That Championship Season: Parks and Recreation, Season Three

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The Bob Newhart Show never won an Emmy. In fact, the seminal sitcom was almost a non-presence at the annual awards ceremony meant to identify and honor the best of the best of broadcast television. Across six seasons, The Bob Newhart Show earned a mere four nominations, and one of those was in the category of “Outstanding Film Editing in a Comedy Series.” It’s easy to attribute that to the series built around a certain button-down mind existing at the same as some of the most important, groundbreaking sitcoms in the history of television, such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H, but the year after the sole Outstanding Comedy Series nomination for The Bob Newhart Show, one of the shows that replaced it in the line-up was Three’s Company. I’m convinced that forty years from now the similar lack of awards love for Parks and Recreation will be viewed as equally egregious.

Though Parks and Recreation never won a single Emmy, Amy Poehler was at least a mainstay in the Outstanding Lead Actress in Comedy Series category, as it should have been. As Leslie Knope, the most dedicated municipal employee imaginable, Poehler built an indelible character, and one fairly unique for television. A flawed first season found creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels mistakenly locking the show into the same groove that they etched with their work on The Office, including hobbling Leslie with a strain of eager incompetence. They learned, though, and probably drew from the famously forceful capability of their star in making alterations to the character. Leslie emerged as chipper and capable, occasionally prone to rash certainty in her interactions with others, but generous and insightful. Most sitcoms would then resort to making Leslie the straight woman reacting to the mayhem around her, piling quirky traits onto the supporting characters. One of the small revolutions of Parks and Recreation is the way it allows Leslie to perform effectively in her job and yet still be funny, the necessary conflicts for pointed comedy growing out the character’s strident fortitude rather than pitiful bumbling.

While the series grew significantly stronger in its sophomore year, the following season is when it completely locked in and hit its peak. Schur, a joyful apostle of Cheers, demonstrated a willingness to bring some pliability to the series, likely informed by the successful transitions the Boston barroom sitcom made over the years. The groundwork was laid at the end of the second season, with the departure of city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) and arrival of a pair of state auditors (Rob Lowe and Adam Scott) whose mandate number-crunching threatens the entire department. Not only were the dynamics different, they felt settled and fully correct for the first time in the run of the series, especially as the writers quickly determined how to write to the two new cast members’ talents, handing Lowe the hyper-alert, otherworldly positivity of Chris Traeger and investing Scott’s Ben Wyatt with layers of uniquely endearing pathos that incorporated darker humor in a natural way.

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The Parks and Recreation team managed to launch the third season with something as important as the continued viability of the very setting of the series at stake. They also wisely found a mission that extended beyond the usual will-they-or-they-won’t-they romantic plot that has been the most common through line for series ever since Schur’s beloved Cheers formulated that particular steel storytelling mold. To prove the value of the parks department, Leslie and her cohorts revive the Harvest Festival, a bygone tradition in their quaint Indiana town of Pawnee. Nearly half the season is touched by preparations for the event, and it gives the writers a solid base to keep returning to, effectively serving as a safeguard from going too far afield, as was the case with something like the disastrously cartoonish season two episode “Sister City.” Parks and Recreation always had room for outright silliness, but it was at its strongest when it was committed to the reality of its setting, when it mirrored the modesty of its Midwestern small town.

parks harvest

There is another way that season three rejected the sitcom trope of romantic pining beset by complicating setbacks, and it is representative of the humane quality that is arguably the greatest strengths of the series. While there’s an allowance that love is not arrived at easily, the show continually presents relationships that are thoughtful, healthy, and mutually giving, particularly when the onscreen chemistry between actors is such that any forced separation would play as a cheap contrivance. It was already a splendid epiphany to intertwine the lives of Chris Pratt’s puppyish Andy Dwyer and Aubrey Plaza’s April Ludgate. In season three, the creators take the relationship completely seriously without undercutting the characters’ individuality or forcing them to mature before taking major next steps. Mid-season episode “Andy and April’s Fancy Party” finds the characters holding an impromptu wedding, depicted not as impetuous foolishness (though that’s Leslie’s initial reaction) but a honest, accurate expression of who they are.

parks wedding

At the same time, the show draws together Leslie and Ben, another natural merging given shared propensity for pursuing passions almost compulsively. If they don’t fall together easily, it is through wholly believable reticence instead of the labored manipulations of fiction. In another rarity, the show also acknowledges the very real challenge of a romance that has its genesis in a workplace. Artfully developed across the whole season, Leslie and Ben’s relationship grows and shifts in subtle ways until their togetherness feels inevitable. There’s tremendous patience on display, which only cements the eventual soundness of the pairing.

In general, Parks and Recreation operates with affection as its fuel. There is a place for mockery, to be certain, but the prevailing tone is one of appreciation. The small town foibles, the nagging needs and worries of the characters, the sometimes clumsy quest for a bit of contentment are fodder for comedy, though not subject to derision. By season three, Pawnee was beginning to develop a rich inner pulse that rivaled that of Springfield in the first decade of The Simpsons, when consistency of place still mattered. Pawnee was not a place of random weirdos, populating town meetings indiscriminately. Instead, it had an internal watchworks that operated with consistency, allowing for the grand tinkering of episodic fiction. Nothing was purely throwaway. An undersized horse named Li’l Sebastian could be introduced to serve as an example of the way cities create their own icons, the stirring appeal forever elusive to outsiders, but then brought back later as a plot detail with surprising poignancy.

Everything that contributed to the enduring facility of Parks and Recreation came into its full fruition during the third season. That combined with the freshness of a show early enough in its run that it hadn’t yet exhausted its own possibilities — there were only so many times Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) could launch a new entrepreneurial venture or Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) could prove to care more than he initially let on — led to the series playing at its highest level (thought the following season, grounded in Leslie’s run for city council, comes admirably close to this pinnacle). Even Emmy voters were impressed, giving the series its first nomination as Outstanding Comedy Series. It lost, of course, one of many felled by Modern Family during its largely undeserved streak of five straight wins in the category. Just as I’m guessing most believe The Bob Newhart Show must have cleaned up on awards night at some point or another during its run, I’d like to think a similar misconception will arise for future viewers of episodes from the third season of Parks and Recreation. In the ever self-congratulatory entertainment industry, something this good had to inspire a trophy changing hands at some point or another, right?

parks sebastian


An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two

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