Nick Offerman

Why was it so easy to watch eight episodes of “Parks and Recreation” this weekend?

You know the kind of weekend where taking shelter from an intimidating mountain of homework leads to an impulsive dive into the bottomless pit of Hulu Plus? Shockingly, the thought of a “Parks and Recreation” marathon outweighed the appealing idea of hitting the books. After burning through every episode aired this year, it’s easy to say the show remains a goldmine of comedy, and packs the most hilarious and well-rounded ensemble on TV.

“Parks and Rec” has always been good at pulling off setpieces, but the scene where Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) suffered from food poisoning was a glorious bit of physical acting from all three of them. While watching the trio in a constant state of painful clenching was hilarious, even better was the way Scott played Wyatt's devastating realization that they were poisoned by his beloved calzones.

Moments like that make it clear that “Parks and Rec” knows exactly when and how to deploy its ensemble, and its constantly shifting showcase of dynamics always manages to find new jokes to tell and character notes to explore, no matter which characters are interacting. Offerman predictably shines in every episode, continuing to make Swanson, a character grounded in inertia, the funniest man on TV.

Five seasons in, “Parks and Rec” is still telling stories with the confidence and consistency of a much younger show. By giving its characters desires and dreams outside of the parks department, it’s also expanded its focus in interesting ways. By making Leslie Knope a city councilwoman, the show has expanded the scope of its exploration of small-town politics.

Storylines like Swanson protesting Knope bailing out a struggling local video store aren’t exactly pinnacles of subtle social commentary, but the show’s introduction of the toxic Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) has given it a villain for the first time. Having an unambiguously scummy character to keep things moving has let “Parks and Rec” bring actual stakes to moments like Knope intentionally bombing an emergency response test for the good of the parks department.

Few shows are able to maintain comedic momentum for five seasons. “Parks and Rec” hasn’t faltered yet, and is constantly finding ways to keep its storylines and characters moving in compelling directions. More than that, it’s such an effortlessly charming, witty show that you barely need an excuse to spend “just one more episode” with this excellent ensemble.

Charlie (Aaron Paul) and Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) share a rare happy moment in “Smashed.”  Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

November is apparently the month of the alcoholism message movie, and between last week’s harrowing “Flight” and Sony Pictures Classics’ unsettling “Smashed,” the topic has been getting a lot of play on the big screen lately. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two films, but “Smashed” is an entirely different animal, a much more simplistic but emotional portrayal of a marriage collapsing under the harsh light of sobriety.

Alcohol has always been a factor in the relationship between Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), and the two are already deep in a mutually propulsive spiral when the film begins. After Kate, a first grade teacher, vomits in front of her class, she begins to realize she may have a problem. With the help of co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), Kate begins to take steps toward recovery, something that pushes her apart from her husband even as it helps her gain control of her life.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a consistently unpredictable screen presence, and it’s never certain if she will be the dull, pretty face of “Death Proof” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” or the interesting performer from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Fortunately, “Smashed” may be her best showcase yet, a role without any room for vanity or self-awareness, and Winstead throws herself into it admirably. The film essentially asks her to play two different people, and the animalistic depravity of Kate in the film’s opening is a marked difference from the clarity and focus she has once she starts attending AA meetings. Winstead is powerful and understated here, and she shows off a surprisingly effective dramatic skill set.

Unfortunately, “Smashed” spends the majority of its runtime focused almost exclusively on Winstead, and that small scope ends up drastically hurting the film. At only 75 minutes without credits, it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated having plunked down the money for a full ticket only to get about two-thirds of a movie. The film’s central tension focuses on Kate and Charlie’s marriage, but we never really get a sense of Charlie as a character. As good as Paul is, Charlie never ascends beyond a paper-thin enabler, the soft-voiced devil on Kate’s shoulder. There’s no reason for the audience to invest in their marriage, and the film’s climax jumps to a foregone conclusion without giving us any reason to care about it one way or another.

Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote “Smashed”’s script with Susan Burke, displays a stronger sense of his story and characters behind the camera. The film’s look is notable, especially for the stark visual contrasts Ponsoldt brings to Kate’s levels of sobriety. When she’s drunk, the camera takes an impressionable lilt, becoming more and more erratic the more Kate imbibes, and her sober scenes are met with steadiness and a more restrained aesthetic. It is an interesting, creative way to approach Kate’s struggle and a subtle visual signature for Ponsoldt.

Although “Smashed” suffers from its slightness, it’s still a well written and directed film that never veers into sentimentality. There’s no sugar-coating of alcoholism here, and although many of the film’s supporting characters could have used some fleshing out, actors like Offerman, Paul and Octavia Spencer still impress. Even though there’s a lot to like about the film, there’s so little to it that it’s hard to recommend a pricey theater viewing. However, its scale is so small and its struggles so quiet that it could make for an even more effective experience on video, and it’s certainly worth what little of your time for which it asks.

Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: 'Smashed' avoids mush, probes into alcoholism 

Review

Audrey Plaza, Chris Pratt and Amy Poehler star in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” whose fourth season premieres tonight. (Photo courtesy of NBC)

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