You really should be watching NBC's Parks and Recreation.

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Dec. 2 2009 9:33 AM

You Really Should Be Watching Parks and Recreation

How the NBC sitcom found its voice. Plus: its mustachioed secret weapon.

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The A-plot of "The Camel" can be read as something of a Season 2 mission statement. Leslie and her team are asked to submit a mural design to City Hall. (Pawnee, Indiana's retrograde murals are a fantastic recurring gag, depicting bucktoothed Chinese railroad workers, slaughtered Native Americans, and the odd fistfight between a reverend and a widow.) The characters present their ideas, each less viable than the last. (The clerk Donna's rendition of the Last Supper with Greg Kinnear as Jesus is a standout.) Mark quickly dashes off an image of an elderly man feeding pigeons—trite, but a guaranteed winner thanks to its bland comforts. Ultimately, Leslie submits a collage of all of their ideas, a loony, jumbled objet that's more Rauschenberg than Rockwell. It's the choice that reflects the team's quirks, even if it doesn't stand a chance of acceptance. Like Leslie, Parks and Recreation's writers seem to have decided to ride their zaniest whims rather than tamp them down for something more readily recognizable as a hit sitcom.

Which brings us to Parks and Recreation's secret weapon, a secondary character less heralded than Aziz Ansari's Tom but just as vital to the show's improvement (and heightened absurdist streak): Ron Swanson. Played by Nick Offerman, Ron is the head of the parks department, and he looks like he's held the post at least since Reagan was president: His blow-dried bouffant, bushy moustache, and wide-lapelled sport coats evoke an accident lawyer from '80s bus ads.

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If Leslie represents unbridled hope, Ron represents the bridle—he's an eternally scowling, eternally sighing libertarian who believes "all government is a waste of taxpayer money" and who fancies himself a wrench in the cogs of change. Early on in the series, we glimpse a game of online Scrabble open on his computer. Unlike his Office-family forebears Michael Scott and David Brent, Ron doesn't try to hide his laziness or unpleasantness beneath bad jokes and feigned capability; he regards laziness and unpleasantness as political statements.

Throughout the series, Ron has regularly stolen his scenes, and this season the writers have taken notice, working him more centrally into scripts. Offerman, whose decade-long résumé consists mostly of obscure TV walk-ons, has a gift for understated physical comedy. Even beyond the episode where Ron is paralyzed by a hernia, Offerman keeps his stocky frame wax-figure stiff, typically clutching a coffee mug at mid-chest. His eyebrows, curling and twisting incredulously, seem to be responsible for 90 percent of his movement, and his face regularly contorts into a grimace of deep disgust, as though someone has just told him what Rocky Mountain oysters are after feeding him a plateful. The clincher is Ron's voice. Unexpectedly mellifluous, it has a slight, Owen Wilson-ish drawl about it—it's a purr drained of patience, a molasses flood of apathy.

In the "Practice Date" episode, the Ron revelation is a blindside: He moonlights, it turns out, as a smooth-jazz saxophonist named Duke Silver, who has released several CDs with titles like Memories of Now, and whom we see tooting a straight-from-the-chiropodist's-office rendition of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is." In the segment, Ron is revealed as the last thing we'd expect: a closet ham and sensualist. "It's been a real gift making sonic love to you," he tells his shrieking audience of moms. This side of him is developed when Ron reunites in another episode with one of his two ex-wives, and he's revealed to be a slave to her sexual prowess: "It's like doing peyote and sneezing slowly for six hours," he tells a very uncomfortable Leslie.

Clinching Parks and Recreation's underdog bona fides is that, while more people are cheerleading for the sitcom than ever, fewer have been watching with each week. If the show doesn't eventually find viewers (as its neighbor 30 Rock managed to do after its second season), and NBC pulls the plug, it will be a familiar bummer: a great show that died young. If that day comes, here's hoping for a Duke Silver spinoff.

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.

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