The great thing about Netflix — and the reason I was immensely joyful when it finally made its way to the UK — is that you can “take a chance” on TV shows you’ve never seen before without having to shell out for a DVD box set. (I realised the other day that I can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD. I’m not sure I will ever again, to be honest.) Trying out a new show is a simple matter of spotting it, clicking on it and giving it a shot for a few episodes to see if you like it.
So it was that I found myself starting to watch Parks & Recreation. I knew literally nothing about this show before I started watching it, so it was with total beginner’s mind that I jumped in.
Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. It had that slightly awkward “comedy drama” feeling about it where you’re not quite sure if you’re supposed to laugh or not. I’m not a massive fan of laugh tracks these days — it’s funny to think that they used to be a fixture on popular shows — but sometimes it’s nice to have a cue as to when it’s “okay” to laugh.
After a little while, though, I started to “get” what the show was doing. I was supposed to feel awkward and uncomfortable. I hadn’t immediately twigged that the show was going for a The Office sort of vibe, but when I started watching it in that mindset, it became immediately a whole lot better. Since the first season, the show has seemingly successfully distinguished itself from The Office despite retaining the “docudrama” format. What this means in practice is that the characters in the show are free to break the fourth wall, address the camera and do lots of things that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do in a more traditionally-shot show. At the same time, though, the format is somewhat subverted on occasion by characters doing “talking head” shots explaining what’s really going on in a scene and then being lambasted by another character who can hear what they’re going on about.
The show’s biggest strength is in these characters. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a strong lead, and her straight-laced nature is the perfect foil to the colourful, exaggerated characters that are her colleagues in the Parks and Rec department. It also means that when she does do something amusing, it has more impact.
Highlight of the show is clearly Ron-freakin’-Swanson, a mustachio’d gent who hired sullen summer intern April not for her secretarial skills, but for her total incompetence at dealing with other people, meaning that he never has to do any work. Frequently, we’ll see Ron in his office carving wood, weaving baskets or, in one memorable scene, using a typewriter he restored to “type every word I know”. Anything but work.
Not all of the characters are exaggerated caricatures, however. Rashida Jones’ Ann is another character whose understated, human performance inspires viewers to relate to and empathise with her. The way she uses casual idioms like “Dude…!” when talking to people gives her a very “real” feel, and her relative normality actually makes her stand out amid the rest of the cast.
To cut a long story short, despite thinking I was probably only going to watch a few episodes of the show, I’m now halfway through the third season with no intention of stopping. I’ve enjoyed it a great deal so far, and am looking forward to seeing more. If you haven’t checked it out before and are a fan of the awkward, slightly cringeworthy comedy of shows like The Office (particularly the original Ricky Gervais version) then you’ll find it an absolute hoot, I’m sure.