This a review of the first six episodes of Parks & Recreation’s third season, written right after the premiere of “Indianapolis”. It covers all the episodes leading up to “Harvest Festival”.
When Parks and Recreation first aired in 2009 it was little more than a clone of The Office. It used the same mockumentary filming style and contained many of the same characteristics to the series. But just as in season two of The Office when the American version broke away from the British counterpart its based on, so did Parks And Recreation in season two brake away from The Office. In what seems like no time the show went from the weak link in NBC’s comedy lineup to easily the highlight. Season three, which began late in January, has continued this trend with being one of the most reliably funny show of the night. While Community overshadows it in ambition, The Office in ratings, or 30 Rock in awards, it remains the most consistently comical series on NBC (I’m not even going to mention Perfect Couples or, worse, Outsourced). No matter what episode, the series remains hysterical and fully entertaining.
This is in part to having what is the best ensemble currently in a sitcom (possibly only rivaled by Community). Leslie Knope stopped being a clone of Michael Scott and became her own fully developed character, greatly in help by the performance of Amy Poehler who manages to make Leslie slight off kilter and silly, yet inherently smart. Aziz Ansari manages to make Tom Haverford smooth talking and self-centered, yet brings a sense of emotion and slight tragedy, making Tom’s severe insecurities come to light while simultaneously being funny. And of course there’s Nick Offerman who’s turned Ron “Freakin’” Swanson into one of the all time greatest characters in sitcom history. In a world where effeminate, hairless, fashionable men are the poster boys for the male gender, Ron Swanson stands alone as a beacon of hope for the red blooded, chest haired, meat loving, American everyman.
All the things I’ve listed are mostly items that came to the forefront in season two, but it’s in season three that the series seems to really be hitting their ultimate stride. Season three of Parks and Recreation contains a rare situation in which the first six episodes were made directly after season two ended production. Due to the pregnancy of Amy Poehler they continued to work on the series, postponing the usual hiatus in between seasons to insure they would have enough episodes to start airing in the fall. Ironically NBC would move the show off the schedule until midseason in January, thus making the rush in production unnecessary. But all this lead to the creation of something quite special: a season that begins with the same enthusiasm and high as its end. Typically a new season takes time to wind things back up, but instead Parks and Reactions season three feels like season two in over time, and that’s a good thing.
This is in part due to the introduction of both Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, who work so seamlessly into the series it’s hard to think there ever was a time without them. From their introduction in the penultimate episode of season two, “The Master Plan”, they were an instant hit. Adam Scott does the sarcastic straight man bit in his sleep, but it’s the little nuances that make him great. Scott plays Ben Wyatt, a state auditor whose job is to cut down Pawnee’s governmental costs. At the end of the season he was portrayed as a reluctant bad guy, forced to shut down the department’s ideas. But in season three they’ve focused on integrating Ben into Pawnee life as he moves from bad guy to ally with his work helping make Leslie’s Harvest Festival plan come to life.
For the first few episodes he appears more in the background of the department than a focus, but all this is build up to what is Adam Scott’s tour de force of comedy acting in the episode “Media Blitz”. Earlier we learned that when Ben was 18 he was elected mayor in his town and accidentally ran it into bankruptcy due to an attempt to build an ice skating rink, which gave us one of the funniest headlines to ever appear in a fictional newspaper: “Ice Town Costs Ice Clown His Town Crown.” In this episode Ben joins Leslie and Tom on various radio and talk shows within Pawnee, starting first at the hit radio show Crazy Ira and The Douche, a fantastic play on local morning zoo radio shows. But when asked about Ice Town Ben completely freezes (pun intended).
Scott is often cool, calm, and collected, but it’s truly a delight to see the man become a complete mess. He stutters and stammers, unable to get an actual sentence out until he’s interrupted by Pac-Man dieing sound effect, emphasizing his failure. “Was that you’re first time talking to other people? Because it came off that way. You embarrassed me in front of the douche,” yells Tom in all seriousness. But from here things only get worse when they go on Pawnee’s morning talk show “You Herd? With Perd!” which gives us Ben’s following meltdown:
“Look who hasn’t had gay thoughts! Who!? I’m fine, I’m fine, just sometimes I feel like I might need glasses. Is there a bird in here? I swear I keep seeing a bird in this studio!”
