"Parks and Recreation," which has quietly become one of my favorite TV comedies thanks to its brilliant combination of hilarity and heart, returns tonight (8:30 p.m. CST on NBC) for a much-belated Season 3 premiere. The shaky Season 1 of "Parks" ran only six episodes, but anybody who gave Season 2 a chance witnessed one of TV's most amazing turnarounds, as the odd but lovable ensemble came together around star Amy Poehler.
Poehler plays Leslie Knope, deputy director of Parks and Recreation in little Pawnee, Ind. Leslie was a bit of a pathetic figure in Season 1, but Season 2 revealed her to be a paragon of inner strength and single-minded dedication to Pawnee parks. While struggling to achieve her passion project, turning a big hole into a park, Leslie has weathered all kinds of storms, personal but mostly public, including the budget crisis that shut down the town last season.
What's a public servant to do? As the series returns, Leslie challenges her colleagues to put on a Harvest Festival that will either save the town or put it out of its misery. The first six episodes of the year -- shot at the end of last season to accommodate Poehler's pregnancy -- are devoted to the festival, with plenty of time for every character to shine.
Favorites? They're all favorites by now. I'm especially fond of Nick Offerman as Ron "Bleeping" Swanson, the stolid parks director with TV's most awesome mustache. Where "Parks and Recreation" goes right when other shows might go wrong is in making Ron not just a lazy blowhard but also a savvy guy whose loyalty to Leslie is unshakeable. Not one "Parks" player, from spectacularly self-absorbed Tom (Aziz Ansari), who never met a scheme he wouldn't embrace, to sarcastic slacker April (Aubrey Plaza) is two dimensional; each is a unique, fully developed character.
I've seen the first six episodes of the new season, and they couldn't be funnier. In fact, I'll watch them again, and they'll be even funnier, because "Parks and Recreation" is the kind of intelligent, witty, multi-layered show that demands a second viewing for full appreciation. Please, join me.
Tonight, by the way, is the night NBC expands its Thursday comedy lineup to three hours: "Community," "Perfect Couples" (I'm lukewarm on that one), "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock" and "Outsourced." Conventional wisdom is that viewers want an hourlong show at 9 p.m., but with NBC trying to put its struggles behind it, I don't see why this might not work. Enjoy.