Review by Kara Gheldof

Parks and Recreation, the pseudo-spinoff of NBC’s long-running comedy hit, The Office, returns to television January 20th with its third season premiere after an eight-month hiatus, courtesy of lead actress Amy Poehler’s real-life pregnancy, and you should all be watching. If you’re wondering why the spinoff of a sitcom that was already a remake of a British series deserves so much attention, you need only to get caught up on the second season to find out. Despite a slow start, P-Rex, as it is affectionately dubbed, is in some ways better than The Office itself these days.

Chronicling the day-to-day jobs of the parks department of fictional Indiana town, Pawnee, Parks and Recreation does borrow heavily from its predecessor; the cast is filled with zany, irresponsible characters, it’s set up as a hole in the wall documentary, even lead cast member Rashida Jones came straight from The Office. P-Rex may not be wholly unique or original, but it does manage to rise above many of the pitfalls made by its sister show for a number of reasons.

1. The lead is not an inconceivable moron.

Deputy director of the Pawnee parks department, Leslie Knope (played by SNL alum Amy Poehler) started out a bit too much like Steve Carrell’s Micheal Scott character—naïve, socially awkward, desperately wanting to be liked, but she has since evolved into a more mature, intelligent person. She still wants to be accepted by her peers, but she is above sacrificing her dignity and resolve, as evidenced by her staunch belief in several projects deemed impossible. Leslie spent one episode outside of the office and had her duties delegated to her coworkers, all of whom combined couldn’t keep up with what Leslie did solo. She has, time and again, proven herself ambitious, proud, and dedicated and has become a character worth looking up to.

2. There is no British series to compare it to.

Sure, comparisons can still be made between The Office and P-Rex, but overall, there is no worrying about how well it compares to the British series. In a cultural medium where it seems nothing is original, it’s often difficult for a show to succeed on its own merits. The U.S. version of The Office has distinguished itself, but loyal fans of the U.K. version will never give it the credit it truly deserves. Luckily, P-Rex doesn’t suffer from that stigma, and has a chance to establish itself as its own show.

3. The “everyman” characters do not take center stage.

In the first season, Parks and Recreation tried to mimic one of the aspects that made The Office so definitive: the Pam and Jim dynamic. Using actors Rashida Jones and Paul Schneider (as Ann and Mark, respectively), the writers tried to recreate that mix of sweetness and romantic tension, but unlike Pam and Jim, Ann and Mark were neither more interesting than their coworkers or more likable. In fact, they were downright boring. Thank goodness the show realized this and in the second season shifted attention to the much more lovable (and eccentric) pairing of April and Andy.

4. The supporting cast is much more three-dimensional.

On a similar note, P-Rex flourished when it realized that its true magic lay not with the comparatively ‘normal’ characters, but with the office oddballs. Amy Poehler has really risen to her leading lady status but what everyone comes away from this show talking about are the offbeat scene-stealers. Comic Aziz Ansari plays unlucky-in-love slacker Tom Haverford to brilliant effect, and Chris Pratt, who plays Ann’s doltish yet amiable ex, Andy Dwyer, was originally a guest star but fit in so well with the cast, they invented reasons for him to stick around, and he’s been a consistently wacky delight. But no one on this show is a greater scene-stealer than Ron Swanson, the head of the Pawnee parks department played by Nick Offerman. He’s sarcastic and misanthropic, he hates his job (but loves breakfast foods), he moonlights as jazz musician Duke Silver, and he’s got two ex-wives both named Tammy. All of the little things we’ve learned about the characters in just two seasons have already made them more well-rounded than most of the cast of The Office in 7 seasons.

5. They can leave the office setting. 

With a few destination episodes acting as the exception to the rule, the characters on The Office are confined to the limits of their building, which works for a show meant to highlight the suffocating office drone culture, but eventually you begin to want more. Parks and Recreation, by its literal definition, takes you outside the office setting, while still managing to represent office politics. More time is spent out in the field, interacting with a wider cast of characters, and the effect is that we are presented with a brighter, more vibrant show. There are no depressing cubicles here.

6. The premise is not limited or dated.

Finally, on a related note, Parks and Recreation succeeds where its predecessor has failed simply because there are a millions ways to go up from here. The Office has gone on as long as it has because it’s popular, and people want more, but it has become arguably stale. The show has run its course, and it stretched the boundaries of belief to begin with. In this economic climate and modern age, it is hard to believe a successful paper distributor still exists when there are much simpler, cheaper ways to get the job done. It should have ended on a high note, but now there’s no way to finish it off without Dunder-Mifflin’s demise. Contrarily, P-Rex has plenty of avenues to explore within its premise, and as it is unlikely an entire city will ever be permanently shut down, there is much more job security for everyone involved, which means we can move on from the question of how it exists and truly explore why.

© Kara Gheldof, 2011