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After a rocky start, “˜Parks and Recreation’ is now the happiest show on TV

Amy Poehler (center) stars as idealistic government employee Leslie Knope in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” The show’s third season ends on Thursday.

By Alex Goodman

May 15, 2011 11:30 p.m.

Before “Parks and Recreation” caps its third season with a double episode on Thursday, leaving us to wallow in the inter-season gloom, let’s take a few moments to appreciate what should someday retire to the pantheon of classic sitcoms.

When it began, it was a terrible show, no doubt. The heavy borrowing from “The Office” was blatant, from the mockumentary style to the incompetent boss to the presence of Rashida Jones. It takes a lot to get people excited about the employees of the Pawnee, Ind., parks department, and a lot was missing.

Worst of all, “Parks and Recreation” seemed to hate its own characters, especially Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, the Hillary Clinton-worshipping idealist at the show’s center. All the jokes doubled as insults, attacking a delusional public servant who had the nerve to think her job was important.

But then season two started, and something radical happened: The show grew a heart, and a big one at that. Leslie returned as an honorable crusader for the people, endlessly frustrated by the red tape that held back real progress. She was still delusional, but in the most lovable way possible.

All around her, the supporting cast bloomed as well. The pathetic, unemployed musician Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) found a job and an infectious, child-like enthusiasm. April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), the eternally dour intern, turned out to have actual feelings. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the Libertarian uber-man, revealed a soft spot for his co-workers.

And just like that, “Parks and Recreation” became the happiest show on television.

True, consistent joy is hard to find in fiction, which, as a rule, is built on tension ““ if everyone’s doing great, the plot has no impetus. So of course the parks department encounters all sorts of problems, and every week the individual characters have their own crises to deal with.

But rarely does a group of people address their issues with such boundless optimism, such obvious affection for one another. And when times are good on the show, there’s a lot more glee than “Glee” ever has.

Even more surprisingly, “Parks and Recreation” celebrates solid, old-fashioned capability ““ and in government, no less. Far from the obnoxious caricature she was in the first season, Leslie is now a downright inspirational figure who fights for reasonable solutions and concrete results. She stands out starkly in a television landscape where talent must always be hyperbolized, where every detective boasts skills that are unbelievable, if not supernatural.

Leslie gained the perfect companion in competence at the end of season two, when Adam Scott joined the show with Rob Lowe as Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, a pair of state auditors. For fans of the tragically canceled “Party Down,” there is no greater treat than to see Adam Scott back on the screen, playing what must be the most boring and awkward character you’ve ever found, irresistibly endearing.

The most subtle brilliance of “Parks and Recreation,” though, is the town of Pawnee. The greatest stories unfold in places that are novel enough to remain entertaining but drawn specifically enough to seem totally real.

Over three seasons, viewers have learned a lot about this sad little town in Indiana, so every week we know where we’re going. It has the fourth-highest obesity rating in the country. There are horribly racist murals all over city hall. There’s a candy factory, the Snakehole Lounge and a bunch of rich snobs in the neighboring town of Eagleton.

No one would actually want to live in Pawnee, where the roller coasters need extra-wide seats to accommodate the enormous children. But the show has created such a vivid picture of the place, you almost feel like you live there already, for a half hour every week.

So we can reminisce about the time the parks department threw a hugely successful Harvest Festival, or the time the gang went camping, or the time everyone came down with the flu. Because ultimately Pawnee, and “Parks and Recreation,” is about the people, and this is the most adorable group of characters on TV right now.

If you dream of attending the Harvest Festival, email Goodman at [email protected].

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