The producers of “The Office” have hewn a little too closely to that show’s template in “Parks and Recreation,” which despite a few amusing moments winds up feeling like that established program in drag. Like Steve Carell’s tone-deaf branch manager, Amy Poehler puts her charm into overdrive as a clueless midlevel bureaucrat in Pawnee, Ind., who seizes on a build-a-park project as her springboard to political success. The serialized aspect of that endeavor should provide an ongoing storyline, but “Parks” seems inherently limited by a lack of what its protagonist has in abundance — imagination.
What “Parks” would appear to need, more than anything, is a stronger human component (think the romance between Pam and Jim) to ground its eccentricities. There’s a vague hint of that in the character of Ann (“The Office” transplant Rashida Jones), but even she’s saddled with a good-for-nothing boyfriend, and there’s nothing else initially to counter-balance Poehler’s overwhelming presence.
Poehler is Leslie Knope, who remains relentlessly cheerful after six years on the parks-department job — characterizing the abuse heaped upon her by dreary-looking attendees at a public hearing as “people caring loudly at me.” Without explanation, the show employs the same mock documentary format as “The Office,” allowing Leslie, her slightly corrupt colleague Tom (Aziz Ansari, who’s strange enough to be pretty funny) and others to explain themselves directly to the camera.
Leslie stumbles onto a platform worthy of her oversized ambitions when Ann, a local nurse, complains about an abandoned pit on a vacant lot in her neighborhood — the construction project having lost its funding. With a gleam in her eye, Leslie pledges to turn the dangerous eyesore into a park — a goal that becomes her great white whale.
In the premiere, Ann is gradually drawn into Leslie’s campaign, which she pursues relentlessly despite warnings from the local city planner (Paul Schneider) that this is an exercise in futility — since Leslie’s blissfully unaware that her boss Ron (Nick Offerman) objects to government action of any kind.
Series creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur provide the show with moments of dry wit, and Poehler certainly has acting oblivious down to a wide-eyed science. Yet there’s no escaping that this feels like “Office Lite,” thrown together (and perhaps this comes from knowledge about its history) as a vehicle for the star rather than out of any grand inspiration — just as the format appears arbitrarily chosen for its compatibility to the Dunder-Mifflin gang. Nor does the setting carry much political bite, which avoids potential minefields but also misses some comedic opportunities.
Whatever the reason, “Parks” just doesn’t quite pop — proving unable to make me care about Leslie’s quest, loudly or otherwise.