May 08, 2009 at 11:07 PM EDT

The theory that NBC’s Parks and Recreation would be improve over time might have finally come to fruition with last night’s episode, “The Banquet.” Within the first minute, I found myself laughing harder at the show than I ever have before.

The moment I lost it? When Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler’s character) explained the tragically gruesome story of Nathaniel the pioneer: “They cut his face off…and made it into a dreamcatcher…and they made his legs into rain sticks. And that’s the great thing about Indians back then: They used every part of the pioneer.” The tentative delivery from Poehler was perfect — she’s made Leslie a fully-realized character instead of a caricature.

I’ve been a fan from the start, but will be the first to admit the show’s early episodes were light on the laughs and heavy on the awkward. Now five episodes in, Parks feels settled and focused. Nearly every character had a great moment in “The Banquet.” April the Intern calling Leslie “sir.” Leslie’s butch haircut. Ron’s affinity for bacon-wrapped shrimp. Tom’s coining of the phrase “peacockin” to stand out in bars. Even perennial straight-woman Rashida Jones got to have some fun with bleeped-out curse words. (Is that a new trend on NBC, or something?)

I also like how Leslie keeps getting confronted with some sort of moral crisis. Granted, taking wine from a gift basket (like in last week’s “Boys Club” episode) isn’t much of a quandary, but it endears her to us. She’s just a naive, driven, and bright (yes, I said it: bright!) woman trying to find her way in the male-dominated world of politics. She’s also hopelessly in love in Mark (Paul Schneider, who’s solid), and that faux-romance provided a fairly sweet moment last night when he rushed back to the banquet hall to find her. The show, for all its goofiness, definitely has a beating heart.

The point is this, PopWatchers: While it’s not of the same caliber as The Office (which has been stellar lately) and 30 Rock, it is on the right track. I’m certainly looking forward to next week’s season finale. Are you? Have you kept watching since the show’s so-so first couple of episodes? Or do you still think it’s just too similar to The Office?

More on Parks and Recreation:
Amy Poehler, I believe in you! (And ‘Parks and Recreation’, too!)
Amy Poehler’s ‘Parks and Recreation’: Good, bad, or just okay?
Amy Poehler reaches sitcom stardom: Which ‘SNL’ regular should be next?
Ken Tucker’s review of ‘Parks and Recreation’
‘Parks and Recreation’: Suck it, focus group

The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Micheals.
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