spinoff, checked out the pilot and then, disappointed by what they found, abandoned the series and didn’t return even when it got good. (The pilot remains the highest rated Parks episode ever.) Like a lot of early comedy episodes, the jokes are fine, but the series’ worldview is hard to pin down, and, true to myth, the tone never really coalesces until the finale. In general, it’s a little bit darker and more cynical than the show the series would become. And that’s because …
Leslie isn’t really Leslie yet.
Early reviews of Parks dinged the show for making Leslie Knope too similar to Michael Scott, a criticism that seems odd in retrospect. But the first six episodes feature a very different Leslie than the one fans would come to know and love. Like Michael (who himself took a few episodes to come together), season-one Leslie is ambitious, nominally powerful, and more tolerated than respected by the people around her. Her idealism is obvious from the series’ first scenes, but for much of the time, it’s never clear if she’s actually any good at her job or not. She’s just hopelessly clueless, bungling a community meeting, violating a code of ethics, and showing up to an awards ceremony with the haircut of a little boy. And a lot of her early story lines are hampered by her crush on …
If you haven’t watched season one of Parks and Rec in a while, it’s easy to forget just how much Mark Brendanawicz there was in the early days. And there is a lot. Watching these episodes now is like going back through old Gchats and discovering that you used to be super into some person you haven’t thought of in years. Leslie’s feelings for Brendanawicz motivate much of her season-one behavior, and the series isn’t sure if they’re going to have the kind of romance where each fixes the other’s flaws, or if she’s got an unhealthy obsession with him. This ambivalence extends to Mark himself. He’s a womanizer, but the series doesn’t celebrate or condemn him for it; the fact just kind of lies there alongside his dead ideals. It makes sense that Brendanawicz hasn’t been heard from since season two — he doesn’t make sense in the bright and zany Pawnee of latter-day Parks.
Most of the other characters are slightly different, too.
Tom Haverford is more relatable than the mogul he would become; there’s a touch of Jim Halpert to his lovable pranks and constant glances to the camera. Andy is a little bit of a jerk. Ron Swanson starts the series off as a generic stern authority figure rather than a paragon of manliness. Jerry and Donna don’t do anything. Only one character is totally recognizable from her first appearance: Anne Perkins, who arrives fully unformed.
The real joy is in the foreshadowing.
Season one’s nods to later events in the Parks universe are more enjoyable than most of the jokes. Some of these are clearly setups for things to come: We learn Tom Haverford is married, and we hear Ron talk about his ex-wife Tammy, whom he hates. Others might be accidental, like Mark telling Anne he’s not sure why she’s dating Andy, which manages to foreshadow two romances the show largely retconned away. And look at the glares April gives Andy in the early episodes. Was Aubrey Plaza plotting her story line in advance the whole time?