Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor
In Season 4’s final episode of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the parks and rec department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, is devastated to learn that she has, by a narrow margin, lost her bid for a city council post. But wait, Leslie fans: on recount, it turns out she’s actually won the race!
Success has been kind of like that all along for Parks and Recreation, the heartland workplace comedy created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who also worked on NBC’s multiple Emmy-winning series The Office: Not without anxiety.
After a rocky start with critics who thought the single-camera mockumentary too much resembled The Office, Parks and Recreation grew in critical acclaim. Last year, the show received its first nomination for comedy series and its second for Poehler for comedy actress. Although pundits saw a second series nomination as a strong possibility this year, Parks and Recreation was knocked off the best comedy list by newcomers Girls and Veep. However, star and show producer Poehler earned her third acting nom, as well as her first for writing. Schur also received a writing nom, demonstrating that the TV Academy still has a fondness for the series.
Despite the vote of confidence from the TV Academy, it was a real nail-biter earlier the year as the creative team waited to hear whether the show would be renewed. It was–but Schur points out that NBC announced its 2012-13 season in pieces rather than all at once, so there was plenty of time to plan a possible wake.
“We were cautiously optimistic, but we found out about 10 minutes before everybody else did”, Schur explains.
Nick Offerman, who portrays department director Ron Swanson, says it didn’t help matters that,shortly before the show was officially renewed, he found himself getting condolence calls and texts about its cancellation.
“Things seemed like they were in pretty good shape, then all of a sudden something strange happened”, Offerman says. “NBC was being very quiet up until the last moment because they were figuring out how they were going to arrange all their new comedy ideas, and through all that silence there was an incredible explosion of rumors online. I immediately panicked and called our producer. There was just this weird curse in the air. I don’t think it came from any real place”.
Daniels, who leaves running Parks and Recreation to Schur and his team as he concentrates on The Office, believes that Emmy noms can help a series’ survival.
“I think it has to make some difference because Parks has been sort of a critical darling for a while now, so it’s nice to see the awards show thing help validate that”, Daniels says. “And I think that helps the people at NBC feel good about keeping the show on the air”.
Schur concurs that Emmy acclaim “can’t hurt”, but is less sure whether last year’s Emmy nomination had anything to do with landing on the fall schedule this year.
“It’s weird–some of the things that used to seem like they were the great hallmarks of continued renewal aren’t true any more”, he observes.
Schur says that Emmy nominations have, however, served to validate Poehler’s character.
“There was so much written about how her character didn’t work right away, out of the box”, he says. “That the person at the center of the show is being recognized by people as a successful character–that’s a big deal”.
Producer Daniel Goor says that finetuning Poehler’s character was essential to assure viewers that she was not just a female version of Steve Carell’s self-absorbed Michael Scott of The Office.
“Once we clarified that the other characters in the ensemble liked her, it made it easier for people who liked her, too”, Goor says.
Goor also believes that Poehler’s strong female presence is helping the show surf this season’s new wave of comedies created or cocreated by women, about women, including HBO’s nominated Girls, New Girl, Suburgatory, and Up All Night.
“I think in way we lucked out, and we’ve kind of inadvertently surfed this trend, because our show is very much about a girl, a girl with a job”, Goor says. “Amy Poehler is very much the lead of this show, we’ve tried all along to make it her perspective, and the perspective of a woman working in a man’s world”.
(Goor notes as an aside that Up All Night creator Emily Spivey and Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek both served on the staff of Parks.)
Goor adds that another key to the success of Parks is having Saturday Night Live veteran Poehler onhand as a writer, a comment this year’s noms would seem to validate.
“I’ve said this time and again to all of my friends and family: If Amy Poehler submitted a blind script to any staff, she would be hired. She’s an exceptionally good writer”, Goor says. “I’ve read about Lucille Ball, how she spent time learning about every aspect of the business. Amy is like that”.
Goor acknowledges that sometimes having created a capable character like Leslie Knope challenges the writers when it comes to humor.
“Would Lucy have been as funny trying to break into show business if she was a really good singer and dancer?” Goor muses.
But Leslie’s strength does allow the writers to sometimes turn a predictable story on its head: Amy’s Leslie goes on a hunting trip as an attempt to bond with the boys’ club. Instead of bungling the trip and shooting like Dick Cheney, it turns out she’s a better marksman than her male colleagues.
With or without Emmys, Parks’ producers acknowledge that change is necessary in any show’s fifth season, and it’s coming in the form of expanding the arena to include Leslie’s new city council job and her love interest Ben’s (Adam Scott) move to Washington, D.C. But to avoid campaign fatigue, they decided to complete their own election storyline this season, rather than having Leslie’s campaign run a direct parallel to the real 2012 presidential campaign. And, rather than striving for edgy satire, the politics will remain nonpartisan and take on social issues in Pawnee’s amiably absurd, small-town way.
“I don’t think the show is like The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live. We have shows like Amy trying to marry penguins and finding out that they’re both male”, Daniels says of the show’s offbeat take on gay marriage. “We’ll make a comment about stuff that’s in the news, but it’s not as specific”.
Adds Daniels, “When Mike and I were working on the idea for the show, it was during the last election, when there was so much talk about optimism and politics and what needed to be done. It’s kind of cool to see that we’re here for a second election and that the same themes are being talked about in the culture. It’s like having a Christmas episode at Christmas–every time there’s an election, certain shows like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation are more in tune”.