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Two Imitiations: One Promising, One Pale

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 15, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 15, 2009 |

Leslie Knope, the character Amy Poehler plays in “Parks and Recreation,” has an inflated sense of self and purpose; she’s completely oblivious; dimwitted; blindly idealistic; and doesn’t have an ounce of self-awareness. In other words, she’s “The Office’s” Michael Scott, only she lacks the dickish streak that makes Michael Scott as hard to like as he is not to like. But Michael Scott without that small dose of misanthropy isn’t too far removed from Jenna Fischer’s aimless, but hopelessly optimistic Pam Beesly. In fact, you’ll find a lot of similarities between characters from “The Office” and those in “Parks and Recreation,” a not-surprising revelation, given that both shows come from the same creator, Greg Daniels, and both shows use the same documentary-style approach, which puts them somewhere between Christopher Guest’s myopic, insular worlds and a version of Middle-American reality. But what sets “Parks and Recreation” apart from “The Office” is that nasty, uncomfortable humor “The Office” borrowed from its BBC counterpart, though even the edges of that brand of humor have been rounded off in the last couple of years. “Parks and Recreation” represents a continuation of that softening; it’s the less edgy cousin of an already increasingly edgeless “The Office.” Which is not to say that “Parks and Recreation” isn’t a worthy diversion. Like “The Office,” even in its later seasons, it’s an infinitely watchable show. It’s just not as innovative or off-the-wall riveting as “The Office” once was before all the uncomfortable borderline offensive humor was made more palatable to the very mainstream audiences it once held a mirror to.

There is an original premise underlying “Parks and Recreation,” however. The focus is on small-time local politics, where that absurdly heightened sense of purpose should play well. Leslie Knope is the deputy parks director in Pawnee, Indiana; she’s looking for her big Abraham Lincoln moment. Leslie finds it during a city-council meeting when a nurse, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), brings to her attention a giant, abandoned hole in the ground next to her house, left after a housing developer went bankrupt after digging it for the basement of an apartment complex. Ann’s layabout musician boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), fell into the hole and broke both legs, making him even more useless than before. The overly optimistic Leslie runs with the idea of filling in the hole and turning it into a new park, only she’s met with resistance from her libertarian boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who doesn’t believe that government money should be funding anything, much less a new park. Also in the cast is the familiar floppy-headed potential love interest, Mark (Paul Schneider), who rolls his eye at the camera in much the same way that Jim Halpert does. The best moments, however, belong to Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford, a redneck of Indian descent, who appears to be using his “position of power” to score booty calls.

It’s all very familiar if you’ve seen any of “The Office.” Even Rashida Jones plays a similar role, offering a more sane, outsider’s perspective to proceedings in the parks and recreation department, as she did when she spent a season on “The Office,” as a transfer from the NYC office. It’s a semi-amusing show, even if it does share too much in common with “The Office.” But then again, the pilot episode of the American version of “The Office” shared way too much in common with the BBC version, which made it come off as a pale imitator before it founds its own legs. Hopefully, “Parks and Recreation” can do the same.

Surviving_Suburbia_280x258.jpg But while “Parks and Recreation” at least shares a lot in common with a beloved show, “Surviving Suburbia” shares too much in common with every awful, suburban family comedy ever created. Apparently, someone over on ABC was under the misconception that we wanted another “According to Jim,” even while “According to Jim” hasn’t been entirely eliminated from the network. “Surviving Surburbia” stars Bob Saget as a typical sitcom father/husband, a small variation of either Jim Belushi’s Jim character or Ray Romano’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” character: Doltish, clueless, cranky, lazy, breast-obsessed, and spectacularly unfunny, capable of only delivering his lines slightly louder than the laugh track that swallows up most of the show. Cynthia Stevenson plays his typical sitcom wife: A shrewish know-it-all obsessed with her suburban status. And for fuck’s sake, this show even has the wacky neighbor, sitcom veteran Jere Burns. There’s another neighbor, too, a strip-club owner played by holy-fucking-shit Dan Cortese, who was apparently able to morph out of his Ty Pennington persona over on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” long enough to film a couple of scenes here.

To its credit, the show does manage to get everyone goddamn bland family sitcom trope into one single episode, which I suppose could be considered “Surviving Suburbia’s” one accomplishment. I’d describe the pilot’s plotline, but if you’ve ever seen an episode of those other family sitcoms, then you already know it. Dad makes an ass of himself; the adolescent daughter says cute things; the teenage son offers Dad sage advice; Mom saves the day; and a big, stupid moral lesson wraps it all up. There’s even a surprise party — they pulled out all the goddamn stops for this one.

It’s a dumb show, which of course means it’ll probably still be on the air when my two-year-old graduates from high school. The ratings suggest as much — “Surviving Suburbia” was the highest rated debut comedy in two years, scoring over 11 million viewers. “Parks and Recreation,” meanwhile, rated only a little over half as high, drawing in 6 and a half million viewers. America: You’re fucked.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.