Parks and Recreation

In a rousing moment from the Season 3 premiere of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope excitedly rounds up her disbanded parks department. Tom's been working at Foot Locker, Ron's been in his wood shop, and Jerry ... well, Jerry's been relaxing happily since Pawnee's local government went out of business at the end of last season. With her troops gathered, Leslie makes her Hail Mary play, a bold proposal to the state auditors threatening to shut down the broke branch for good.

"She's like, 'Go big or go home,'" says Amy Poehler, who plays TV's chirpiest and most resilient civil servant. "'I say we put on this giant harvest festival. We try to get all the vendors, all the people in town, we raise the money we need for the parks department budget. If we don't make it, we're all fired.'"

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Leslie’s high-stakes dilemma is not unlike the one faced by Parks as the show nears its return. The comedy about the misadventures of small-time government became a critical darling last season, but its lukewarm ratings refused to budge. NBC held the series from its fall lineup — a benching that will amount to eight months when it comes back on Jan. 20 — and by the time producers got wind, they had already shot several episodes.

"We were surprised and obviously disappointed ... Our feeling was that the episodes we'd made to that point were really strong," Parks executive producer Mike Schur says. But the show regrouped quickly, taking its lead from Leslie herself. "It sounds a little corny, maybe even a little community theater-ish, but when we got the bad news our thinking was to just put our heads down and keep making the best show we could."

So months later, on an unseasonably warm day in November, the cast is still in high spirits as it shoots its eleventh episode of the season. Parks will need to prove it can attract new viewers in the new year, but for now, everyone is confident in the stories they've been spinning — even while they film in a vacuum.

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"We've got so much good s--- that no one's even seen," says Chris Pratt, who plays bungling-but-lovable shoe shine guy Andy. (And how's this for a tease? "I dented a car doing a stunt… $1,700 worth of damage to a car that ran into my n---.")

Indeed, Parks fans will have plenty to look forward to beyond the build-up to the harvest festival. Will Forte will guest-star as a citizen demanding that Twilight be included in the town’s time capsule. Andy will find new ways to beg April's forgiveness, and spend some time bonding with Ron (featured line of dialogue: "You had me at meat tornado.") The writers have also worked up an extra-kinky sequel to last season's "Ron and Tammy" episode, the mere mention of which makes several of the other actors squirm — with delight. Jim O'Heir, who plays Jerry, mentions cornrows and a kimono. Adam Scott, who plays state auditor Ben, offers: "Oh, it's epic. Animal noises. I can't say more than that."

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"It made me exceedingly uncomfortable," says Nick Offerman, who plays Leslie's unapologetic anti-government boss Ron. He's only half-joking. "My wife [Megan Mullally, who plays Tammy] goes deep, both figuratively and literally. With both hands . … I can't really remember much of what happened. It was kind of hallucinatory. I do remember that Jerry loves to watch, it turns out."

At one point, Offerman, who biked to the day’s Toluca Lake location from his wood shop, checks in with the show's publicist to discuss an invite he'd just received to appear on Conan. The premiere is still three months away, but the cast has been jonesing to start spreading the word.

"It's oddly frustrating," says Rashida Jones, who plays Leslie's friend Ann. "The bottom line is that our product is good, it's hilarious. You know what it feels like? It feels like I'm playing really good intramural women's volleyball ... Everyone's on their game, the voices are so clear, the volleying is good — it's just intramural because we're not on the air, so it's not like televised sports."

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Parks may be returning later than they expected, but NBC's is giving the show a real chance to grow its audience by slotting it on Thursdays at 9:30 where it will follow the network's most-watched comedy, The Office. (The pilot for Parks, which did premiere after The Office, was seen by 6.77 million viewers and remains the show's highest-rated episode.)

"I've always thought they'd pair well together," Poehler says. "We’re the only Thursday comedy that hasn’t been able to tuck behind that amazing show, so I’d like to tuck behind there, yes… I think viewers are really going to dine out with the episodes we’ve done. " At the same time, Parks may still be fighting the perception that it's too similar to The Office, a critique that followed its 2009 launch; it's well-known that the show is a product of the same creative team, and both workplace comedies are filmed in the same mock documentary style.

Fans already know that's where the similarities end. At Parks' center is not a buffoonish boss, but an uber-optimist, whose plans are, yes, sometimes wacky. The themes are also very different, Schur says, explaining: "Parks is very much more outdoors and bright and cheery. It's not about sad, depressing office culture. It's about community and your hometown and civic pride."

This season will see the department rally together more often, too. "I always think the show is at its funniest when this dysfunctional family has to come together," Poehler says. "And not to sound hokey, but also, no one's afraid of real moments on this show, and I love that." Watch for the birthday party Leslie throws Ron in an upcoming episode — and the revealing heart-to-heart that follows. ("It had me in tears," Jones says. "It totally broke my heart.")

Even those state auditors Ben and Chris, played by Scott and Rob Lowe, will get sucked into Leslie's world. The pair came in at the end of last season to shut down the government, but soon they’ll find themselves drawn in by Pawnee. "Leslie can do that to anyone," Scott says. In spite of Ben's own disillusioning experience as a teenage mayor, "Ben still wants the same things she wants out of government. He falls for Leslie and her spirit."

Scott says he hopes viewers will fall for Parks for the same reason. "The show has so much heart, it really does. It's not sentimental, but it's very sweet — which I think makes it all the more hilarious when you're emotionally invested in these crazy characters. You root for them in different ways."