Government bureaucracy is not a popular field in the best of times, and these are not the best of times for bureaucrats. Money's tight. Public unions are at war with governors. Asked last month about potential job losses from proposed federal spending cuts, Speaker of the House John Boehner replied, "So be it."
In this environment, you would think that if a sitcom about city government were to work, it would have to be a vicious satire. Parks and Recreation is not such a show. Set in the parks department of small-town Pawnee, Ind., led by eager civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), it's full of heart, offbeat humanity and not to get political hope.
Parks launched in early 2009, at the nadir of the Great Recession, with a premise that seemed allegorical: Leslie was determined to get a reluctant city hall to fill in a yawning pit in a vacant lot and create a park. Poehler is a natural at the show's semi-improv style of comedy (modeled on The Office, with which it shares executive producer Greg Daniels), but the first season struggled to find its tone. Leslie came off as a dimwit, and the show had an off-putting dark edge.
In Season 2, Parks found its heart and, with it, its voice. It fleshed out its supporting characters: Leslie's gruff, libertarian boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman); hustling part-time entrepreneur Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari); local nurse and Leslie's best friend, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones); naive, indie-rocking shoe-shine man Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt); and Ron's deadpan, sardonic assistant, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza). Parks developed the relationships (and romances) in its ensemble, becoming a show not just about bureaucratic conflict but also about how disparate people in a town connect.
Season 3, its strongest yet, has the parks department facing a timely enemy: a budget crisis. Pawnee is nearly broke, and two state troubleshooters, Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), are brought in to make cuts. They put the department in "maintenance mode," eliminating projects beyond a youth basketball league consisting of two teams. ("They're going to develop a great rivalry," Ben says.)
For perpetually driven Leslie, mere maintenance is no option. Her plan: resuscitate the Harvest Festival, a massive Pawnee fair last held in the '80s. If she can get sponsorship and pull it off, the department gets its budget back. If not, it's government-shutdown time.
To Leslie, the festival represents the idea that her department can make life better. Easier said than done: it means dealing with cantankerous town halls (in Ron's term, "crackpot conventions"), intramural rivals (the nefarious library department), the Pawnee business community and nitpicking local media. (There's one way to make government workers look sympathetic: compare them with journalists.)
Parks' Pawnee, like The Simpsons' Springfield, has become a detailed world of its own. There's a powerful industry (the Sweetums candy company) and a rich history (outlined in the hilariously inappropriate civic murals of Pawnee's violent pioneer days). There's a local morning-zoo radio show (Crazy Ira and the Douche), a town motto ("First in friendship, fourth in obesity") and an inordinate number of bars per capita (including the gay club the Bulge, where Leslie became a folk hero after inadvertently marrying two male penguins in a p.r. stunt at the zoo).
Ultimately, Parks is a comedy not about politics but about people or rather, about how politics is people. Activist Leslie and small-government-minded Ron have an entirely different idea of civic duty, but they also have mutual respect and a sweet friendship. And the March 17 episode, in which the department attempts to pull off the Harvest Festival, finds the civil servants trying to make life in Pawnee better, one corn maze and plus-size roller coaster at a time.
Sympathy for bureaucrats? Hey, if TV can make people care about lawyers, anything's possible.
This article originally appeared in the March 21, 2011 issue of TIME.