It's been a long eight months, but the Pawnee parks department is back in operation.
Picking up after a second-season finale that saw the parks department of Pawnee, Indiana shut down for lack of funds, last night's third season premiere, "Go Big or Go Home," doesn't miss a beat—reintroducing the cast for new viewers, but offering plenty of forward momentum for longtime series fans. As the episode begins, city auditor Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) reopens the parks department with the caveat that they'll strictly be in "maintenance mode" until the city of Pawnee can get its spending back in line. But Deputy Parks Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), hungry for a project after months of unemployment, resolves to get the resources the department needs by any means necessary.
Leslie finds the answer to the problem in her best friend Ann (Rashida Jones), who Ben's auditing colleague Chris (Rob Lowe) recently asked out on a date. Leslie talks Ann into going out with Chris as a potential means to discussing a greater budget. But when Ann discovers that she and Chris are more compatible than she'd initially realized, she's reluctant to use their date as a Trojan horse for funding the parks department.
In theory, Leslie's machinations in this episode could come across as off-puttingly selfish, but her enthusiasm for the parks department is infectious enough that the strategy almost seems rational (and Amy Poehler's performance is, as always, funny and charming enough that she can get away with just about anything). The real revelation in this episode is Rob Lowe. When Lowe and Adam Scott guest-starred in the final two episodes of Parks and Rec's second season, Lowe's blindly optimistic character was hilarious but underdeveloped. But "Go Big or Go Home"—which reveals that Chris' positivity was a conscious decision, after surviving a blood disorder that should have been fatal within three weeks of his birth—turns him from caricature to character. And when Chris discovers Leslie and Ann's ruse, his sadness is legitimately moving (though Ann's brief apology the following day makes everything better; this is, after all, a sitcom).
An equally well-executed subplot sees the rest of the parks department volunteering with the local youth basketball league. Parks and Rec has mined a lot of laughs in previous episodes by contrasting the gruff parks director, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman)—the ultimate man's man—with open-hearted shoeshine boy Andy (Chris Pratt)—the ultimate man-child.
"Go Big or Go Home" uses that contrast to maximum effect as Andy and Ron coach rival youth basketball teams. Andy's coaching style—"fundamentals, with an emphasis on fun"—has absolutely nothing to do with teaching basketball. Ron, unsurprisingly, takes a page from his hero—ambitious (and legendarily hotheaded) former Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight. While Andy's team goofs off, Ron teaches the team life skills through the "Swanson Pyramid of Greatness" (shown only briefly, but worth pausing your TiVo for; blink-and-you'll-miss it entries include "SKIM MILK: Avoid it" and "BODY GROOMING: Only women shave beneath the neck").
"Go Big or Go Home" concludes with the parks department coming together to pitch Ben and Chris a double-or-nothing idea—the revival of a Harvest Festival that Pawnee discontinued in 1983. If the festival is a success, the department will have succeeded; if the festival is a failure, the department will be shut down. Ben and Chris agree.
This episode's title, "Go Big or Go Home," refers to the gamble that Leslie and the rest of the parks department take on the festival. But it applies just as well to tonight's premiere episode: despite its eight months off the air, Parks and Recreation brought its A-game, and the rest of the season looks to be just as strong.
Pawnee History: Leslie, Ann, Ben, and Chris end up at The Bulge—the gay bar that turned into an unofficial Leslie Knope fan club after she married two male penguins in the second season's premiere.
Wise Words from Andy Dwyer: On volunteering: "Every time I look one of these kids in the eyes, and he calls me coach... that's how I know I agreed to be a coach."