On tonight’s episode of Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is faced with an unspecified ethical conundrum as she tries to advance her political career by taking part in a casual, all-male outing. A more pressing matter, though, is that the series as a whole will try once more to prove what it hasn’t been able to over its first three episodes: that it’s anything more than an unnecessary, lesser version of The Office.
Parks and Recreation has been called a spinoff of The Office, but technically, it’s not. The shows share no characters or storylines, just creators and writers who seem to be hoping they can get through life with just one good idea, even if it wasn’t their idea to begin with. The shows are exactly the same: mockumentaries about office life—one at a paper company and the other in the bureaucratic nightmare of a small-town government agency. Logic would dictate that Parks and Recreation is set in far more fertile territory for comedy, but it hasn’t proven true quite yet, and it has a lot to do with the few things it doesn’t have in common with The Office.
It’s still early, of course, but it’s not yet clear that there’s a character on the show who will be able to provide the necessary counterbalance for Leslie. We’re able to handle Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on The Office because we know we can count on Jim, or Pam, or even Oscar, to look at the camera and let us know that they too understand that they’re in the presence of a person whose lack of self-awareness is a downright mystifying. The comedy (and I guess the heartstring-pulling parts too) is in their reactions to Michael. So far, Parks has only provided Poehler with Rashida Jones, who plays Ann, the neighborhood resident who originally complained about the abandoned pit Leslie’s trying to turn into a park. The problem is that Ann doesn’t really have any reaction at all to Leslie. She doesn’t seem appalled, inspired, or even amused by her, and before long, it starts to feel like her non-reaction is exactly what’s warranted.
The rest of the cast has barely made a splash. Aziz Ansari has been decent enough as the proudly underachieving Tom Haverford, and Aubrey Plaza been underutilized as the intern who couldn’t care less. Poehler, who one could argue is wasting her precious talents essentially doing a Steve Carell impersonation for a living, is very clearly the star of the show, but until someone starts having some sort of meaningful interaction with her, there’s just not much show to speak of.
What makes matters worse, though, is that even if they do work out all the kinks, what’s the best that can happen? It stops being a show that fails miserably in its attempts to emulate The Office and becomes one that manages to pull it off pretty faithfully? Until they get Parks up to par, we’ll complain about the differences between the two shows. Then we’ll complain that it’s unoriginal. And we will have been right on both accounts.