Relay race handoffs are notoriously tricky, but the passing of the comedy baton from “The Office” to “Parks and Recreation,” in the hands of Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, makes it look easy. The pair has a reputation for building their cast of actors around individuals (“Parks and Rec” is no exception — check out Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari and Rashida Jones) and remolding them into an ensemble. “The Office” manifests the wear and tear of seven seasons by breaking these rules: now we find watered-down relationships and great triumphs for Michael or Andy at the expense of the group. The American adaptation is, at its root, a “will-they-or-won’t-they” show, whether you’re looking at Jim and Pam’s early flirtation or Michael’s perpetual obliviousness. “Parks and Recreation” succeeds because it, unlike “The Office,” integrates experimentation into the fabric of its characters, plot and sense of humor.
Even in six episodes of season three, the arrival of new characters, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as state auditors brought in to curb the spending of the department, has already changed the behavior of the regular. Take Rashida Jones’s Ann Perkins, for example; her romantic relationship with Rob Lowe’s perky Chris plunges her head first into cutesy, unreserved love in a way that Andy or Mark never could. When Chris breaks up with her, she doesn’t realize it, because no one has ever dumped her. The willingness of the show’s writers to paint this life-altering moment for the character as normal for the show’s arc encapsulates its commitment to the ensemble. The moment is more of a set than a spike, to borrow volleyball terminology, as Leslie comes in to comfort Ann with a jump-cut monologue of all the times she has been dumped. On “The Office,” Jones’s Karen was a symbolic, not fundamental, change in Jim’s life, such that his character remained intact for his reunion with Pam. “Shippers,” or those who watch TV shows solely to root for their favorite couple, will find little material in “Parks and Recreation” to sustain their need for drama.
The closest “Parks and Rec” comes to a “shipper” relationship is Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and his crazy Eve for the 21st century, Tammy (played perfectly by Offerman’s real-life wife, Megan Mullally). Ron Effing Swanson is a man who loves intensely, from steak to breakfast buffets to guns to Bobby Knight to dark-haired women. His character arc similarly subjugates greater imperatives, such as his relationship with his coworker Tom’s ex-wife, to the episodic plots of coaching a youth basketball team; the two layers, however, always find a way to mesh such that the characters do not exist as islands. When Tammy and Ron reunited this season, the episode communicated their intense sexual passion in only a montage. Instead, it focused on the foreplay and the morning after, to particularly humorous effect with Ron’s workplace intervention. The main tension of the episode — when will Ron return to his senses — resolved itself around Tom Haverford (the inimitable Aziz Ansari), who gets over his jealousy of Ron to break up the wedding shower and explain Tammy’s insanity. In both the plot events and conceit of the show, the well-manicured fronts these characters put on consciously or not — from Leslie’s earnestness to April’s sarcasm — are tested to the breaking point, when humanity peeks through.
Speaking of, April and Andy have become my new favorite part of the show. These polar opposite characters initially bothered me with their one-note contributions as foils for Ron or Ann, but the show’s new emphasis on plot has given them more to do. The arrival of the auditors finds April employed under Chris’s regime of positivity, albeit temporarily, while Andy is empowered to coach the other kids’ basketball team. As such, they are able to have an active relationship, not one built on the teasing stasis that defined three years of Jim and Pam. It’s unclear how long they’ll last, but, just as they embraced their mutual broke-ness at the bar, the show is embracing their contradictory natures and testing them out in the real world of plot.
“Parks and Recreation” is like a dessert at a fancy restaurant: you feel comfortable ordering a dessert with kumquat or star anise because you trust the institution. In its new season, the show is taking risks with more “artistic” cinematography, the plant of the Harvest Festival and the lingering question of the new series regulars Scott and Lowe. I, however, would trust my sweet tooth and my TV addiction to the hands of Daniels, Schur, Poehler, Ansari, Plaza and Jones any day.