For Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler's relentlessly upbeat small-time politician character on "Parks and Recreation," doing good is an uphill battle – even in the flat, Midwestern confines of her beloved Pawnee, IN.
Her devotion to her fellow citizens isn't reciprocated by the town’s oddball denizens, who, last we saw seven long Knope-free weeks ago, voted her off Pawnee’s city council in a recall election.
But Knope is planning a last-ditch bid to stay in office at a similarly pivotal, if far more positive time for her creator: “Parks and Recreation” returns Thursday with its 100th episode as Poehler and Tina Fey ready for their second go around Sunday as co-hosts of the Golden Globes. So as Leslie Knope gets slung with mud, Poehler is poised to shine.
When “Parks and Recreation” premiered on NBC nearly five years ago, few would have predicted the sitcom would reach the century mark. It took a couple of seasons for the clever, but low-key show to go from an acquired taste to as much a staple of comedy fans’ TV diets as the waffles that fuel the indefatigable Knope.
Perhaps Poehler’s greatest success is making political sincerity sweet and funny at a time when public service is at low ebb on the respect scale. The show deftly recognizes, reflects and mocks the prevailing cynicism while rarely getting caught up in the muck (even if Knope finds herself making comically uncomfortable tradeoffs, like giving up her office’s private bathroom to keep a local pool open for kids).
The program’s strength comes not only from Poehler’s against-the-pessimism-grain Knope (rhymes with “hope”), but from smart writing and a great ensemble cast. Nick Offerman’s meat-loving, technology-hating, libertarian bureaucrat Ron Swanson has emerged as a meme friendly breakout character, while Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt are finding new successes outside the show. Though the impending departures of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe might, to paraphrase Lowe's over-enthusiastic, hyperbole-prone Chris Traeger, prove literally devastating to fans, we suspect the show will soldier on beyond this sixth season.
Poehler’s roots at the improv-driven Upright Citizens Brigade and “Saturday Night Live” have served her well in team comedy. She enjoys great chemistry with Fey, her former “Weekend Update” partner, though they face a steep challenge in topping a Golden Globes debut that became the awards-hosting highlight of 2013.
Their humor proved pointed but not mean spirited ("Meryl Streep is not here tonight," Poehler said. "She has the flu – and I hear she's amazing in it!"), and stood out as both a worthy follow-up and counterpoint to the hilarious barb barrages unleashed during the 2010-2012 Globes by pretention-puncturer Ricky Gervais. Poehler and Fey’s performance last year spurred talk of taking their hosting act to the Oscars, but they seem happy to be attached to the lower-profile Globes until at least next year – much like Leslie Knope is tied to Pawnee, even if the hometown crowd doesn’t always love her back.
As Poehler prepares for a potentially golden week, revisit her and Fey’s Golden Globes monologue from last year:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.