B+

Parks And Recreation

B+

Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

Every television setting, no matter how rich, runs out of story-generating material. Eventually, the Simpson family has to go to Australia, Big Bird has to go to China, and the characters of each TGIF sitcom must make a corporate-mandated retreat to Disney World. Parks And Recreation has spent five seasons telling the story of one of the most inspired settings in recent TV history, a small Midwestern town populated by colorful personalities that would feel equally at home on 742 Evergreen Terrace or 123 Sesame Street. But as the show heads into its sixth season, it’s also restricted by that setting on some level—and by its protagonist’s mania for that setting.

In her defining television role, Amy Poehler plays network comedy’s No. 1 civic champion. The pride in Pawnee, Indiana demonstrated by her Leslie Knope has been the backbone of Parks And Rec from the very start. Sometimes, it can be a consistently winsome show’s only exhausting attribute—at other times, the show actively pushes back against that undying loyalty, as seen in the crackling season-five finale, “Are You Better Off?” That episode kicked off what looks to be the focus of this fall’s first cluster of Parks And Rec episodes: The campaign to oust Poehler from the city-council seat her character fought so hard to secure two seasons ago.

As it often has been with Parks And Rec, the political drama in the sixth-season premiere, “London,” is mere window dressing for keen, warm character work from stars who still clearly enjoy one another’s company. The recall plot is also the jumping-off point for the hour-long episode’s splashy, premiere-worthy premise: An excursion to Old Blighty that allows Poehler to act amped about a geographic location outside of Southwest Indiana. The change of location also affords ample opportunities for patriotic sniping from Nick Offerman, as well as an elegant solution to the problem of losing Chris Pratt to Guardians Of The Galaxy. (Pratt’s superpowered weight loss is waved away in a hilarious aside between Pratt and Adam Scott.)  

But make no mistake: This is Poehler’s journey—with a side mission for Offerman keeping the final act of the double episode afloat. For more than five years, Parks And Rec has presented a fantasy depiction of government, in which public servants (largely) care about what they do and affect noticeable, positive change in their communities. And yet the actual work is presented as a nightmare—during “London,” Poehler succinctly sums up the job of a crusading Pawnee city councilwoman as “wiping slime and shoveling slugs.” Poehler’s never been stingy about showing the darkness held back by her sunny disposition, but it’s about time the show gave her a reason to step back and explain why it is she keeps working so hard for an ungrateful population. At an awards ceremony, surrounded by examples of people who do the same kind of work but reap significantly greater benefits, Poehler has the type of moment that’s more typical of her old Weekend Update partner Tina Fey—and it’s downright refreshing. The recall election could be a drag on season six, but it also presents an alternate path from the all-too-easy narrative of running Poehler up the legislative chain for the remainder of the show’s run.

That’s one of the marvelous aspects of the way this new chapter of the show begins: “London” rarely takes the expected route, a heartening sight from a show entering its syndication years. (Even more heartening now that showrunner Mike Schur, who wrote the premiere, is splitting his time between Parks And Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.) At a time when the show clearly has babies on the brain, it’s not flipping the switch for Poehler and Scott from “newlyweds” to “new parents.” Besides, if “London” proves anything, it’s that these characters have played the roles of guardians and caretakers to a motley brood for quite some time. That’s a conclusion that’s worthy of a panicked one-liner about the “nanny state” from Offerman, but if there’s anything Parks And Recreation’s position on the government stands for, it’s the governing looking out for the governed.

And as the show begins its sixth season, it looks out for its characters with a wider scope. Schur and company are trying their hands at introducing a regular antagonist into Parks And Rec’s normally amiable environment, something that worked in fits and starts with Jon Glaser’s city councilman last year. Breathless casting reports about the principals’ doppelgängers in hated Eagleton suggest the next 22 episodes of Parks And Rec will more regularly set their sights beyond the Pawnee city limits—something the show did with the Washington, D.C. arc at the start of season five, though it was hard to feel any investment in those storylines because Adam Scott and Aubrey Plaza still had their feet so firmly planted in Indiana. “London” matters because it doesn’t just give the characters another place to go—it challenges them to take on new, broader perspectives.

And in that broader perspective, the show acknowledges that most communities in the world have a Leslie Knope. What matters is how the Leslie Knope played by Poehler affects her small corner of the world. She works for things in which she believes, but does the truly hard labor when it concerns other people she loves and respects. In the early goings of “London,” Poehler declares there’s “no problem too small” in her character’s public rehabilitation, a notion the episode reinforces again and again, on matters of smartly decreasing scale. If the premiere is any indication, season six will be the season in which she realizes she’s not in this line of work for fame and glory. And it’s recognizing that there’s a world outside of Pawnee that helps her finally come to that realization. 

Parks And Recreation, season six
Created by: Greg Daniels and Michael Schur
Starring: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, and Retta
Airing Thursdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Single-camera live-action sitcom
Premiere watched for review