TV NotesA Sitcom Grows Up and Finds Its Identity
By Bill Carter, The New York Times
- October 6th, 2011
It seems to be in the DNA of many of NBC's most memorable comedies: they're late bloomers.
Nobody thought much of Cheers or Seinfeld or The Office when they first hit the air. But once they found their voices, they found an audiences.
Parks and Recreation, seen at 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays, is halfway there. Judging by increasingly favorable critical comment, along with the endorsements on Internet sites and enthusiastic word of mouth, the four-year-old comedy has found its comic voice. The audience part still lags, though with NBC struggling to shore up much of its schedule, the still-modest ratings for Parks and Rec are the least of the network's worries.
That's not the worst way to be described, the least of someone's worries, Amy Poehler said, with her high-pitched cackle of a laugh. She stars in the show as the unflinchingly earnest Leslie Knope, dedicated public servant in the fictional Pawnee, Ind. I think there is a nice dovetailing of quality of show and people liking it and network supporting it, Ms. Poehler said this week in a telephone interview. It's all coming together rather nicely.
But there were some early rocky moments. The show came close to disappearing a few times. Twice its seasons were curtailed by network scheduling, and once it had to sit on the sidelines in the fall while another comedy tried to usurp its place in NBC's lineup and maybe its heart.
But now the signs are certainly promising: Ms. Poehler was nominated for an Emmy this year. Many critics couldn't believe that a co-star, Nick Offerman, who plays the meat-loving libertarian Ron Swanson, wasn't. The rest of the deep cast Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones is almost as celebrated, with many already breaking through in films, like Mr. Pratt's turn as a central player in Moneyball.
For Michael Schur, who created the series with Greg Daniels, it all comes down to a simple formula: It just takes a while.
The creation of Parks and Recreation itself was something of a feint. Ben Silverman, who brought The Office to NBC as a producer before taking over the network's entertainment division (and later leaving in 2009), asked Mr. Daniels to develop a spinoff of that comedy.
He and Mr. Schur set to work, not sure if they wanted to go the spinoff route at all, though Mr. Daniels said they came up with a few ideas. One would have taken the character on The Office played by Ed Helms and made him the head of a quirky family living in a cul-de-sac. Mr. Daniels wanted that to be, like The Office, another mockumentary, this one called American Family, which might have made life more complicated for a later mockumentary hit, ABC'S Modern Family.
What mainly changed the effort was Ms. Poehler. She and Mr. Schur were close from their days on Saturday Night Live. The chance to work with him again led Ms. Poehler to consider starring in a sitcom, a move that had not been in her plans. The only problem was, NBC wanted Parks and Recreation up and running fast and even dangled the opportunity to run the first episode after the 2009 Super Bowl (paired with The Office). But Ms. Poehler was pregnant.
We gave up the post-Super Bowl spot in exchange for Amy, Mr. Schur said. That, and more. The network had wanted 13 episodes that first season. Waiting for Ms. Poehler meant only six. I call it the seasonette, Ms. Poehler said. It was a tiny amuse-bouche to the eventual meal that is Parks and Recreation.'
In retrospect, Mr. Schur said, we dodged a bullet. Going out in front of 20 million or more viewers with a quirky little comedy, one that wasn't sure itself what it was yet, might have been disastrous for the show.
As it was, there was a lot of confusion. People still thought we were a spinoff of The Office,' Ms. Poehler said. We had to prove things we weren't. We had to prove we weren't a spinoff. We had to prove Leslie wasn't trying to be Michael Scott. And that this wasn't Saturday Night Live.' We had to prove all that.
Mr. Schur said the comparison with Michael Scott, Steve Carell's character on The Office, was probably inescapable. I always said if we did a show about Masai warriors, the lead would be compared to Michael Scott.
Certainly the mockumentary style encouraged that comparison. But Mr. Schur conceded the early Leslie Knope was not clearly delineated. She came off as ditsy, Mr. Schur said. We intended her to be smart, just overly earnest.
Then there was the issue of the hole. The original concept revolved around Leslie's efforts to fill in a pit next to the home of her friend Ann (Ms. Jones). Mr. Schur said it was a misconception that the show was once supposed to be forever about the hole. But Mr. Daniels said, Yes, that was the concept in the beginning. In fact, he said, they toyed with the idea of naming the show The Pit.
The limitations of the idea quickly became apparent, Mr. Schur said, and the pit idea was dropped filled in, really early in Season 2. That was also the year the show came together, Mr. Schur said, citing specifically the season's second episode, when Ron gets a hernia. Mr. Offerman's comedic timing had the show's fans buzzing.
Still, the show was hardly out of the woods. At the end of Season 2 Ms. Poehler was pregnant again. I would like to make it clear that this pregnancy did not interfere with our schedule at all, she said, and production continued at the end of the second season to get a jump on the third. The only problem was, NBC decided to keep Parks and Recreation off the fall schedule.
The official rationale was that the network needed to introduce new comedy. In truth, said a senior NBC executive at the time who did not want to be quoted criticizing one of the shows, it was felt that Parks and Rec would never be successful enough to sell in syndication, making it a less attractive investment for the network, which also owns the series. The decision unsettled the cast and creators. Ms. Poehler called it a treacherous time. The thought of them not getting on the air was so horrible we decided just not to think about that, she said. We just kind of, in the Midwestern way, went back to work.
Again adversity wound up providing opportunity. Cutting the season back to 16 episodes from the traditional 22 allowed Mr. Schur and the writers time to come up with an outside project they had been mulling: a mock guidebook to Pawnee. The project, with Leslie Knope credited as author, was published by Hyperion Books last week.
And when the comedy NBC embraced that fall, Outsourced, had its own issues with not blooming fast enough, NBC pulled it at midseason from the slot after The Office and gave Parks and Rec a shot there.
The show had been designed from the first to run there, Mr. Daniels said. And that's where Parks and Rec has drawn its best ratings to date. (This season it was moved back to 8:30.) More important, it started winning converts. We hear about how many people are DVR-ing it and saying, I'm going to catch up to it, Ms. Poehler said.
Mr. Schur said of the show's climb, I think it's a great thing. Nothing in my experience is worse than high expectations.PARKS AND RECREATION
NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (7:30 p.m. Central)http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/ar...ref=television