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TV Tonight: Parks and Recreation

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What are you doing tonight? You are watching the best comedy on television, Parks and Recreation, as it finally returns to NBC after eight months off the air. (The rest of NBC’s new three-hour sitcom schedule—Comedy Night Frequently Done Right, Sometimes Not So Much, But What’re You Gonna Do—also debuts tonight.) I’ve seen the first seven episodes of the new third season, and the show, already fantastic last year, is at its peak.

After the jump, a few of the reasons that you will watch and you will like it:

* A great ensemble cast… At the end of last season, the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department was put on hiatus as the municipality dealt with a budget crisis. The first episode returns with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) getting the gang back together, in the process demonstrating the great bench the show has: wry, gruff Nick Offerman, the swaggeringly sharp Aziz Ansari, the pratfall master Chris Pratt, underrated straight woman Rashida Jones and the wonderfully deadpan Aubrey Plaza among others.

* …which has gotten even greater. Rob Lowe and Adam Scott, brought in toward the end of last season as state bureaucrats who parachuted in to cut the budget, have been seamlessly integrated into the cast. Lowe has a blast inhabiting his character—a preternaturally optimistic and cheerful health nut—while as the episodes go on, Scott’s Ben Wyatt (a washed-up former teen mayor) gains depth and even poignance in some storylines that recall his last, lamented comedy Party Down on Starz.

* Bigger laughs and higher stakes. Season 3 continues many of the running gags and personal storylines developed in the last season (the Andy-April-Ann tringle, for instance, as well as more wacky subplots like Ron’s dysfunctional relationship with his evil-librarian ex-wife Tammy, played by Offerman’s real-life spouse Megan Mullally). But the season also makes sharp use of a single story arc: to restore a sense of purpose to the parks department, Tammy proposes reviving an old Pawnee tradition, the Harvest Festival; if the event fails, the department is kaput. The running story not only helps propel the individual episodes, it plays off an idea that makes P&R touching as well as hilarious: in a very cynical time, it’s about the idea that public servants actually believe they can work to make their community a better place to live in.

* A fully realized world. By the show’s third season, Pawnee has become one of the most richly drawn fictional towns in a sitcom since Springfield on The Simpsons. It has a history (illustrated with the disturbing civic murals of pioneer-day milestones), an economy (dominated by players like the beloved/sinister Sweetums candy company) and a complete political and media ecology. In the season’s fifth episode, possibly the show’s best ever, Leslie and Ben promote the upcoming Harvest Festival by making the rounds of local media, including a local TV morning show (introduced last season) and a morning-zoo drivetime radio show, hosted by Pawnee celebs “Crazy Ira and The Douche.” Over time, Pawnee itself has become a character in the show, and it keeps expanding.

* It’s got a big heart. The knock on P&R in its first season (and among some people even later) was that, with its mockumentary film style, it was simply a knockoff of The Office. But even more so than that NBC comedy—which combines a romantic streak with cringe humor—P&R has developed its own sweet nature. You would expect a sitcom about government bureaucracy to be cynical and satirical; instead, it’s personal (Andy and April are the new Pam and Jim) and suprisingly idealistic. The wheels of government don’t turn smoothly in Pawnee, but for all its absurdity, the show has the basic mindset that the people involved—the parks bureaucrats and even the people who get in their way—are essentially decent and well-intentioned. (The one running insult joke—the serial mocking of Jerry, played by Jim O’Heir—is funny precisely because its so out of proportion to his gentle, easygoing nature.)

* It’s funny. Actually funny. Parks and Recreation is not one of those “challenging” cult TV shows that critics like me try to persuade you to watch because “it’s so exquisitely uncomfortable.” It is a half-hour of reliable, funny entertainment that will give you actual, unironic pleasure. It will leave you feeling better than you did before you started watching it. Parks and Recreation’s ratings could be better, but if you haven’t watched it (or gave up on it at some point), you won’t be doing anyone a favor by watching it tonight—except for yourself.