The belated third season premiere of TV's best comedy, "Parks and Recreation" (Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC) opens with Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope facing a huge challenge. The government of Pawnee, Indiana has been shut down for months due to a budget crisis, and when she's finally allowed to return to work, it's without enough money to do anything. So Leslie, who never met a "no" she couldn't turn into at least an "I'll think about it," brings the parks department together and suggests a "go big or go home" project: one that will either save the department or cost everyone their job. And under ridiculous pressure and tight deadlines, Leslie and company begin doing some of their most impressive work ever.

That storyline plays out as a metaphor for how the early part of this season was made. When Poehler became pregnant again last winter - and when everyone assumed "Parks and Rec" would be back on the air in the fall - the cast and crew agreed to stay in production after the second season had wrapped, making enough episodes to air during the period when Poehler would be on maternity leave. (Click here for my interview with Poehler, which is worth it just for her explanation of how she knows Adam Scott.)

There's a reason TV shows don't usually make more than 22 episodes in a season (24 at most), and that's because the process of making a weekly TV show is so all-consuming that most of the people involved turn into zombies by the end of each year. And that often shows in some of the episodes you see late in a network season. But while everyone's friends from "The Office" or "30 Rock" or "Modern Family" were off recharging their mental batteries, everyone at "Parks and Rec" was still hard at work, trying to tap into their reserves long enough to create six more episodes of television.

And that challenge seems to have brought the cast and crew together in the same way that Leslie's project sends the parks department to a new level, because those six episodes represent perhaps the strongest, funniest, most purely entertaining stretch the show has had so far. And considering how terrific most of season two was (after the show had a brief, underwhelming debut season), that's kind of remarkable(*).

(*) It's not unprecedented, though. Sometimes, inspiration and perspiration just work well together. Some of the best things I wrote in college were produced at 4 in the morning, and I often got more compliments for Star-Ledger stories turned around on a tight deadline than for things I slaved over for days or weeks.

Poehler is still doing her leading-lady-as-Swiss-Army-knife thing, insane one week and straight woman the next, flowing beautifully with her co-stars. And Nick Offerman is still playing TV's funniest, most purely awesome character in Leslie's nominal boss, Ron Swanson, a mustachioed man's man who works as a civil servant because he hates government. (He also hates, as it turns out, fish, which he insists "is practically a vegetable.") In the season premiere, Ron gets to embrace his inner Bobby Knight while coaching a kid's basketball team, and it's just as silly and inspiring as you'd expect.

But by now, everyone in the ensemble has become a go-to player: Aziz Ansari's Tom for his exuberant selfishness, Chris Pratt's Andy for his childlike enthusiasm and knowledge base, Aubrey Plaza's April for her carefully-maintained armor of sarcasm, and even Rashida Jones as Leslie's best friend Ann. In seasons past, Jones mainly played straight woman (and called it "a privilege" to do so when I visited the show's set last week), but as Ann winds up in a relationship with Rob Lowe as state budget troubleshooter Chris, she turns out to be as much of a comic gem as the rest of them.

Lowe turned up at the end of last season, along with Adam Scott from "Party Down" as Ben, the sidekick who always has to play bad cop to Chris' ultra-positive good cop. Scott is, like Poehler, tremendously versatile, mainly setting up his co-stars for the season's first few episodes before owning a later showcase episode about Ben's past as a teenage town mayor. But Lowe is, remarkably, almost as good. It's not that he's never been funny in the past, as he's done a lot of good work in and around the "SNL" universe. But there was often a sense that he was Rob Lowe Funny - that he got bonus points for being able to deliver a joke while looking that good. Here, no such points are required, as the writers have created a character in Chris who fits him like a designer suit - every joke is about how perfect he is (and never in a bad way) - and Lowe feels as important and funny as everyone else. (He has a scene in next week's episode that's so painfully funny I forgave him on the spot for leaving "The West Wing" to do "Lyon's Den" and "Dr. Vegas.")

And what makes these episodes feel extra-special is the sense of purpose to them. There's a big story being told here - not one that requires you to watch every episode (though your funny bone will thank you if you do), but one that seems to raise the stakes for everyone involved, and which makes the jokes funnier, the characters richer, in the process.

And the seventh episode, produced after everyone got back to work in the fall, feels very much of a piece with the six that came before. So it's not like some spell was broken when everybody finally took a vacation while Poehler had her baby.

NBC has finally, wisely, decided to air "Parks and Rec" immediately after "The Office." Its creators, Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, came from "The Office" (as did Jones), and the two shows share both a mockumentary aesthetic and an overall style. It's not an "Office" spin-off, nor is it the "Office" clone it struggled not to be in the first season, but it's a show that does all the things "The Office" did so spectacularly back when we all first fell for "The Office."

And with any luck, Leslie's gambit and NBC's scheduling decision will pay off in the same way, and allow these talented, funny, exceedingly likable people to keep doing what they do best for many years to come.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com