Poehler and company craft winning workplace sitcom

Tue Apr 7, 2009 11:54pm EDT

Amy Poehler from the film ''Spring Breakdown'' poses for a portrait at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 16, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Amy Poehler from the film ''Spring Breakdown'' poses for a portrait at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's unfair to compare "Parks and Recreation" to "The Office" just because they share writers and producers. "Office" didn't invent the mockumentary any more than its British predecessor did. "Parks" is a genuinely funny and engaging comedy that bears stylistic similarities to "Office" but has a heart and mind all its own.

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Ind., is the kind of naive, blindly cheerful central character who is reminiscent of Steve Carell's Michael Scott. But the key difference is that Michael's idiocy is egocentric, while Leslie's lack of self-awareness and her zealousness to please ultimately are designed to benefit those around her. In the words of Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), she's "kinda doofy, but sweet."

The series revolves around Leslie and her fellow low-level government employees, including Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) and her boss, Ron (Nick Offerman). Leslie is endearingly optimistic about her ability to effect change in the community, so when Ann appears at a meeting to complain about a giant undeveloped pit next to her apartment that has become a safety hazard, Leslie takes it upon herself to try to reclaim the land and get a park built on the lot.

As far as structured plot goes, that's about it, but that thread is more than enough to connect a series of often hilarious moments in which Poehler and the talented cast riff on their natural chemistry. Ansari plays the same cocky and somewhat lazy schemer he's come to perfect on everything from "Scrubs" to features like "Observe and Report," but he's great at it. It's also nice to see Schneider, so wonderful in dramatic work, fit snugly within a comedic ensemble. Offerman scores breakout moments as a conservative official who wants to dismantle and privatize his department and who looks to Bobby Knight for leadership tips.

But it's Poehler who owns the show, and she proves instantly that she's got the comic intelligence to carry a series like this one, which draws its energy from character interactions rather than broad punch lines. She's awkward but not alienating, and she's eager without being repelling. Most of all, there's a genuine heart to her that gives the comedy a balance and lets it be mocking without resorting to cruelty. It's funny, smart and fast.

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