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Go Big or Go Home: An Advance Review of Season Three of Parks and Recreation

Last season, NBC's Parks and Recreation exploded into a bona fide comedy hit, a critical darling that had transformed itself from being in the shadow of The Office to outperforming it in terms of heart, humor, and brains on a weekly basis.

It took the series, created by Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, a few episodes in the first season to find its footing but it came right out of the gate at the beginning of its sophomore season, with its tone, sense of humor, and characters just right.

Over the course of the twenty-odd installments of Season Two, Parks and Recreation quickly established itself as the go-to workplace comedy, the sort of mockumentary show that had expanded upon its initial premise to become a series that combined the awkwardness of romantic life in Pawnee with the eccentricities of the Parks Department workers and the cockeyed optimism of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), whose can-do spirit were often at odds with, well, reality.

Despite the critical success of the series in its second year, NBC opted not to return the show to the schedule in the fall, despite shooting six episodes immediately after wrapping last season in order to accommodate Poehler's pregnancy. Fans and critics wondered aloud just when NBC would bring back Parks and Recreation, why this winning show had been put on the shelf for this long, and why only 16 episodes had been ordered for this season.

The long wait is, at least, finally over: Parks and Recreation's third season launches on Thursday evening and, based upon the seven (yes, seven!) episodes I've seen so far, the grueling delay has been worth it. When we last saw the Parks Department bureaucrats last May, the Pawnee government had been shut down amid massive budget mismanagement, thanks to the arrival of "black hats" Ben (Adam Scott) and Chris (Rob Lowe).

With Leslie and the others cast out into the cold, things seemed particularly bleak for the future of the Parks Department. When we rejoin them at the start of the first episode ("Go Big or Go Home"), the news reaches each of them in turn that the government has been reopened and they can return to their jobs. It's a canny beginning that that plays to both the narrative decision as well as to the audience's own anticipation at the return of Parks and Rec, as the characters happily discover, as Leslie gleefully says, "We're back!"

And they are back in fine form. These first seven episodes comprise a mini-arc for the season that's keyed to the launch and execution of Leslie's Parks Department-saving scheme, the Harvest Festival. With the budget and future of the department on the line, Leslie comes up with a plot that will either save the department's budget or destroy it altogether. With the season consisting of 16 episodes, this arc provides a strong throughline for the first half of the season, enabling Leslie and the others to embark on a mission that forces each of them to work towards a common goal. (The "go big or go home" mentality that Leslie espouses would seem to apply towards the series' writers as well.)

Which isn't to say that this is the only storyline unfolding in these episodes, because it isn't. In the hands of showrunners Daniels and Schur--and the uber-talented staff of writers assembled underneath them--Season Three of Parks and Rec has a host of compelling sub-plots, both romantic and professional, as well as episodic plots that build towards the overarching storyline.

And I want to commend both Scott and Lowe for their delightful performances here as Ben and Chris, respectively. Both fit quite nicely into the world of Pawnee, and their outsider status gives them free reign to enter into conflict with Leslie and the others. Their good cop/bad cop shtick never feels tired and Ben's grumpiness and irritability are slowly erased as we learn more about his backstory as the 18-year-old mayor of a Minnesota town and see just how ill-at-ease he is in the public eye. (He gets a chance to shine in the fifth episode, "Media Blitz." Two words: Ice Town.)

The romance arc between Lowe's Chris and Rashida Jones' Ann began last season in earnest and we see that storyline develop over the course of the first six episodes before coming to a head in "Indianapolis" in a very unexpected twist. Along the way, we're treated to a side of Ann that we haven't seen before: one that's uncomfortable, awkward, and doesn't have the upper-hand in the relationship for a chance. Paired with the indefatigable Chris, Ann is forever struggling to keep up with the seemingly perfect Chris, a nice about-face from her relationship with the far-from-perfect Andy (Chris Pratt) in Season One or the seeming equality between her and Mark (Paul Schneider) last season.

