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Poehler, cast excel, but it’s 'Office’ all over again

After a spin through the debut episode of Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler's new NBC comedy, Parks and Recreation, one question stuck in my brain like a tiny glass splinter:

If NBC was going to make a carbon copy of The Office, why didn't it just stick with its original plan and create an actual spinoff series?

I blame the suits at fourth-place NBC, who rushed Poehler into a new project during late 2008, just as SNL was cranking out new Saturday episodes and special Thursday shows to capitalize on the presidential election (Poehler also delivered her first baby, Archie, in October with husband and fellow comic actor Will Arnett — talk about having it all!).

Signs of trouble emerged during a meeting with TV critics last year, in which NBC executives couldn't exactly say whether the show would be an Office spinoff, though it was crafted by two top producers from the series, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur.

The result is a debut episode that feels exactly like The Office, even though it has no common characters and takes place in a different city. Poehler is Leslie Knope, a minor bureaucrat in a dinky department of a small Indiana town who remains cluelessly convinced she is smarter, more talented and more accomplished than she actually is.

Like Office star Steve Carell's Michael Scott, Knope is surrounded by dysfunctional characters, including a married assistant who hits on women constantly and a hard-core conservative supervisor who thinks the Parks and Recreation Department should be privatized.

And like The Office, Parks and Recreation unfolds as if the characters were cooperating with a documentary film, speaking to unknown producers behind a jittery camera that somehow captures all their eccentricities.

Despite the shortcomings, there's an appealing cast here, including Office alum Rashida Jones as a nurse working with Poeh­ler to transform a huge hole near her home into a park. Aziz Ansari also steals a few scenes as a pervy, South Carolina-born, self-described redneck of east Indian heritage who works with Knope.

On SNL, Poehler had a well-deserved reputation for saving lame sketches with boundless enthusiasm and exquisite comic timing. She tries hard here, playing Knope as a self-involved optimist upbeat enough to believe government can make a difference but dim enough to see her job as a launching pad to Hillary Clinton-level achievement.

(Poehler did, however, recently reveal that the show's best sight gag, a massive pratfall down a hole that would do Jim Carrey proud, was the work of a stunt double. Fans worldwide struggled to contain their disappointment.)

Still, it's going to take a lot of heavy lifting to rescue this series, which starts so far in The Office's shadow it may take an entire season to stand on its own.

Parks and Recreation debuts at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on WFLA-Ch. 8. Grade: B-.

'Parks and Recreation'

Debuts at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on WFLA-Ch. 8.

Grade: B-.

Poehler, cast excel, but it’s 'Office’ all over again 04/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 8:41am]
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