18. Parks and Recreation: Season 3 (2011)

It’s Got: The Harvest Festival, the first full season of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, Little Sebastian.

Am I crazy, or was Parks and Recreation this big cultural reference point despite having perpetually tiny ratings? Every kind of small town government issue was compared to Parks, everyone knows who Ron Swanson is, everyone was saying “LIT-ERALLY,” Chris Pratt is a huge star now but everyone fondly remembers him as the schlubby guy from P&R. Yet if you went by the ratings, no one watched the show. A little annoying when the show had to just barely survive year to year, but we got seven great seasons out of it so I guess it doesn’t matter. Anyway.

The third season of P&R has just about the same level of consistency as something like 30 Rock Season 7, but it’s an even bigger accomplishment in some ways. For one, it famously had a wacky production schedule. Amy Poehler’s pregnancy near the end of Season 2 would have meant a really long hiatus before Season 3 could start filming. So after they finished shooting the 24th and final episode of S2, they went straight into making the first six episodes of Season 3, then came back and did ten more later. Not only is there no sign of creative fatigue in those six episodes, they’re actually substantially BETTER than the already really strong previous season. That’s amazing.

Second, unlike with 30 Rock, I have genuine affection for every one of these characters. It’s said that comedy requires conflict, but Parks and Recreation often flies in the face of that. Entire episodes posit that humour can come simply from showing friends having fun together. There can be a subplot about Andy and Ron going out to lunch and discovering that they like each other more than they thought they would, and it’s as funny as any “edgy” comedy on TV.

As for how Season 3 specifically stands out from the rest of the show, this season retooled things by writing out a character who was dead weight and bringing in two more people who felt like they ought to have been there all along. When Mark Brandanawicz left Pawnee, he took an uninteresting love triangle with him, leaving other characters to move onto better things. In his place, Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt became the perfect straight man and Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger became one of the funniest, most instantly likeable people on TV. These two were on the show for years, but I go back to Season 3 and their introduction still feels like a breath of fresh air, that’s how great they are.

In the end, it mostly comes down to consistency. Sixteen episodes, not a dud in there. It’s confident, it’s really funny, and and you’ll find yourself liking the characters as more than just punchline spouters.

If I Had to Nitpick…: Same selfish complaint as 30 Rock Season 7, season is only 16 episodes. But the show wrapped at Christmas in 2010, and then the P&R people were idle for the first half of 2011. Why didn’t NBC give them another half dozen episodes?

Notable Episodes: “Ron and Tammy Part II,” which let Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally off the leash, “Harvest Festival,” the culmination of Leslie’s latest biggest project ever, “Soulmates” which had some great stuff for Aziz Ansari to do, and the Amy Poehler scripted episode “The Fight.”

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