If you checked out season one of Parks and Recreation, there’s a good chance you didn’t tune in to season two. The first season was nothing more than a sporadically funny, pallid imitation of The Office, but all that changed when Parks and Recreation stormed back in its second season to become a truly solid sitcom in NBC’s mostly solid Thursday-night lineup. The trend continues: The first six episodes of the show’s third season display some of the sharpest writing and possibly the best ensemble acting of any sitcom currently on the air.
In season two, the writers tweaked the central character of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) by making her less of a clueless rube and more of an optimistic workaholic, a character with a pathological commitment to her job as deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana. This season, the writers have taken her even further away from the cliché of the incompetent boss—currently being flogged to death by The Office. Leslie is now both realer and more amusing, the humor of her character stemming from the fact that she’s good in a profession that no one, including her boss and her subordinates, seems to care too much about. As it turns out, Poehler, known for big caricatures on Saturday Night Live and in movies like Mean Girls and Baby Mama, makes a very good straight woman.
The remaining cast members are all consistently excellent, including Aziz Ansari, who alternates, often in seconds, between egotistical bravado and crushingly low self-esteem as the motor-mouthed nerd who runs his life according to Maxim magazine, and Aubrey Plaza, who takes deadpan line delivery to soaring heights as the apathetic administrative assistant. But the funniest creation on Parks and Recreation is Nick Offerman’s department head Ron Swanson, an anti-government bureaucrat with the greatest television moustache since Thomas Magnum (he would also have the greatest deadpan delivery on television if not for Plaza). His relationship with Andy (Chris Pratt), the lovelorn shoeshine boy, is the new season’s best plotline.
Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) two state auditors sent to Pawnee to monitor the state’s funds, were both introduced in last season’s finale. Scott fits in perfectly as a nervous accountant with a near-invisible crush on Leslie, but Lowe is too shticky and mannered as a type-A metrosexual. Unlike his costars, he seems to be trying way too hard to be funny. He’s also paired with the show’s weakest character, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). Jones is a good actress, and, like the rest of the cast, she manages to find the right balance between naturalism and absurdity, but since she’s not part of the Parks and Recreation office, the writers are constantly forced to find ways to insert her into the storyline. In the second episode, a flu epidemic that sweeps through Pawnee feels like a gimmick just to get the characters into the hospital where Ann works. Forced plotlines like these are simply unnecessary on a show with one of the best casts on television.