A few weeks back, when NBC announced a mid-season schedule that placed "Parks and Recreation" on Thursdays at 9:30 after "The Office," I wrote that it was a wise decision because out of all the comedies on the network's schedule, "Parks and Rec" is the one that's the closest spiritual match to "The Office," and the one with the best chance of succeeding that show should the ratings dip post-Steve Carell.

At the time, I mentioned that I had seen a few of this season's new episodes, and that they were terrific. Well, now NBC has sent the season's first six episodes - the ones that were shot last spring, before Amy Poehler went on maternity leave, back when everyone assumed the show would be on the fall schedule - to critics, and I can say that they're terrific, as strong a six-episode stretch as the show had at any point in its fantastic second season. I'll have a much longer review close to the January 20 premiere date, but to whet your appetites, after the jump I'll have a few random observations about these six, as spoiler-minimal as I can be while actually saying things (but if you want to know nothing about storylines/guests/etc., don't click through):

First, the episodes continue the budget crisis story arc that began when Adam Scott and Rob Lowe's characters came to town at the end of last season. Leslie comes up with a scheme to get the parks department its budget back, and most of the episodes deal with that in some way. It's not "The Wire" or anything - you can watch any of these episodes at random and understand what's going on, get the jokes, etc. - but if you you watch them all, there's a definite sense of forward momentum, and a sense of purpose for both the characters and the show. Leslie and the staff seem energized by the crisis, just as the writers clearly were by having to keep writing at a time when they would normally be enjoying some R&R during the hiatus between seasons.

Second, there is much Ron Effing Swanson awesomeness, including him embracing his inner Bobby Knight as coach to a local youth basketball team, Ron mentoring Andy, and Ron having another encounter with ex-wife Tammy. (The Megan Mullally Tammy, not the other ex-wife Tammy whom we have yet to meet.) And in one episode, Ron and Leslie take a road trip to Indianappolis, where Ron wants to take Leslie to his favorite place on earth: a steakhouse.

Third, Scott and Lowe continue to fit in, superbly. We know from "Party Down" and elsewhere that Scott can be both funny and a great straight man, and he has ample opportunity to do both. (He spends a couple of episodes doing nothing but being flustered, and he plays that quite well.) The revelation is Lowe. Like I said in that post a few weeks back, Lowe has graduated from Handsome Yet Funny (where you grade him on a curve because you don't expect someone who looks like that to be amusing) to (like Jon Hamm) Handsome And Funny. What's particularly nice is that his character finally gives Rashida Jones the opportunity to be consistently amusing herself, when she spent the first couple of seasons either playing Poehler's straight woman or being off in a dull relationship with Brendanawicz.

Fourth, the continued presence of the new guys doesn't get in the way of the returning characters. There's still a lot for Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt to do - Ansari with Natalie Morales as Tom's new girlfriend, Plaza and Pratt with each other as Andy tries to win April back - and Donna and Jerry didn't seem any more marginalized here than they were last year.

Fifth, in addition to the return of Mullally, Poehler's old "SNL" co-star Will Forte turns up for an episode - scheduled to air third but filmed sixth because the plot provided the best opportunity to consistently hide Poehler's belly - that is loaded with "Twilight" references, yet funny to me as a "Twilight"-averse human being. Hey, if they really want to stay on the air and get ratings commensurate with their quality, sometimes they have to pander - and they do so very entertainingly.

And sixth, I still cannot stop singing "Jabba the Hut" as I watch the opening credits. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

They're really very good. You'll be in for a treat when January 20 comes.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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