Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

New on DVD: 'Parks and Recreation' is sly, subtle fun

Amy Poehler is the star of "Parks and Recreation" but she's not the best part of the show. Poehler turns her character, Leslie Knope, into the straight man and lets the plot swirl around her. The best jokes come in reaction to her, and often, at her expense. (Provided by NBC)

One of the best running jokes in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” is based on a true story.

The show is set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind. – a place that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up in an American small town. The city offices feature an elaborate wall mural that shows settlers slaughtering natives in a variety of hideous ways.

Parts of this wall are so graphic they have to paper it over with memos to hide it from schoolchildren. In the episode commentary we learn that after the show aired, the producers got e-mail from a viewer who saw a similar mural at a real town hall and had to cover up scenes of settler vs. native brutality for his wedding photos.
"The Trial of Chief Wamapo" is a typical scene of settler-on-native brutality from the mural in the city offices of Pawnee, Indiana -- a fictional town that provides the backdrop for NBC's "Parks and Recreation."

Amy Poehler’s character Leslie Knope sums up the show’s premise in the first big scene of the pilot: “This is where the rubber of government meets the…road of actual human beings.”

“Parks and Recreation” got tepid reviews from critics and viewers during its live network run because this show is not built around obvious, knee-slapping comedy.

This is a sly, subtle show that plays like a series of nested character portraits, slowly growing deeper, and funnier, as the show goes on. The first-season DVD features six episodes, supplemented with commentary, music and deleted scenes.

“Parks and Recreation” is essentially an improv show, shot in the same deadpan style as “The Office.” Directors film multiple takes of each scene and pick the best, encouraging actors to run wild and play off each other.

It’s great comedy when it works, but this show isn’t going for belly laughs. The humor here comes from the recognition of small-town stereotypes, and the slow buildup of absurdity as the dreams and schemes of the characters crash against reality.

The show is harsh without ever crossing the line into brutality. This isn’t the epic struggle of a prime time drama – this is the familiar banality of real life, and the humor that results when people refuse to give up.

The show was sold as an Amy Poehler vehicle, but Amy’s character is not the funniest part of the show. Leslie Knope is the hub that keeps this wheel spinning, but the humor comes in reaction to her – and often, at her expense.

Fans who focus on Poehler will be disappointed in “Parks and Recreation” – and they’ll miss the best part of the show. Poehler makes the show great by playing the straight man here, by keeping Leslie constant and letting the rest of the show spin around her.

The supporting cast is outstanding, selling their roles with quick glances and wry inflections. “Parks and Recreation” doesn’t spoon-feed the audience. It rewards viewers who pay attention. The more you watch, the funnier it gets, culminating in a hysterical season finale that builds on everything that came before.

The extended cut of the finale is worth the price of a DVD by itself. Chris Pratt steals the show with musical numbers from his band “Scarecrow Boat” a.k.a. “Mouse Rat” a.k.a. “Three Skin” a.k.a. “Death of a Scam Artist” a.k.a. about a dozen other names that Pratt rattles off in a deleted scene.

The director’s commentary reveals that Scarecrowboat.com is still online, still distributing MP3s to loyal fans. My only complaint about this site is that it looks too good – too professional to be a good fit for the greatest rock band in Pawnee.

The text, however, is dead-on: “Led by frontman Andy Dwyer, the ‘Boat refuses to be confined to one style of music. They don’t even like being called musicians, because they feel there’s more to their act.”

That’s a pretty good example of the humor you can expect from “Parks and Recreation” – not full-body belly laughs, but the slow humor of recognition. Everybody knows an Andy Dwyer. Everybody knows a Leslie Knope. And everybody will recognize Pawnee, Indiana – even if they left it for somewhere else.

Season two of “Parks and Recreation” starts on Sept. 17. The season one DVD is on sale now.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

September 11, 2009 at 13:22

Posted in DVD, TV

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