I'm still enjoying Parks and Recreation, although I felt the show's momentum stalled somewhat with the third season, as the show covered less actual parks and rec business and focused much more on character relationships.
I found the two new additions to the cast to be a mixed bag. Rob Lowe's portrayal of incessantly upbeat acting city manager Chris Traeger is, in some ways, inspired–an original and unexpected performance by a historically fairly bland name actor. But it was clearly conceived for a guest role (as Lowe's was at the end of season 2). Although the character's exaggerated exuberance is consistently worth a chuckle, it's also highly one-dimensional, and it's impossible to take him or any of his story threads seriously.
Assistant city manager Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) is, conceptually, a more intriguing addition. Watching the first two seasons of Parks and Rec, and seeing Leslie Knope overcoming bureaucratic obstacles and opposition through her infectious optimism and tireless enthusiasm, you almost feel inspired, amid this climate of disillusionment with our government leaders, to go into politics and get the job done yourself. The addition of the Ben character, however, brings viewers back to reality. First, he was originally introduced, along with Chris, as a state auditor–a compellingly topical reflection of the budget problems that are now crippling our real-world governments, and also a reminder that social services come with a cost. Second, his backstory as formerly an 18-year-old mayor, who was elected into office by "anti-establishment voter rebellion," then impeached after a disastrous two months, is a cautionary tale to warn that, actually, it takes a great deal of work and know-how to govern effectively. And I also love that he's a geek who's not a fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies.
Unfortunately, in practice, instead of actively balancing out the potentially hazardous side to Leslie's idealism, Ben seems to spend most of season 3 fawning over her. What I loved about the Leslie-Mark dynamic in the first two seasons was that, even when Leslie would inspire the burned-out and jaded Mark to lend a hand toward her wildly unrealistic park project, it was not that her optimism was dazzling him to the point of intoxication. In fact, I thought it was pretty clear that he never had a lot of confidence in her dream, not even as he was going out of his way to support her, which he did, not to get anything in return, not as any kind of investment toward the betterment of the world, and certainly not to join the winning side, but just because he liked and appreciated her as a person. To me, there was something very pure about that. In season 3, Leslie mostly just overpowers Ben and brings him into line with her way of thinking.
The biggest problem with season 3, however, is how it struggles to find a direction for the Ann Perkins character. She's not a wacky personality like the others, and she can't really generate comedy on her own in the way that Ron and Tom can. With Mark gone, the park project set aside, and the Leslie-Ben romance clearly positioned as the lead plot for season 3, Ann regrettably becomes relegated to a character limbo of not having anything to do on this show. Her romance with Chris is, as mentioned, impossible to take seriously, and the subsequent downward spiral of her love life comes across as a really halfhearted attempt to give her her own shtick as some kind of pathetic loser at love. This is unfortunate because I feel it's a waste of a character that actually fills a pretty important role in tethering this increasingly zany show to those of us in the audience. She began the series as the viewers' surrogate into the circus of the bureaucratic world, and I've also always felt that her friendship with Leslie should be one of the more important relationships on the show, as the two make for a genuinely delightful duo like none other on television.
Still, episode-to-episode, Parks and Recreation remains a funny show three seasons in. Without an overarching project this time, there wasn't quite as satisfying a build to the season arc, but it does close with some major developments. I'm looking forward to season 4 and getting all caught up.