A review of tonight's "Parks and Recreation" - which got renewed earlier today - coming up just as soon as I'm asked to leave a pizza buffet...

"We all just behave rationally and believe we're in control of our own destinies. Come on!" -Leslie

I had two separate concerns in the early going of "Harvest Festival." The first is that this was the first episode actually written and produced as part of season 3, whereas the previous 6 episodes were all done right after season 2 back when everyone thought they'd need the episodes to cover for Amy Poehler's maternity leave. The show was on such a hot streak at the end of season 2, and those first 6 episodes had such a consistent sense of purpose and energy to them, that I feared that something might have gotten lost in the long hiatus in between "Indianapolis" and this episode.

The second is something I talked about in my review of season two's "Christmas Scandal," which is that in the original conception of the series, Leslie Knope was the only person who treated the government of Pawnee as if it had stakes as high as Washington, DC. So an episode like "Christmas Scandal" in which the entire town - and its media in particular - all began to behave the same way rang false to me. And as Joan Callamezzo, Perd Hapley and company began freaking out about curses and Li'l Sebastian and whatnot, I worried that it wasn't going to work.

Instead, "Harvest Festival" may be my favorite episode of the season to date - for a variety of reasons, I've watched it at least 5 times so far, and actually laugh more each time - and the one that finally made me see that the show has successfully made the rest of Pawnee seem as believably crazy as Leslie, if not moreso.

Shows evolve, after all, and we saw just how much "Parks and Rec" evolved from season 1 to season 2. Leslie became a saner, more human character in that evolution, while at the same time the town around her has gradually become a wacky character in and of itself(*). We see those town hall meetings and the lunatics they attract. We hear the phone calls to Joan's show. We know that Tom somehow thinks it's possible to become the next Diddy from the confines of Pawnee, that the town hosts an allegedly celebrated perfume designer in Dennis Feinstein, etc. Lots of people in Pawnee have demonstrated unrealistic senses of scale and importance when it comes to what happens in their town, and it's an idea that the show has gradually built up. Because of the size of the Harvest Festival and the stakes involved for our regular characters, this episode feels like the perfect culmination of how the town has been built in this way. Of course everyone would go crazy about the idea of the curse, and the iconic little horse, and everything else, and of course they would deal with those issues as ridiculously as they do everything else.

(*) It helps that the show was co-created by Greg Daniels, who was there in the early days of both "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," which each built up impressively-detailed fictional communities with a deep bench of reliable bit players. On the TCA set visit back in January, I asked Daniels if he had intended to turn Pawnee into a live-action Springfield, and he said that wasn't by design, but that one thing he had learned on those shows was the value in having all these familiar faces you could turn to for a quick joke or to drive a story forward.

In many ways, the news media's over-reaction to the curse reminded me of one of my all-time favorite "Simpsons" episodes, "Homer Badman" (written by Greg Daniels, in fact), in which Homer became target of a media witch hunt after being accused of sexually harassing his babysitter. Our cultural idiom has changed quite a lot in the last 14 years - where Homer's tale was twisted into a bad TV-movie starring Dennis Franz, Leslie's conversation with Ken Hotate(**) instead became one of this silent animated recreations. And I loved the way Perd Hapley declared, "The statement that this reporter has is a question," because these days questions have unfortunately become less common from the judgmental likes of Perd.

(**) Ken Hotate was played by Jonathan Joss, who voiced John Redcorn for years on "King of the Hill." The show had a lot of fun with him, giving him arguably the episode's best line - "There are two things I know about white people: they love Matchbox 20, and they are terrified of curses" - and then the goofy business with his curse-busting ceremonies. Given how much the show loves to reference Pawnee's unfortunate Indian history ("The atrocities are in blue") and the idea that Ken runs the local casino, I imagine we'll be seeing him again.

But beyond the return of Perd and Joan Callamezzo and the general zaniness of Pawnee and its media, what I loved about "Harvest Festival" was how well it serviced the entire cast (save Rob Lowe, who's back next week), the town and the various tones of the series.

The running gag with Li'l Sebastian(***) was priceless. As I said in this morning's preview post, go back and watch the opening scene again and just focus on Aziz Ansari and, particularly, Nick Offerman. Ron's giddy, unapologetic squeal at the sight of that little horse is something amazing to behold, and another fine example of how the show has ever so slightly tilted its conception of Pawnee. There are certain circumstances under which Ron will act like a Justin Bieber fangirl, and there are things about this town that an outsider like Ben will just never get. (Adam Scott does some of the best reaction shots in the business, and he had a whole lot to work with this week.)

(***) NBC PR delivered a masterclass in playing to a sympathetic press with that January set visit. On the bus ride over to the studio, they screened "Harvest Festival," and as the critics arrived outside the soundstage, who was there to greet them - and pose for photos - but Li'l Sebastian himself? Like many, I couldn't resist getting a souvenir of my encounter with Pawnee's greatest citizen.

Meanwhile, April and Andy as a couple pays immediate dividends, as April has to come to the terms that she's dating Andy - with all that entails. So where a less childlike boyfriend would return her "I love you" in kind, Andy will throw her a "Dude, shut up! That is awesome sauce!" - and not even realize that he should perhaps have stated the "I love you" subtext beneath the sauce that is awesome. And the April/Andy tension and the escape of Li'l Sebastian led to that marvelous scene on the ferris wheel where a frustrated Ron has to play everyone's dad, all but threatening to turn the wheel around if April, Andy, Jerry and Tom don't all shut up and apologize to each other.

Though Chris was absent this week, his subtle break-up with Ann continued to provide some great material for Rashida Jones, as Ann went into a pathetic, horrifying shame spiral (loved how Retta played Donna's stunned reaction to Ann's monologue). It says something about the place the character is in right now where making out with Pawnee's answer to The Situation is a good thing for her, you know?

And Leslie and Ben - who are thisdarnedclose to being a couple already, with their goofy secret handshakes and whatnot - get their big win. Leslie outmaneuvers the media and the curse, Ron rescues Li'l Sebastian from the maze, and the Festival goes off beautifully (and gets the soaring guitar of Tom Petty's "American Girl" to let us know just how awesome-sauce it is). Given the stakes attached, it was pretty clearly going to work out - I doubt the series would have a long-term creative life if Tom was back at Lady Foot Locker, Donna was selling rubber nipples, etc., etc. - but it was still gratifying for these characters, and this plucky underdog show, to see just how well it ultimately went.  

Hell of an episode, and based on what I've seen of upcoming shows, the hiatus didn't derail the creative momentum one bit. What a perfect day for the renewal news to come in on.

Some other thoughts:

• In addition to the running gag about Pawnee's history of atrocities, I'm always a sucker for jokes about the town's obesity. ("There's a lot of people who don't consider salad a food.")

• Great stuff from Mo Collins, as always, as Joan, here with her being grudgingly impressed that Leslie got Larry Bird's Aunt Tilda, then her joining in the collective (and, in her case, profane with bleeping) insanity over Li'l Sebastian.

• I don't know if anyone's ever referred to the two characters in this order before tonight, but this is the first time I realized the show had a duo called Tom and Jerry.

• "Parks and Rec" drinking game: drink every time someone makes a reference to Ann being beautiful. It'll at least give you a pleasant buzz each week.

• The show doesn't have the budget to build an actual harvest festival, so the show trucked up to Pierce College, which holds an annual event with a corn maze and the rest.

What did everybody else think?