Parks and Recreation

Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. Twenty episodes into the second season.

So The Office has gone downhill. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really, but after nearly six full seasons, the show seems to have run its course. The characters aren’t surprising anymore (or when they are, it’s because they’re acting out of character), and some have calcified into one-dimensional creatures. The comedy simply isn’t as sharp or as funny as it used to be.

So it’s great that Parks and Recreation has risen in quality to take its place (at least in my affections—I’m just about over The Office). When the Office creators started Parks last year, it was little more than a cheap knock-off of The Office (which, of course, was itself adapted from Ricky Gervais’s UK original). But since those first tentative episodes, the Parks writers and actors have come into their own. The established mockumentary structure is still there, but Parks now has its own rhythms, its own themes, and its own oddball running gags. It might not surpass the American Office at that show’s height, but it certainly surpasses it now.

The central character of Parks and Recreation is Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a mid-level bureaucrat in the Parks and Recreation department of fictional Pawnee, Indiana. Rounding out the department are Leslie’s smarmy, lackadaisical subordinate Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari); her impassive libertarian boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman); and his resolutely apathetic assistant, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza). Leslie’s best friend, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), is dating Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), who works in city planning, and Ann’s ex-boyfriend, sweet but lazy Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), is a shoeshiner at City Hall, as well as the lead singer and guitarist for an unsuccessful band with an ever-changing name.

Like Michael Scott of The Office, Leslie’s obvious predecessor, Leslie is an awkward individual somewhat lacking in people skills, but beyond that superficial similarity, the two are now quite different. Michael’s defining characteristic is an extreme emotional neediness—he’s desperate for his employees to like him, to think of him as family—but Leslie doesn’t really have that problem. Sure, she wants to be liked, and she wants everyone in her office to get along, but she’s willing and able to make unpopular decisions when she thinks that’s the right thing to do. She also works much harder than Michael. In one episode, while she’s on suspension, her friends and colleagues scramble to collectively handle the mammoth workload she’s taken upon herself. Michael might be something of a savant as a salesman, but he has nothing like Leslie’s discipline or drive.

Leslie’s comedic flaw, so to speak, is her blundering naïveté. She is a true believer in the power and goodness of city government, and she is ambitious but not sophisticated in her attempts to wield that power, which usually results in her plans going awry or failing spectacularly. Yet despite that—and despite the indifference, cynicism, and shiftlessness of many of her fellow bureaucrats—Leslie rarely loses her almost manic enthusiasm for her job. She puts the best face on a bad situation and moves on to her next project.

That buoyancy, I think, is what keeps the show from becoming depressing. Poehler, meanwhile, is what keeps it from becoming exasperating. It would be so easy for Leslie to become irredeemably obnoxious or eye-rollingly stupid, but Poehler—and the writers—sidestep that neatly. In addition to having impeccable comic timing, Poehler is a talented actress, and the little flickers of self-awareness and doubt she allows Leslie keep the character grounded and endearing.

The other members of the ensemble are great as well. Offerman steals practically every scene he’s in with his hangdog face and deadpan delivery. Pratt is so goofy and adorable and funny that he got promoted from recurring guest star to full cast member between seasons. Plaza has, over time, brought out the little quirks in April that keep her from becoming a mere Apathetic Young Person™ (plus, her quick, do-you-see-what-I’m-dealing-with? camera glances rival Office veteran Jim Krasinski’s in hilarity), and Ansari’s Tom is impossible to pin down. He’s ridiculous and obnoxious—all unearned, empty bravado—and then the character takes strange little turns that make me like him in spite of myself. In one of my favorite episodes, the city is searching for designs to replace the City Hall mural, and Tom, trying to avoid work, pays an art student to draw up an entry for him. The student produces an abstract painting, and Tom is angry at first—this was not what he wanted—but then, completely unexpectedly, he responds to it. (“A piece of art caused me to have an emotional reaction! Is that normal?”) Leslie and the others brush off his submission, but Tom keeps indignantly returning to it, bewildered, exclaiming over the “shapes that come alive.” He’s so confused and inappropriately aggressive about the damn painting—it cracks me up every time.

Guest stars have been hit or miss on Parks. Poehler’s fellow Saturday Night Live alumni, for example, tend to make the humor go way too broad and dumb. (Cases in point: Andy Samberg as a loud-talking park ranger and Fred Armisen as a particularly offensive delegate from Pawnee’s sister city in Venezuela—two dull, one-note performances.) But Megan Mullally’s turn as Ron’s manipulative ex-wife Tammy, a librarian, was delectably bizarre (plus, it introduced the running joke that the parks employees and the librarians have a long-running feud, which is hilarious), and Justin Theroux’s four-episode arc as Leslie’s high-achieving boyfriend Justin Anderson was subtly acted and beautifully written, showing us new sides not only of Leslie but of Tom (who hero-worships Anderson), Ann (who isn’t as invested in her relationship with Mark as he would like), and Ron (who sees Anderson more clearly than anyone else).

But I think Parks is at its best when, as in that mural episode, it focuses on a low-key little premise and allows the characters to play off each other. That’s how the writers stumbled upon April’s awkward crush on an oblivious Andy and how they sharpened the mentorship/rivalry/understated friendship between Leslie and Ron. When you have comedians as tart and funny as Poehler, Offerman, Ansari, and the rest, you really don’t need a gimmick. Gimmicks are for, I don’t know, maybe the sixth season, when everyone’s bored with the characters and the setting and you need a stunt to give an episode its energy. But Parks and Recreation has a long way to go before it reaches that point. It’s come so far in the past year that I’m convinced its best is still yet to come.