"Parks and Recreation" is back for its third season (finally!). Yesterday, I offered both an interview with star Amy Poehler and a general review of the seven episodes I've seen. Now I have some specific thoughts on the season premiere, coming up just as soon as I have one of those shirts that looks wet all the time...
"Go Big or Go Home" had to accomplish a lot in around 22 minutes of air time. It had to get both potential new viewers and old ones who haven't seen the show in a while up to speed on the budget crisis storyline, on the various couples (Ann/Chris), triangles (April/Andy/Ann) and quadrangles (Ron/Wendy/Tom/Lucy), and on the world of Pawnee. It had to set up the season's big story arc with Leslie's plan for the Harvest Festival.
And most importantly - particularly given the potentially much bigger audience it got tonight thanks to the new timeslot - it had to be funny.
And I think the episode checked off all the boxes with relative ease. It was a smart, assured, funny reminder of just how well this show was clicking when it went off the air last spring (which is when these first few episodes were made).
I'm a sucker for a good gathering-of-the-team sequence, and I thought this was a beaut, quickly and easily conveying Leslie's unbridled, dorky enthusiasm (also well-captured by her "Breaks over, mofos!" yell a few scenes later), Ron's combination of rugged manliness and apathy, Tom's horndog con man qualities and, of course, everyone's lack of appreciation for the many talents of Jerry. (Leslie hurling his painting into the lake - like she was doing him a favor - was the first of many big laughs this one provided.) We were reminded just how simple Andy is with him leaving his 200th unreturned message with April ("If you're trying to tell me something, I do not know what it is because you will not call me back"), Chris and Ben's roles as good cop/bad cop, etc. All nice and simple, with a lot of jokes peppered throughout the opening moments.
And then... and then we got Ron Effing Swanson putting on the Bobby Knight sweater to coach a kids basketball team and introduce the world to the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. I'll leave it to the internet to dissect the various items and the levels on which they were placed (one of my favorites: "Facial hair: if you have to sculpt it, that probably means you can't grow it"), but the idea alone was wonderful. And they took the Knight gag to its natural conclusion by having Ron get so mad at Tom (who was not only acting out of jealousy but clearly knew nothing about the game and was only reffing because he still had the Foot Locker uniform) that he threw a chair across the court, Knight-style. Perfection.
But Ron being both awesome and hilarious is something that Nick Offerman and these writers (in this case, Alan Yang) can do in their sleep by now. What impressed me most about "Go Big or Go Home" was the work it did with Ann and Chris.
Rashida Jones makes a splendid straight woman. We saw that on "The Office," we've seen it on this show, in "I Love You, Man," etc. (Part of what makes her so effective in "The Social Network" is how her calmness contrasts with all the film's tightly-wound characters.) And last year the show made a mistake (one of its few that season) in putting Ann into a relationship with Mark, the other token straight man. (Good idea for a real couple, boring for a sitcom.) But we've also seen glimpses that she can be quite funny when called upon, like in last year's episode where Ann took Leslie on the practice date from hell. And being around Rob Lowe's Chris has brought out the comedic best in Jones, from her dead-on Lowe impression to her reaction when Leslie first revealed that the date had been a scam and then tried to blame it all on her.
Beyond that, the scene where Chris explains the childhood origins of his relentlessly positive attitude to Ann was just marvelous. Simple, sweet, sincerely played by Lowe and Jones, and something that gives the writers license to make Chris as ridiculous as they want him to be - say, for instance, him weeping at Leslie's speech about the Harvest Festival - because the behavior is always going to be grounded in that story. (Similarly, anytime Chris' positivity seems so extreme that you wonder why Ann isn't scared off, you'll be able to think on her reaction in that moment.)
Beyond that, we got a heavy dose of "Parks and Rec" continuity, but in a way that I can't imagine was off-putting for the newcomers. Leslie takes the gang to The Bulge, which is funny whether or not you've seen the season two premiere (and she summarizes that for Ben, just in case), we discover that April went to Venezuela (a callback to "Sister City"), Ben again mentions his history as a teenage mayor, etc.
A very fine start to the strong run you're about to see the show go on, and I haven't even made mention of Tom's specific foul calls ("Foul on Number Three for Taking a Number Two on Number Four") or Andy's coaching style, or Leslie and Ann's debate about sexy foods.
What did everybody else think?
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