Over the past month or so, TV writers have been working to hip America to an apparently little-known fact: NBC's Thursday-night sitcom lineup does not, as one may have thought, kick off at 9 p.m. ET with The Office only to end an hour later with 30 Rock's closing credits. Several critics have encouraged us to check in at 8 p.m., when the daffy new Community airs, followed by Parks and Recreation, currently in its second season after debuting last spring as a six-episode, midseason replacement. The ghosts of Rachel Green and Cosmo Kramer have been drafted to the cause: "NBC's Thursday comedy block," the Los Angeles Times declared, "has matured into a lineup almost as formidable as that of its 1990s heyday."
Going by the ratings, Parks and Recreation is Thursday's weak link, limping behind the pack. According to Nielsen, the average second-season Parks and Recreation episode (as of mid-November) has drawn 5.3 million viewers, compared with current-season averages of 6.5 million for Community, 7.3 million for 30 Rock, and 10.1 million for The Office. In the world of meager TV ratings, the line separating a loser from an underdog can be blurry, but with its second season, Parks and Recreation has vaulted definitively into the latter category. Contributors to Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and New York are among those who have rallied on behalf of the show, which has gone from an erratically funny nonevent to astonishingly good.
What went right? In its initial run, Parks and Recreation seemed familiar not only because it shared its mockumentary style, mirthful take on pencil pushers, and co-creators, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, with The Office. Though the writing could be sharp and the premise of a delusional parks-department official was appealing, there was something dispiritingly traditional about the show's hamster-on-a-treadmill rhythm: Each episode wound up more or less the same way, with the humiliation of Amy Poehler's quixotic, adorably doofy bureaucrat, Leslie Knope, as she fought local red tape in her campaign to turn a neighborhood pit into a park. Daniels and Schur have said that in conceiving the show they were inspired by The Wireto mine the failure of local government—for laughs, that is, rather than despair. But in a comedic context, there were diminishing returns to tuning in each week only to see Leslie's hopes crushed anew by the forces of institutional inertia.
The show's backburners weren't much to get excited about, either. There was a tedious story line about the parasitic relationship between a nurse named Ann (Rashida Jones) and her freeloading, shut-in boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt). There was a dudish city planner and unrequited crush of Leslie's named Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), whose presence served mostly to add predictable romantic pratfalls to Leslie's professional fumbles. The brightest spot was Aziz Ansari as Leslie's subordinate Tom Haverford. In Ansari's hands, Tom came wickedly alive as a faux player: currying favor with mulch contractors, shamelessly and ineffectually hitting on female constituents, office-casual resplendent in the pink polo shirts of a dandyish frat boy.
Over the second season, though, the show has almost entirely shelved the pit-to-park campaign, Leslie has become less of a punching bag (or, rather, a more multifaceted one), and Ann has dumped Andy. These shifts in plotting have freed up the writers to make better use of the ensemble cast, where charm runs deep into the bench: Who knew that Jerry, a pencil-pushing piece of Season 1 furniture, would blossom into a hilariously tragic office Eeyore? The season truly hit its stride with the fourth episode, "Practice Date," in which the characters dug up dirt on one another in an office background-check game—a funny, economical way to bring them more vividly to life. Tom, we learned, is in a sham marriage, hitched to a Canadian hottie not because of his Casanova talents but because she needed a green card. The revelation at once punctured his slimy façade and deepened our sympathies for him.
Unburdened by the pit plot, the show's writers have also taken aim at targets beyond an ineffectual City Hall: a hypocritical beauty pageant here (a turkey shoot no less enjoyable for its familiarity), hysteria over gay marriage there (as provoked by a pair of homosexual zoo penguins). And the writers have been making ever more frequent detours into an inspired absurdity that tugs against and tweaks the show's bureaucratic backdrop. In "The Camel," Leslie's boss was brought to the verge of orgasm (and beyond?) by a good shoeshine; in "The Hunting Trip," we watched as Tom and several others convinced themselves they were being stalked by the Predator.