Parks & Recreation returns tonight at 9:30pm Eastern on NBC.
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS ONLY MINOR SPOILERS
2010 was an incredible year for televised comedy. Louie, Archer, and Childrens Hospital burst onto the scene fully formed. Community and 30 Rock hit their strides (in the case of the latter, append the words "again, after last season's slump"). Party Down and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! called it quits but stuck the landing. Futurama returned, and it wasn't that bad!
Something didn't feel quite right over at NBC, though. Rather than bring back Parks & Recreation in the early part of the fall season, they instead slotted in Outsourced, a show that boggled many critics minds for its offensiveness as well as its curious success and subsequent renewal. Parks & Rec would return in January, they promised. To table a growing hit just as it was hitting its stride creatively felt like a painfully out-of-touch decision on NBC's part. Todd VanDerWerff and I had lunch a few months ago in New York, and he posited a theory he'd read online: Outsourced was a sort-of Producers-type show, set up to fail; once it did, NBC would be free to slot P&R in the post-Office position it deserves without offending anyone from Community or 30 Rock. P&R, it seemed, was The Office's obvious successor.
Well, hardy dee har har, because Outsourced has done just fine ratings-wise—to say nothing of its quality, which having seen only parts of episodes, I can only speculate on. Thus, Parks & Rec returns tonight, joining a carbo-loaded three hours of Thursday night comedy that also includes that c'mon-how-can-this-be-good show Perfect Couples (I haven't seen it, though).
NBC majorly buried the lead on this one. Having seen the next six episodes of Parks & Rec on a screener, including tonight's, I can already predict the show will appear on many Best Of TV 2011 lists. Ranked really high. It's not just that Parks & Rec is just as funny, if not funnier, than last season; it's that the show has a newfound sense of purpose and has stumbled upon a genius rubric for exploring Pawnee.
The episode kicks off a few months after the government shut down. It's time to get back to work, so we're reintroduced to all the major characters as Leslie (excitedly) gathers them up. The very first moment of the episode—Ron chopping wood, Leslie telling him it's time, him unenthusiastically muttering "Bully"—is enough to thrust me back into the world of the Pawnee parks department. Tom has found an outlet for his creepiness. Donna finds a new domain to reign over. (I kind of hope her job is a dig at Outsourced, but considering this is one of the episodes rushed into production due to Poehler's pregnancy, I doubt it.) Jerry's serenity is immediately trampled upon. Things are suddenly all right with the world, and it's great to see everyone back at the office.
If "Go Big Or Go Home" were simply a showcase for more awesome Swanson one-liners, Andy Dwyer silliness, and opportunities to make fun of Jerry—well, as my people say, dayenu. But just as the writers last season realized the pit story needed premature resolving—and promptly filled it—this season they're once again thinking of the bigger picture.
See, the parks department is back, but there's only enough money in the budget to service existing programs and even then not very well. Leslie needs money, and when her scheme involving Ann Perkins—"Ann Perkins!"—doesn't work out, she comes up with a plan to bring back the Harvest Festival. It was formerly an annual Pawnee tradition that attracted not only citizens of Pawnee and surrounding cities but also the hard work of all branches of government. The fest is a gamble: Should Leslie succeed in pulling it off, there'll be enough money in the budget to save many of the parks programs; should she fail, it's goodbye parks department. There are stakes, yes, but now, Leslie has a reason to visit different branches of governments and enlist their support. Much like the town hall episodes last season shed some light on the non-parks parts of Pawnee, the urgency of the festival means episodes will center around these other groups. One upcoming episode demonstrates how best to deal with the police; another inadvertently speaks about the media scene in Pawnee. Last season there were morsels of these jokes, like when the sanitation guy showed up at the telethon and claimed to be "knee-deep in hot snatch." The third season will capitalize on those tidbits.
Leslie's plight is an equal parts madcap and moving part of "Go Big Or Go Home." The rest of the episode wastes no time in reintroducing the supporting characters to one another. Andy has been ignored by April the entire break, and their reunion reestablishes the prevalent will-they-won't-they tone in a big way. Tom and Ron—aka Bobby Knight—go head-to-head on the basketball court (the only program Ben and Chris are allowing) when Tom's ex-wife shows up at Ron's side. There are an abundance of fun moments; the jokes feel fresher and more rambunctious than they have in a while. I don't want to give too much away, though. I was ecstatic to get the screener in the mail, and I can't wait for you all to see tonight's episode. It's really, really good.
And, oh, just you wait for the Swanson Pyramid Of Greatness.
Quotes to geek out over later SPOILERY:
- "Would you be cool doing things a prostitute does?"
- "Every time one of them calls me coach, it's a reminder that I'm their coach."
- "The real Cinderella didn't have hippo feet."
- "They fit me better, I got them with my employee discount, and the best part is… no one can tell."
- "Ann Perkins!"
- "Ew, check your testicles?"
- I'm not usually one for speeches, so… goodbye."