After Arrested Development and Veronica Mars and Pushing Daisies, there were a few months there where I wasn’t watching some wonderful show with the knowledge in the back of my head that I wouldn’t get as many episodes as I wanted. My TV watching was pretty much divided between the safe but not tired veterans (The Office; 30 Rock; How I Met Your Mother); the equally safe ultra-veterans (Saturday Night Live; The Simpsons); and shows that I didn’t care that much about in the scheme of things anyway (I still haven’t watched the last two or three episodes ever of The Sarah Connor Chronicles — though I maintain that the show’s two seasons tell a cooler story than Terminator 3 or Terminator 4).
Then Parks and Recreation and Dollhouse had to go and get good.
In truth, the upswing for both shows happened during their respective first seasons, last spring. In fact, I wasn’t bashing either show even in their earliest, shakiest days. For both, the disappointment seemed a matter of expectations: Park was an amusing little show in the vein of The Office that seemed like it could’ve been better given the level of talent in front of and behind the camera. Dollhouse is a Joss Whedon Experience, and his previous three shows have such vehement cult followings, some people seemed downright angry that his new one was merely entertaining and sort of cool, rather than something to cry over and make retarded Livejournal icons about. Still, there was no disputing that both shows came up a little short of their potential at first.
By the end of their first seasons, though, both Parks and Dollhouse appeared to reach some sort of creative epiphany. The Parks season finale, “Rock Show,” in which the Pawnee Parks Department goes out to see Andy (Chris Pratt) and his band (name constantly in flux), showed the ensemble really coming together, and delivered some of the show’s biggest laughs. Dollhouse did sort of kick into gear, as its creators kept promising, with its mid-season episode “Man on the Street,” with Patton Oswalt as a mourning client interrogated by crusading FBI agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), but saved its best for even later, as the last two aired episodes of the season cooked with tension and humor and trippy sci-fi ideas, and the DVD-premiere postscript, “Epitaph One,” set a bunch of years in the future, was easily one of the best hours of sci-fi on TV this year. Both shows got the nod for a second year despite their middling-to-poor ratings.
Parks and Recreation won a reprieve based, I think, largely on the goodwill toward its Office-staff creators, and the way its abbreviated but quality-ascendant first season brought to mind that show’s own shaky but promising beginnings. Quality-wise, Parks and Recreation has paid off: its first four episodes have been pretty much excellent, including “The Stakeout,” which supplanted “Rock Show” to become the show’s best so far.
Like The Office, Parks gets a lot of mileage out of the interactions between a group of people who don’t all necessarily love each other, but have to work together — eschewing the workplace-as-family model of the traditional sitcom by emphasizing the characters’ lives outside of our frame of view. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope has become more than a lady-fied Michael Scott clone; her cluelessness and spazziness have meshed perfectly with her idealism, making her deeply likable even in her haplessness, and an ideal vehicle for Poehler’s performing style, which tends to go a little bigger, and sometimes warmer, than Steve Carell’s brilliant symphonies of needy discomfort.
Just as key, though, is the dependability of the rest of the ensemble; like The Office, Parks has gotten to the point where a subplot with just about any of the main characters feels worthwhile. The courtship of Ann (Rashida Jones) and Mark (Paul Schneider) isn’t as involving as Jim and Pam, but just as Jim-and-Pam stories have successfully avoided sitcom formulas dictating that will-they-or-won’t-they must transformer into break-up-make-up-forever, Ann-and-Mark stories have successfully avoided the Jim-and-Pam model of sweet, awkward crushing; the whole thing feels unusually grounded and adult. Jones is actually in the Jim role, while Schneider plays someone more akin to his role in the excellent film All the Real Girls — the small-town smoothie who just kinda glides by (OK, I guess there’s a touch of Jim here, too, but Mark feels more like slightly damaged goods). Bonus points for Nick Offerman, who is pretty much brilliant as the unsmiling, government-hating boss Ron Swanson; and, on the opposite end of the power scale, Aubrey Plaza as the disaffected intern April. I haven’t even mentioned Chris Pratt or Aziz Ansari or recent guest star Louis C.K.; basically, I love every character on this show now.
I won’t go so far as to say Parks is exactly the equal of its sister show. It’s still only aired ten episodes, and there’s no telling if it will have the consistency of The Office. And it’s not note-perfect: the mock-documentary conceit is still a little distracting, if only because The Office so owns this format, and calls attention to it when necessary, while Parks seems to use it more as a crutch for occasional to-the-camera takes and monologues. It feels more like a habit than a necessity. But I laugh out loud pretty much every time I watch a new Parks, which I can’t say for many shows, even some I like, and sometimes I find myself laughing not just as jokes, but how perfectly realized some of these characterizations have become.
Dollhouse hasn’t been quite able to match the fascinating “Epitaph One,” at least not so far, but its second-season premiere, like Parks, gave us a show that looks to be, in the parlance of its creepy dolls, its best, at least in terms of what was established in the first thirteen episodes. Subsequent, more seemingly stand-alone episodes, without the Claire Saunders character played so well by Amy Acker (she’s only slated for a few appearances this season), have slipped down to the level of the second half of season one, which is to say, an appropriately creepy, intriguing sci-fi show that, unlike Whedon’s (admittedly, overall superior) previous projects, don’t expect you to go all lovey-dovey for the characters. The combination of semi-blank slates and potentially immoral handlers that keeps the show at arm’s length for a lot of would-be followers is actually what I admire about it. I love Lost but occasionally resent the way the show mistakes my interest in its story-oriented sci-fi trippiness for deep and abiding love for, say, Sun and Jin, and their feelings. Dollhouse isn’t yet as mythology-heavy as a lot of its closest relatives (and that’s fine, too), but even at its most episodic, it’s a big-picture type of show. We’ll see if the end result turns out to be something Whedon should’ve just made into a movie, but for now I’m enjoying the show’s murky, mordant take on the Whedon style.
One problem, though: the ratings for both of these shows have been pretty sucky. Parks is consistently the lowest-rated of NBC’s Thursday comedy block o’ quality, the two solid hours of worthwhile shows that they somehow couldn’t ever produce throughout the entire nineties when people were actually watching NBC (wait, was there a time when Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, and Newsradio all aired on Thursday? If so, then maybe that was almost comparable, although I always felt Frasier, as good as its actors were, was weirdly overrated). Dollhouse is consistently the lowest-rated of pretty much all of network television, especially if you don’t count The CW, or even maybe if you do, because more people have been watching The Vampire Diaries.
I’m hoping Parks can coast by on the new NBC model where it’s considered worth producing good shows that people like, even if those people only number in the five or six millions (it would also help if Parks cracked the five-million mark more often), and/or out of fear of upsetting the Office creators. I fear Dollhouse may be a lost cause, which kinda sucks; like Pushing Daisies, it’s hard for me to imagine this show settling in for seven or eight seasons of twenty episodes apiece — but also like Daisies, given the new, more flexible model of TV series, I can easily see a more limited run (say, five or six thirteen-episode seasons) working out just fine. But unless cable starts getting interested, I’m guessing that won’t happen. At least Fox has pledged their dedication to airing all thirteen Season Two episodes, even as hopes for a Season Three look slim.
So despite the niches and the downloading and streaming and DVD sales, I find myself issuing a very old-model plea: Check out Parks and Recreation (tonight at 8:30!). Check out Dollhouse (tomorrow at 9!). They’re good now, and they should be allowed to keep going.