I love Community. I think there are few half hours better each week than the half hour I spend with the gang over at Modern Family. Party Down and its bleak workplace humor leave me on the floor. Curb Your Enthusiasm had one of its best ever seasons this year, while fellow cable shows The United States of Tara and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia have had similar banner years. There are even a host of new, flawed comedies that I enjoy, like Glee and Cougar Town. And my old favorites - shows like The Office and 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother - still give me great pleasure. (And I haven't even mentioned a host of other shows, like Archer.) Yeah, it's a great time for TV comedy.
But to my mind, one show pretty much towers above all the rest of them. Because it's been a long, long time since a show had a season as airtight as the season Parks and Recreation is having. Honestly, it may be since the heyday of Arrested Development. I don't know that there's been a dud episode this season, and the show, which famously started out pretty weakly, has really figured out its voice and where it wants to go both now and in the future. Even better, it's started growing and expanding the world of Pawnee, Indiana, over the course of the season. The show is simply clicking on just about every level at this point, and it's giving itself a tough act to live up to in season three.
It's also ridiculously lowly rated, largely thanks to the fact that, well, people sampled it last spring, thought it was lacking, and didn't come back. I don't blame them. I might have given up, too, if I weren't someone who had a fascination with the way strained shows find their voices and if I didn't have so much trust in Greg Daniels and Michael Schur to figure out the voice of this show. Now, when you're running a critically acclaimed comedy that has low ratings, and you need a shot in the arm, what do you do? You bring on a guest star who's willing to do the show, indulge in a little stunt-casting. To Parks and Recreation's credit, it hasn't done anything like bring in Lindsay Lohan out of nowhere (the big star last week was Detlef Schrempf), but I kept waiting for Bob Newhart to show up or something, the better to call back to one of the show's most obvious forebears.
Enter Rob Lowe. I don't think that the show thinks of Rob Lowe as the kind of guest star that will save the series, since he's, sure, a household name, but not exactly the sort of person who inspires fervent followings. (I mean, check out this Rob Lowe fan site I found by Googling. Not very exciting, huh?) From the breathless promos for this episode, though, you'd think Lowe was some sort of televised second coming. And, yeah, he's very funny in this episode, as a bright, chipper government official, who clouds the dark truth in chirpy phrases, followed by his right-hand man, Ben, who has to carry out the dirty work. I particularly liked the way Lowe pointed at everyone to remember their names and the way he rattled off the names of all of the vitamins he took.
If anyone came to watch Lowe, I hope they realized that surrounding him was a truly incredible comedic ensemble. There have been complaints this season that Rashida Jones just isn't funny, but I'd like to think she proved those complainers wrong this evening with her very funny portrayal of drunk Ann, trying to get her tongue around the straw in her glass. Aziz Ansari's ecstatically happy face - as he made when he got the bartender to go out with him - is one of the greatest things in history, and, of course, you have Nick Offerman's obvious glee when Ron Swanson realizes that the city budget is getting slashed. (The face he makes when he hears Pawnee's government is going to be shut down may be the greatest thing on TV all season. I would have paused the TV, I was laughing so hard, but it would have been frozen on that face, and I would have laughed even harder.) But even when you get past these comedic heavyweights, you have Chris Pratt expressing his love for a girl he calls "November" in song or being unable to do simple math or Aubrey Plaza somehow playing the one note of romantic longing in so, so many ways. (And the April and Andy plot has quietly turned into one of the more moving romances on TV, even as it plays a lot of the same notes Daniels hit with Jim and Pam, yet somehow plays them in different ways.)
But none of this would work without Amy Poehler at the center of the show. The most obvious improvements to the series this season - next to the way that the show has expanded the town of Pawnee - have come from how the show has written her character and wisely ditched much of the romantic longing she felt for Paul Schneider's character (who is the "weak link," if the ensemble has one, but still gets lots of funny stuff to do). Tonight, she met her match in Adam Scott, whom I feared would simply make me think constantly of his work on Party Down and, instead, played a character very similar to the one he plays there but also very different. Scott's talent for being a very funny straight man is right up there with Jason Bateman's, and I'm glad he's in the cast of this show, even if it means one of my other favorite shows will likely not go on. (Favorite bit: His revelation that he was elected as mayor of Partridge, Minnesota, at the age of 18, then ran the town into the ground and was impeached.)
I don't know if Parks and Recreation will ever be anything more than an acquired taste for plenty of people, but for those of us who've keyed into its very specific sense of place and its terrific way with character-based humor, there's really nothing else like it on the air. As much as I like the "50 jokes a minute" style of comedies like Community or 30 Rock (both of which have done very fine things with their characters, mind), I'm a sucker for a show where the characters are as well-wrought and as purely funny as they are on this show. Maybe not even Rob Lowe can save Parks and Recreation. But, God, I hope he does.
- Of course, that bartender was one of my very favorite sweetly funny comic actresses of the last few years, Natalie Morales, who was so great as Wendy on The Middleman, then ended up largely misused on White Collar. Here's hoping she sticks around Pawnee for a while.
- "I'll give you a clue. It's named after a month out of the year." "So … April?" "No. That woulda been way better."
- "We count backwards from 1,000 by sevens, and we think of warm brownies."
- "What exactly will you be cutting and how much of it and can I watch you do it while eating Pork Cracklins?"
- "He said that because it probably sounds better than 'We're going to gut it with a machete.'"
- "What's a not gay way to ask him to go camping with me?"
- "Leslie, that was so professional. I'm so proud of you."
- "So it's not Jerry."
- "You may hold my fate in your hands like a small bird, but I still think you're an ass."
- "You had 47 drinks last night? Ten cosmos, eight Smirnoff Ices and everything else starts with the word pomegranate. Aw. Was it your bachelorette party?"
- "I'm sorry. I just started hearing really loud circus music in my head. What did you say?"