Bolstered by the success of “The Office,” NBC wanted a spinoff. Creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur realized that a spinoff would always be unfavorably compared to the original. With the help of Amy Poehler, coming off a stellar run on “Saturday Night Live,” they fashioned this little gem, “Parks and Recreation,” the comedy version of “The West Wing,” as Schur said, a mockumentary about a small government office staffed with eccentrics and beset by ditzy townies.
The pilot (original air date: April 9, 2009) opens with Leslie Knope (Poehler), the deputy director of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation department, at a neighborhood playground and introducing herself to a little girl, who can’t bothered. There’s a drunk trapped in a slide, and Leslie has to push him down with a broom.
“It’s a great time to be a woman in politics,” Leslie tells the camera. “Hillary Clinton. Sarah Palin. Me.”
“Nancy Pelosi. I like to say, ‘Get on board and buckle up.’ My ride’s gonna be a big one, and if you get motion sickness, put your head between your knees. Leslie Knope’s stopping for no one.”
It’s that time for the community outreach forum, and Parks Director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) needs some poor schmuck to host it. Leslie volunteers herself, because of course she would. It’s the monthly meeting of crazies and cranks, but Leslie sees them as “people caring loudly at me.”
At the meeting, Nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) stands and introduces herself and gets a round of applause from the crowd when she announces, “I don’t care for politics.”
But she needs the abandoned lot on Sullivan Street fixed – it almost killed her boyfriend. He fell into the giant hole and broke both his legs.
Leslie’s co-worker, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari). totally hits on Ann, suggesting they go away for the weekend to talk about her problem.
Leslie, surprising herself, tells Ann and the crowd that the department will fill the pit and put a park on the land.
“This could be my Hoover Dam,” she confides to the camera.
For help, Leslie turns to city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider). “He knows where the bodies are buried.”
Mark wants no part of her project, but Leslie asks him as a favor, for old time’s sake.
He is confused, so she spells it out.
“We slept together.”
Mark denies it to the camera, then has to think about it.
“Yeah, we did, like, five years ago.”
Apparently, it wasn’t as nearly as memorable to Mark.
Leslie drags Tom and college intern April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) to visit Ann, and they meet her housebound boyfriend, Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt, billed a guest star the first season because he was supposed to only be around for a few episodes, but everyone loved him so much, and the rest is Johnny Karate history).
Andy is camped out on Ann’s couch, both legs in casts, and using a stick to scratch himself.
Leslie can’t resist going into the “battle zone” – descending into the pit – and she takes a tumble. April captures her humiliation in a series of photos.
Later, with her neck wrapped in a duct-taped travel donut, Leslie asks Ron for permission to form a subcommittee to investigate building that park.
Ron is satisfied to squash her dream.
“I don’t want this parks department to build any park because I don’t believe in government,” he tells the camera. “I think that it’s a waste of taxpayer money. My dream is to have the parks department privatized and run entirely for profit. Like Chuck E. Cheese. They have an impeccable business model. I’d rather work for Chuck E. Cheese.”
That settles it – until Mark catches Tom laughing over a picture of Leslie lying in the pit and suffers an attack of conscience.
He breaks his own rule – about caring – and calls in his own favor with Ron.
Leslie can’t contain her excitement to the camera crew.
“I’m barely 34, and I’ve landed a parks department exploratory subcommittee. I’m a rocket ship!”
And so we begin our epic journey with Leslie Knope and the wonderful, wacky folks of Pawnee.
So what’s wrong?
It’s all about tone.
Even though this is clearly not an “Office” spinoff, the show started with that same cynicism and treated Leslie as if she was Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. Nobody liked her. She’s portrayed at best as deluded, at worst, as if she’s Jerry. (Not that!) Thankfully, “Parks” course-corrected in its second season and found its heart, embracing Leslie and her optimism. The show would laugh along with Leslie, not at her.
Fun trivia: Jon Daly plays the drunk in the opening scene, and he returned for the 2015 series finale.