‘Parks and Recreation’ returns for fourth season

Alex Williams

Editor's note: This review contains information about unaired episodes.

Born from a network whim for a spin-off of “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” certainly got off to a rough start with a first season that forgot star Amy Poehler is not Steve Carell, and Leslie Knope is certainly no Michael Scott. Once “Parks” returned for a second season, the show quickly became a highlight of NBC’s Thursday night comedy block.

In its third season, “Parks” pulled off something very few television shows have ever done — it had an absolutely perfect season, during which each member of the wide ensemble was firing on all cylinders and each episode warranted at least one rewatch to catch the jokes you missed the first time around. It’s also with this third season that “Parks” declared its contention for best show on television. While the basic cable heavyweights continue to hold that title, the new season of “Parks,” premiering tonight on NBC, continues to display the laughs and heart that make the show so exceptional.

The premiere, “I’m Leslie Knope,” is mostly preoccupied with the fallout from last season’s cliffhangers, which range from Leslie (Amy Poehler) preparing to run for office and the normally unflappable Ron Swanson’s (Nick Offerman) reaction to the return of ex-wife Tammy (Patricia Clarkson), the first of his two ex-wives with the same name. Even as its characters deal with mostly dramatic events, the premiere feels like a reunion, a chance to catch up with a group of very comically gifted friends you haven’t seen all summer.

Much of the draw of “Parks and Recreation” is based in its flawless ensemble cast, and there aren’t enough adjectives for “funny” in any thesaurus to describe just how hilarious this group of people is. From Chris Pratt’s puppy-dog enthusiasm (and equivalent intelligence) to Audrey Plaza’s deadpan smirks to Aziz Ansari’s obnoxious braggadocio, the show mixes a wide variety of comedic styles with impeccable ease. Even the straight men get a chance to be funny, especially Rob Lowe’s health-obsessed Chris, whose delivery of the word “literally” never stops eliciting a chuckle.

Then there’s the single funniest character on television, Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson. Even with only morsels of screen time in the season premiere, Offerman gets some of the episode’s biggest laughs, and the season’s second episode puts the spotlight squarely on Ron’s relationship with Tammy 1. Patricia Clarkson is an inspired bit of guest casting, and the episode, easily a contender for one of the funniest the show has ever produced, has big moments for characters new and old.

“Parks and Recreation” proved last season that there’s not a joke it can’t tell with expert timing and not a character it doesn’t know how to write for. The combination of “Community” and “Parks,” which air consecutively, makes for perhaps the funniest hour of television this fall, and if you don’t believe in Leslie Knope, you certainly will after tonight’s season premiere.

Printed on September 22 as: Printed on September 22, 2011 as: 'Parks and Recreation' to bring big laughs