REASON TO WATCH: Return of one of TV's brightest comedies.
WHEN/WHERE: Third-season premiere Thursday night at 9:30 on NBC/4
The bad economy has hammered Pawnee and specifically the Parks and Rec department, and even more specifically, its fearless leader, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). She nearly gets fired after a pair of bean counters roll into town. Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) isn't quite as ruthless as libertarian-and-darned-proud-of-it Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the head of Parks and Rec, but he still wants to cut a lot of fat. His partner from the audit department, Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), is just worried about getting in his daily 10-mile run.
WHAT TONIGHT'S ABOUT The government shutdown has finally ended, which is great because Leslie needs to get "out on the street planting trees and cracking skulls." There's hardly money enough for one tree, so improvisation is called upon. A basketball program is restarted - but there will be only two teams. Chris hits on Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), who is surprised to learn she actually likes him. Andy (Chris Pratt) is wondering why Ron's secretary and his newly beloved, lemon-sour April (Aubrey Plaza) isn't returning his texts - hundreds of 'em.
MY SAY Check your local listings, and you will see six NBC sitcoms lined up Thursday like a stack of jets on a runway at LaGuardia. Six! That's not quite unprecedented, but it certainly is remarkable. Which of these six (pray tell) is the hook that this brave new strategy hangs upon? "Parks and Recreation." Strange, no? An original "P&R" hasn't been on the air since May 20, and it didn't even earn a full-season order. But there it is, nestled between two of the most celebrated comedies on TV ("The Office" at 9 and the freshly relocated "30 Rock" at 10).
BOTTOM LINE Critics love this show and for a very good reason: It's lovable. The cast is phenomenal, the writing inventive and genuinely funny, and you could pick just about any character - Andy or Ann, or Ron or Tom (Aziz Ansari) and almost mistake them for the show lead instead of Poehler. But still not quite in the same league as the show that precedes or the one that follows.