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How Parks and Recreation Reinvented Itself and Found Mike Schur's Sitcom Sweet Spot

The NBC sitcom, which premiered 10 years ago, was all about reinvention

Kelly Connolly

Parks and Recreation began with a reinvention. This was fitting, since so much of the show would come to be about reinvention: a pit became a park, a disgraced former teen mayor remade himself into a congressman, a recalled city councillor from Pawnee went on to become governor of Indiana (and then maybe president). By the time the NBC sitcom hit its stride, it had grasped how deep, substantial change starts on a surface level -- how thankless, monotonous work opens doors to new opportunities, and even to joy. But it didn't understand any of this until after it began the work of making itself over.

The Parks and Rec that premiered 10 years ago, on April 9, 2009, wasn't much like the show it would become. The mockumentary series -- co-created by Greg Daniels, who had developed The Office for American TV, and The Office writer Mike Schur -- wore its DNA on its sleeve. Small-town bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was, at first, basically a female version of Steve Carell's Michael Scott, right down to her cringeworthy inability to read a room. Leslie was more optimistic and, because of the nature of her work, more altruistic than Michael was, but her belief in the power of government to effect change was treated as foolishness, and so was her belief in herself.

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Parks just couldn't wear that attitude like The Office could. The Office had evolved into a warmer show over time, but it maintained some cynicism about the nature of office work itself. The stakes in Parks and Rec were inherently higher: Cynicism about this work was cynicism about public service, and a deluded woman in government had political implications that a clueless white man running a paper company did not. Leslie always resented that she was in a field dominated by men, but in Season 1, her response to the bro culture in Pawnee's local government wasn't to challenge the system but to change herself. She compromised her standards to fit in with the boys' club; she celebrated a big occasion by getting her hair styled like a man's. In a corrupt environment, a woman like Leslie just didn't fit.

Amy Poeher, Parks and Recreation​

Amy Poeher, Parks and Recreation

NBC, NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Fortunately, Parks and Rec had something else in common with The Office: a short, six-episode first season, which made it possible to retool the show early on. Season 2 came out of the gate funnier (Leslie singing "Parents Just Don't Understand" is an all-time great way to kick off a season) and with a new respect for its main character, whose tireless enthusiasm was now backed by almost superhuman competence. In "Christmas Scandal," halfway through Season 2, the whole town nearly fell apart when Leslie was forced to take a single day off work.

It wouldn't have been possible for the show to sell its new faith in Leslie Knope if the people around her didn't back her up. Schur told The Star-Ledger in 2009 that the writers had initially liked seeing Leslie go out on a limb on her own, but "in later episodes we found that it was more fun to watch the whole group moving toward a common goal." Picture, for example, a memorable Season 4 scene when the team struggled to push Leslie onto a campaign platform in the middle of an ice rink, supporting their friend like figures in a classical sculpture. If Season 1 was about people underperforming to avoid upsetting each other -- like when Tom (Aziz Ansari) flattered Ron (Nick Offerman) by intentionally losing their running game of Scrabble -- the rest of Parks and Rec was about people overperforming out of love for each other. "Leslie Knope gets as many favors as she needs," a police chief explained in Season 3, "because she's the kind of person who uses favors to help other people."

Celebrating Leslie Knope cracked a code for Parks and Rec as a whole. As the No. 1 advocate for the idea that "no one achieves anything alone," Leslie was as intense about her relationships as she was about her job, and her generosity brought out new depths in the rest of the ensemble. Andy (Chris Pratt) went from an immature, freeloading boyfriend to a big-hearted dreamer. Tom gradually evolved from a womanizer into a hustling entrepreneur chasing visions of success. The show even revealed a softer and more passionate side to Ron Swanson, who turned out to be moonlighting as suave saxophonist Duke Silver.

​Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

NBC, NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

At every level, Parks and Rec fashioned a kinder, quirkier world. Indiana state auditor Ben (Adam Scott) replaced the outgoing Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) as both Leslie's love interest -- though, unlike her hopeless crush on Mark, her relationship with Ben was rooted in mutual support -- and as the show's designated straight man. But Ben, unlike Mark, had a personality: He was a tightly wound calzone aficionado and an unashamed pop culture nerd. With Ben, Parks and Rec realized that a straight-man character can still be comedic and gloriously weird -- an approach Mike Schur carried over to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which he co-created with Dan Goor, and later to The Good Place. Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Amy (Melissa Fumero) and The Good Place's Chidi (William Jackson Harper) are both Ben's descendants: proof that there's nothing boring about a character obsessively following the rules.

Ben's arrival with fellow auditor Chris (Rob Lowe) at the end of Season 2 was the last step in Parks and Rec's reinvention. A disgraced former teen mayor trying to rehabilitate his image by slashing budgets, Ben was the perfect foil for Chris' radiant but impractical positivity. The two characters together summed up the balance of the show, which lived at the intersection of idealism and hard work. It may have been the product of Obama-era optimism, but Parks was both more pragmatic and more prescient than people remember. If characters like Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), a rich, air-headed man-child whose privilege made him nearly untouchable, or ruthless campaign manager Jen Barkley (Kathryn Hahn) had debuted after the 2016 election, their storylines would have been topical to the point of being sad. But as the show's political commentary got more specific and incisive, it also grew more hopeful. No problem could be fixed until it could be named.


Parks and Recreation


Parks and Recreation didn't imagine a political utopia, but it did defiantly move its characters toward happy endings. Leslie found work worth doing, and she found a team of people who helped her do it. "You and Leslie like to hold hands and jump off of cliffs together, into the great unknown," Ron told Ben in the Season 4 finale. "You two have a good relationship. I don't personally know what that's like, but I'm given to understand it means you're going to land on your feet." It's not that Parks scoffed at being content where you are; Ron was happy to avoid change wherever possible (though even he mellowed out when he became a father of three), and every time Leslie was offered an opportunity that would take her out of Pawnee, she struggled to reconcile her goals with her love of her hometown. But the show found something sweet in that tension, which lies at the core of all of Schur's sitcoms: making room for change in a landscape usually defined by monotony.

Schur has carried that spirit to the extreme on the The Good Place, a show so serialized that no season looks like the one before. Every season of the innovative sitcom involves, in Ron's words, jumping off a cliff into the great unknown -- sometimes more than once an episode. Despite being a show about people's flaws, The Good Place doesn't start from a place of cynicism. Set (mostly) in the afterlife, the series blows up Parks and Rec's interest in self-improvement until it's literally a matter of salvation. If Parks is about how no one accomplishes anything alone, The Good Place is specifically about how no one becomes good alone. Neither show treats change as easy, but each insists that it's possible. And although Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a workplace comedy set in a police precinct, is more modest in scope than The Good Place is, it also bears the mark of the lessons Parks and Rec learned after its first season: Everyone's ambitions are taken seriously, upward mobility is welcomed, and the characters are better for knowing each other.

The first season of Parks and Rec was the last time any of Mike Schur's shows found humor in stagnation. After Season 1, the series took the premise of The Office -- good company makes a bad job worth it -- and made it active: Good company can change your community. Ron once summed up for Leslie why she didn't like her supposedly perfect boyfriend: "He's a tourist. He vacations in people's lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he's interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he's selfish. And you're not." All the show ever had to do was figure that out.

Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation

NBC/Getty Images