All of this is shown on videotape in the background as we watch Ben within the office forced to watch his humiliation. It’s a brilliant move to watch the subtlety of Scott’s acting in the room as he’s humiliated starring away and placing his hands over his face, and at the same time the intense insanity of Scott in the videotape as he throws his arms violently and randomly throws off his jacket as if he’s about to burst. Here’s a character that has only appeared in eight episodes yet is just as well defined and fleshed out as the regulars that have been around since season one.
The other main introduction is found in Rob Lowe’s character Chris Traeger, Ben’s optimistic boss who appears to be the ultimate human. Always optimistic and positive, Chris avoids giving bad news and always remains in peak physical condition. His habit of pointing at people before saying their full names as a hello/goodbye is the gift that keeps on giving. You can’t help but love Chris every time he warmly yells “Anne Perkins” with a point of his finger. The genius in his character comes in the explanation of his constant happiness. At a point when his routine may start appearing over done and one note, they bring in another layer by explaining Chris was born with a fatal disease. He surprised all the doctors by living far longer than the disease should allow him too and ever since he’s strived to getting the most he can out of life. From that moment on Chris is completely sold as a character. With the emotional back-story fully explaining his eccentric personality what was otherwise seen as unrealistic becomes accepted and believable.
The introduction of these two new characters not only brings fresh blood into the series, but also reenergizes the rest of the cast, most notably Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins. For most of the first and second season Ann was mostly the straightwomen to Leslie’s crazy side, rarely getting the opportunity to be the funny one. Throughout season two she was stuck in a relationship with fell straight player Mark Brendanawicz, a match that while good on paper became fairly boring to watch in action. Recognizing this the writers decided to place “normal” Ann with the far more interesting Chris. The pairing ended up becoming a great success as Chris’ perfection created opportunity to show Ann’s imperfections. Being with someone who seemingly has no flaws made Ann feel nervous and anxious, an emotion we rarely see that opens the door to Jones getting to work with an abundance of comical material, as with her Rob Lowe impression.
We also continue to get a deeper look into the world of Pawnee, Indiana, which in itself is a character. While The Office strived in its early seasons to be a fairly realistic show, Parks and Recreation has always been a different case. The show is more cartoonish in its characterization of the town and it’s citizens, taking inspiration from TV’s most defined location, The Simpsons’ Springfield. The townsfolk are typically crazy and delusional and the episode “Media Blitz” gives possibly the best citizen interaction yet as a man approaches the Parks department demanding he have a permit to put up signs to find his lost bird. Andy says he just needs to find the form to which the man yells, “THERE’S NO TIME! HE CAN FLY!” The delivery, like many people in Pawnee, is so passionate and absurd you can’t help but to break out in laughter. Here’s a group of people so out of touch with reality that they’re main way of looking up information is on AltaVista as seen in “Media Blitz”, an online search engine that was popular in the late 1990’s before Google’s rise to dominance. The show also continues to build on previous episodes with subtle references to past details we’ve learned about Pawnee such as with the news that local candy factory Sweetums is building a plus sized roller coaster for the Harvest Festival in order to please Pawnee’s many “obese thrill seekers” (a callback to the fact that Pawnee is the fourth most obese city in America).
The episode “Time Capsule” focuses heavily on the town of Pawnee showing the parks department running a public forum about what should be put into a time capsule. The meeting turns into a discussion about whether or not to put include the young adult novel Twilight into the capsule with people fighting the book should go in, it shouldn’t go in due to containing anti-Christian messages, or it shouldn’t go on because it has pro-Christian messages. Things quickly spiral out of control leading one man to insist his dead cat’s ashes be placed inside the capsule to which Leslie repeats no human or animal ashes shall be used. In response the gentleman promptly begins to start a one-man chant consisting of yelling “Except for Turnip! Except for Turnip!” During a break from the meeting Ben describes the city best by saying:
“I’ve got to say it’s kind of impressive. I’ve been to a lot of towns and usually people don’t care about anything. I mean don’t get me wrong; these people are weirdoes. But they’re weirdoes who care.”
The latest episode to air, “Indianapolis”, was the last of the episodes produced before production went on hiatus and the question will be whether the show can retain the same pace and level of quality the overtime after season two created. From here on out the rest of the season was produced at much later point once everyone was given a much-needed rest. If the remaining episodes are anything like what has come before then season three be the most successful sitcom season since, well, last season. Just like the name of Ron Swanson’s favorite Indianapolis steakhouse, Mulligan’s, Parks and Recreation received a second chance after an unremarkable first season with a near perfect second season; a trend that appears to have carried over into the show’s thus far astounding third season.