Additionally, there's a fantastic chemistry between Ben and Leslie as well, one that doesn't blossom into a physical relationship within these episodes. The two are clearly set up as romantic leads within the context of this season but the writers are playing things close to the vest with these two, not pushing them together immediately, but making it clear that Ben and Leslie are made for one another. Ben's nerdiness (look for near-constant Star Wars references) and dour expression and Leslie's eternal verve might not scream "match made in heaven," but these two are clearly being positioned as the next romantic coupling on the series.

Romance is definitely in the air in Pawnee. Look for the complicated relationship between Andy and April (Aubrey Plaza) to get even more complicated following her return from Venezuela with a new boyfriend in tow and for April's vendetta against Ann to get even more overt. (The second episode, "The Flu," has several fantastic scenes between Plaza and Jones in the hospital, where April is recuperating from the flu. Thrown bedclothes, accusations of attempted murder, and rude behavior seem to be de rigeur.)

Meanwhile, the return of Tammy (Megan Mullally) poses a number of problems for Ron Swanson (the fantastic Nick Offerman) in the hysterical "Ron and Tammy II," which sees the warring divorced couples hit some mightily impressive new lows as their demon courtship/war continues apace. Providing a painfully funny bookend with last season's "Ron and Tammy," this installment sees Ron Swanson go completely off the rails bonkers and demonstrates the awesome power evil ex-wife Tammy Swanson has over him. Plus, seeing real-life married couple Mullally and Offerman sparring (and, um, other things) adds a nice sheen of uncomfortableness to the brutal comedy unfolding here.

Elsewhere, we're given further glimpses of the hidden talents of Jerry (Jim O'Heir); Tom (Aziz Ansari) attempts to finally get his cologne, Tommy Fresh, off the ground when he engineers a chance encounter with fragrance guru Dennis Feinstein; Ron unveils his "Swanson Pyramid of Greatness" when he and Andy are drafted to coach youth basketball; the feud between Leslie and Pawnee Today host Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) continues; a Twilight-obsessed man (guest star Will Forte) chains himself to a pipe in Leslie's office as an act of protest (in "Time Capsule"); and the Harvest Festival seems like it might happen, if the gang can pull off a major coup, but there's a certain curse that might derail the festival altogether. All this, plus Li'l Sebastian! (You'll see just who that is--and the awesome corn maze!--in Episode Seven, "Harvest Festival.")

One of the joys of the third season is seeing just how seriously the writers have constructed the world of Pawnee and rendered it in a three dimensional fashion. In-jokes crop up all the time, as do callbacks to earlier seasons, familiar faces--such recurring characters as Joan, Wendy Haverford (Jama Williamson), Tammy Swanson (Mullally), Shauna Malwae-Tweep (Alison Becker)--continue to reprise their roles, and the same disgruntled townspeople show up to the open forums, all of which goes a long way to establishing Pawnee as a living, breathing entity in its own right.

Ultimately, these first seven episodes are outstanding, once again positioning Parks and Recreation as one of the most deft and sly comedies on television today, offering a winning mix of romance, humor, and the comedy of the awkward that this series does so well. With only 16 installments this season, I'd say to best enjoy the magic of Parks and Rec you might need to save these episodes on your DVR and watch them repeatedly in order to catch each little nuance and every little second of comedy that permeate these insanely brilliant gems.

As for me, I'm going to try to keep Pawnee alive as long as possible. If I were constructing my own time capsule (as the people of Pawnee do in the third episode), these first seven episodes prove that Parks and Recreation has more than earned its spot in there.

Season Three of Parks and Recreation launches Thursday evening at 9:30 pm ET/PT on NBC.


Byron said…
"...transformed itself from being in the shadow of The Office to outperforming it in terms of heart, humor, and brains on a weekly basis." Could not agree more! I think it's ridiculous that they held back Parks & Rec for midseason but, from your review, it seems that it will be well worth the wait!

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