Never Watched Parks and Recreation? Start Here.

Slate's Culture Blog
July 16 2013 4:28 PM

Gateway Episodes: Parks and Recreation

Summer is here, the perfect time to catch up with a few of those shows everyone is always saying you should watch. But there are so many! How can you decide which to try? You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it.

louis_ck_poehler
Louis C.K. and Amy Poehler

NBC

Getting friends to like Parks and Recreation can be more difficult than you might think. They’ll hear nothing but good things about the delightful NBC sitcom, now entering its sixth season, and fire up Season 1, Episode 1, which is available on Netflix along with the rest of the show’s first four seasons. They’ll watch it, then maybe stick with it for a few more episodes, and then get turned off. It’s weird, they’ll say, wondering what all the fuss is about. “It gets better,” you’ll tell them. “Really!” But they won’t believe you. And if the rest of the series were like the first season, I wouldn’t blame them. But it isn’t, at all: The six-episode first-season run is a bizarro-world version of the rest of the series. It should come with a Netflix warning.

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Sure, the basic premise of the show is the same: Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, the deputy director of a parks and recreation department in small-town Pawnee, Ind., a woman who wants to climb the civic political ladder and make the world a better place at the same time. But in Season 1, Leslie is off-putting and unlikeable, too reminiscent of co-creator and executive producer Greg Daniels’ other quixotic hero, The Office’s Michael Scott. Like Steve Carrell’s Michael, Leslie is painfully incompetent, and it’s hard to sympathize with her, or even root for her. Her initial plotline, a quest to fill in a massive pit, is middling and mundane, even for a show about small-time municipal government.

Miraculously, despite getting low ratings and poor reviews, Parks was renewed—and given a total makeover. Leslie was reimagined as an endearing, can-do workaholic, with an infectious energy and a penchant for silly accents—qualities that mold perfectly with Poehler’s brand of comedy. The character’s lame pit plotline was scrapped in favor of broader storylines that brought the town of Pawnee—and the ridiculous, entertaining people who populate it—to life.

So here’s what you need to do: Skip Parks’ first season altogether, and jump right into the good stuff with Season 2’s standout episode, “Practice Date.”

“Practice Date” is an ideal entry point into the Parks universe. Since so much of Season 1 was scrapped, don’t worry about missing prior plot and character points. This episode establishes all the ground-floor information you need.

The episode’s A-plot involves Leslie’s neurotic response to her upcoming first date with Dave, a Pawnee police officer played perfectly by a pre-Louie Louis C.K. Leslie becomes a nervous wreck and compensates by over-preparing and making a binder of possible conversation topics. There’s a great multicut sequence—a device that the improv-minded Parks uses very well—where Leslie reels off all the horrible things that have happened to her on first dates in the past. (“One time I accidentally drank a bottle of vinegar. I thought it was terrible wine.”). Ann, Leslie’s best friend, takes her out for a practice first date, in which she assaults her with boorish, callous antics. A common flavor of Leslie—desperately panicked—emerges, to hilarious effect.

The B-plot—and the main reason I love this episode—finds the Parks office taking on a challenge to see who can dig up the most dirt on everyone else. Through that clever device, we get a bunch of very funny backstory. Blustering office jester Tom Haverford’s (Aziz Ansari) hot wife has ulterior motives for being with him; perpetually sullen intern April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and her lawnmower once starred in a viral video; department director—and easily the show’s strongest supporting character—Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) leads a secretive double life; and office punching bag Jerry … well, you should discover that gem on your own.

Above all, “Practice Date” is a great starting point because it’s among the series’ funniest episodes, both laugh-out-loud hilarious and quietly, wickedly witty. No current TV comedy has better characters, or has so successfully created a rich, inviting, and true-to-life world. After this episode, you’ll want to return to that world again and again. You won’t need me to nag you at all.