“Parks & Recreation”
Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.
NBC

3.5 out of 5 stars

“Parks & Recreation” will always be judged alongside “The Office” — that’s an undeniable, irrefutable truth. And it makes sense: “Parks” was created by Greg Daniels, executive producer of “The Office;” it uses the mockumentary style “The Office” is celebrated for; it airs right before “The Office” on Thursday nights on NBC; and if that wasn’t enough, one of its cast members, Rashida Jones, was featured prominently in the third season of “The Office.”

So for television critics and average Joe television junkies alike, “Parks” presents an intriguing question: Can a show that borrows so much establish its own identity? The answer to this question can’t be communicated in black-and-white absolutes.

While “Parks” unquestionably sports the feel of “The Office,” the new faces — save Jones — help remind us what we’re watching. And at the forefront is distinguished “SNL” alum Amy Poehler. As the main attraction, Poehler convincingly portrays the wonderfully oblivious optimist Leslie Knope, a low-level government official working at a Parks and Recreation Department in the cradle of Midwestern boredom: Pawnee, Ind.

Yes, “Parks” mostly takes place in an office, but this office is set up differently from the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin — and that’s not a reference to the furniture, but the web of palpable personal relationships that pervade it. The bread and butter of “The Office” is the clashing of signature personalities, whether it’s between Dwight and Andy over the love of cat-aficionado Angela, or Michael and Stanley over Michael’s stupidity. But the dynamic of “Parks” differs: Being a part of the Parks and Recreation Department is a joke, and everyone understands that except Leslie. So instead of one-on-one duels, we see four-, five- or six-against-one melees. And while that sounds slightly cruel in nature, it definitely generates laughs.

There’s a fraternal bond between those surrounding Leslie; they all act like they care, humor her a bit and then when she jollily turns the corner, they drop what they’re doing and resume something of actual importance. For instance, the colleague Leslie proclaims her right-hand man Tom (played brilliantly by Aziz Ansari, “Observe and Report”) is charged with writing down Leslie’s most memorable quotes on command so they can be included in her not-yet-written memoirs.

Yet, when asked, Tom doesn’t actually write down anything Leslie says. He merely scribbles on a piece of paper to appease her. Similarly, the hunk at the workplace who Leslie thinks she’s in a relationship with wants little to do with her. There’s also the always-angered boss and the always-bored college intern, who, despite their differences, share a powerful disdain for the forever-cheery Leslie. So all that’s new.

Still, that pesky feel of “The Office” never quite goes away during “Parks,” reminding us that while the show is no clone, it certainly isn’t a beacon of originality. That’s probably OK, though, and it almost doesn’t matter; “Parks” is pretty much assured to get relatively high ratings. Its placement within NBC’s Thursday night comedic juggernaut lineup — which includes “My Name is Earl” and “30 Rock” as well as “The Office” — gives it a boost most television shows would kill for. So for the time being, the soul searching can go on hold, even though it seems “Parks” is already on its way to making a name for itself. At least as much as it possibly can within its restraints.

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