A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps, your regular guide to the “not-an-Office-spin-off” Office spin-off, is vacationing in Italy this week, so he’s left me with the keys to Parks & Recreation kingdom. Before digging into this week’s episode, I should establish a baseline: I generally share Keith’s optimism that the elements of a good show are swirling around within P&R, though we differ a little on the first two episodes. He was very pleased with the pilot, but the second episode made him feel like a sucker for it; I thought the two episodes weren’t that far removed quality-wise, and the second one had some real highlights, like the canvassing of a sex predator or Leslie filibustering herself.
With each week, though, I’m starting to get a better idea about what does and doesn’t work about the show, and “The Reporter” has me seriously concerned that the rot is at the foundation. For one, the faux-documentary conceit is starting to seem like a mistake: It would have worked for a genuine Office spin-off, because the two shows would have existed within the same universe and presumably shared characters. But here, it’s preventing Parks & Recreation from establishing its own identity while begging comparison to a far superior comedy. Worse yet, I think Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knopes is conceived too much like the Michael Scott of petty, inept small-time government. Again, the comparison is unflattering, but the bigger problem is that Leslie’s buffoonery distracts from the realities of petty, inept small-time government.
Exhibit A: Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, to my mind the funniest character on the show in a walk. His entire mission is the Nowheresville, Indiana equivalent to what G.O.P.-er Grover Norquist famously said about his political philosophy: “Make government small enough to drown it in a bathtub.” His online Scrabble-related B-plot with Aziz Ansari’s knuckleheaded Tom brought most of the few good laughs in tonight’s episode. Here’s Ron’s assessment of Tom: “He doesn’t do a lot of work around here. He shows zero initiative. He’s not a team player. He never wants to go that extra mile. Tom is exactly what I’m looking for in a government employee.” Whatever political satire Parks & Recreation has managed at this point have all come from Ron: The guy wants small government, but he goes about it by making government as inept as possible. He also hates his ex-wife, who sucked in Scrabble, but didn’t suck as much as Tom. Also, she’s a bitch.
But alas, the bulk of the episode was given over to Leslie, who wants to drum up support for her pit-to-park project, but freaks out about getting bad press from the Pawnee Journal, “our town’s Washington Post.” There are some funny ideas here and there—the tour of the building, with those appalling paintings (“I’m always amazed by his quiet dignity right before he’s killed by a cannonball”); the Pawnee Journal’s Woodward figure once having filed a devastating exposé on raccoons (“they really are nature’s bandits”); going over a list of talking points, et al.—but Leslie’s anxiety spills over into Michael Scott at his most annoyingly infantile. All the stuff with her turning off the reporter’s tape recorder again and again over minor issues, her petulant reaction to Mark’s one-night-stand, the babbling about nepotism… all desperate beyond the point where it might be funny.
And how about that country honeysuckle gag? The cold open should never be that cold.
• Pawnee Journal A1 headlines: “SPRING ARRIVES!” and “Wanna Iguana?”
• Like the idea of JJ’s Diner being “the unofficial meeting place of the town elite.” Nothing politicians like more than diners to bring out that Main Street pander.
• Also liking Chris Pratt as the drunk idiot who fell into the pit and the lead singer of Threeskin, “formerly Fourskin, but our bassist left.”
• Amusing character moment when Mark clarifies to the reporter that “romantically involved” is perhaps overstating their relationship.
• Sheesh. All compliments in the “Stray Observations” section. Maybe I’m being too hard on this episode. Either that or Amy Poehler is suffocating this show.