On the third season of Parks and Recreation, NBC's hilarious yet ratings-starved ode to small-town civil service, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and the rest of the gang at the title department decide to revive the Harvest Festival, a town fair that could attract a lot of attention — and revenue. Wooing of sponsors, calling in of favors, and a promotional tour of the local media all follow. The town of Pawnee is, you'll recall, bankrupt, and if P&R doesn't raise the money for its budget, the state auditors are apt to shut it down.
This scenario actually parallels Parks and Rec's current predicament. After a low-rated — and creatively uneven — first season, the show found its identity in season two. Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, who had worked together on The Office, figured out how to write Leslie, who enjoys her job (she's good at it as well) and also enjoys helping others. The writers further discovered they had a fantastic ensemble, and they brought that to the fore, sparking breakthrough performances from Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman.
The first six new episodes (which begin this Thursday at 9 pm) build off this creative momentum. Somehow, the cast continues to grow — late last season, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott were added as budget experts — yet the writers manage to find something funny for everyone to do in each episode. The first episode gives us the glorious sight of Ron Swanson (Offerman as the carnivorous, libertarian, mustachio'd department director) coaching youth basketball in a Bobby Knight–esque sweater and teaching the kids how to live according to his "Ron Swanson Pyramid, whose tenets include "fishing (for sport only)" and "right to property." In another episode, Ron is paired with Andy (Pratt), a guileless yet well-meaning shoeshinist and musician, as the two bond over burritos and the Indianapolis Colts. Andy's trying to get back into the good graces of Ron's assistant April (the spectacularly deadpan Aubrey Plaza); the tension between the two is genuinely sweet. Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) has to deal with the fact that his ex-wife is now dating Ron. We learn more — in cringeworthy fashion — about Ben (Scott), who was elected mayor of his home town at age 18 and has spent the subsequent years trying to prove that he's capable of financial responsibility. And Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) gets involved in an amusing romance with Chris (Lowe), who's perpetually cheerful, breezily confident, and obsessed with his health. (Chris's bout with the flu in the second episode is inspired.)
Mostly, though, it's just good to see everyone back. The first six episodes of the third season of Parks and Rec (NBC sent them all to critics) were produced immediately following the conclusion of the second season, the producers hoping to get in as much work as possible before Poehler's maternity leave. NBC chose to hold these episodes till mid season and then, adding insult to injury, replaced the show with the decidedly less entertaining Outsourced. Parks and Rec gets to return to a fairly cushy time slot — Thursday nights right after The Office, which we can expect to receive a ratings boost from Steve Carell's farewell tour. So will the Harvest Festival project pay off for the department and the show? I'm optimistic.