When NBC’s Parks and Recreation debuted on April 9, 2009, expectations were high. The show had great bones: Creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur were the team behind The Office. It starred SNL favorite Amy Poehler. The ensemble included rising comedy stars Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman. And the premise promised all sorts of hilarity: Poehler would play wide-eyed, absurdly ambitious small-town bureaucrat Leslie Knope, deputy director of the parks department in Pawnee, Indiana.
Granted, it’s hard for a sitcom to kill right out of the gate (Seinfeld being an infamous example), and the first season was only six episodes. But viewers were still underwhelmed. The cast wasn’t gelling, and Leslie appeared more cartoon than character—naïve to the point of delusionary. With its documentary-style filming, Parks felt like a pale imitation of The Office.
The writers heard the criticism. Part of the problem: NBC picked up Parks based on a script and the creators’ and star’s reps; no pilot was shot. “The time between episode six and season two was the first time we had a chance to take a breath,” says Daniels. “With The Office, the pilot was shot a year before episode two,” so kinks could be worked out. In planning season two, they built on what Poehler sees as Parks’s strengths: “The topic of small-town government isn’t the sexiest, but what I loved about the show is that it isn’t afraid of pathos, of having small or real moments. I always liked series where I could imagine what the characters were doing when I wasn’t watching them.”
Step one: Humanize Leslie. “In season one, we concentrated on her comic flaws,” says Schur. “We wanted her to be optimistic and undaunted in her belief that it was possible to do good things in government, but it was reading to people as ditzy or clueless.” Poehler’s unique blend of sweetness and manic wit—her natural lovability—was now emphasized. They traded her sad-sack office crush for a couple of non-loser boyfriends and developed an endearing Mary Richards–Lou Grant bond with her boss, Ron Swanson (Offerman).
Step two: Integrate Leslie into the terrific ensemble, and highlight her co-stars’ strengths. “It’s a testament to the actors the way the characters have developed,” says Schur. Like the unexpected chemistry between Chris Pratt—Andy, the daft, pining ex of Leslie’s best friend, Ann (Rashida Jones)—and Aubrey Plaza, who plays Ron’s assistant, April Ludgate. “We had initially not seen a future for Andy,” says Schur. “But Chris brought out a funny, unexpected side of Aubrey. We thought, There’s our romance! Let’s chase that for the rest of the year.”
Now that the show works, next season is about attracting more viewers—Parks averages 5 million per week—which explains Rob Lowe’s arrival (Party Down’s Adam Scott has joined the cast, too). Schur and Daniels have been Lowe fans since The West Wing. “Rob’s friendship with Bradley Whitford was the main place they went for comedy,” says Schur. Lowe’s presence, jokes Daniels, affirms their belief that Parks is “a local, low-stakes comedy version of The West Wing.”