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.
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.
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.