It seems with each new episode of Parks and Recreation we’re getting that much closer to its perfect vision of itself. A better-developed character here, a smoother dialogue rhythm there — it’s a little like open-heart surgery watching this thing develop, seeing those incremental improvements made week to week. Disgusting! But also rewarding, as in last night’s episode, which gave us our most human Leslie Knope to date. Who’s ready to get schooled in recent HERstory?

The episode was titled “Beauty Pageant,” and that’s exactly what set the plot in motion: the annual Miss Pawnee Beauty Pageant, which Madeline Albright-worshiping Leslie was asked to judge. Believing the contest to be about “selecting a role model for the young women of Central Indiana,” Leslie was obviously in for a surprise when her fellow judges looked for…different criteria. Horndog Tom desperately wanted in on the festivities and decided to call in a favor (“If you don’t call in a favor to judge at women in bikinis and assign them numerical grades, then what do you call a favor in for?”) to join the panel. Leslie’s feminist ideals vs. Tom’s bra-size-guessing imperative? A classic dramatic set-up.

But wait! We haven’t mentioned officer Dave, who stopped by Leslie’s office to ask her out for coffee. Things looked good — “I…I like you,” Dave out and told her — until he misidentified a picture of Madeline Albright as Leslie’s grandma. THEN failed, albeit less explicitly, to know the names of the women on Leslie’s wall. After an awkward “we’ll figure it out” ending to the date-scheduling, Dave ambled out of her office. I think maybe this will come back to the theme of seeing beyond our initial perceptions, but we’ll find out later on!

Meanwhile, the three characters we still don’t quite know what to do with — Mark, Ann, and Andy — all figured into a subplot that saw Mark coming over to fix Ann’s shower/have dinner (“weirdest second date ever”), Ann discovering Andy’s pit camp, and Andy joining them inside when it started to rain. I like these characters, as I’m sure you do too, but we can feel the writers straining to include them in the flow of these episodes. Maybe Ann could become the official P&R department nurse? Or Andy could temp in the office? Both possibilities might render the show more, well, Office-like, but there’s a reason (one of them, anyway) that show works — its characters all occupy the same space. Until that happens on Parks, we’ll continue to have subplots like we saw tonight.

Back to Miss Pawnee! Having heard of the $600 prize earlier, April decided she could be “dumb for a few hours” and joined the pageant. Pulling off a killer modeling stance in her introduction — and telling the crowd she liked “people…places…and things!” — she looked like she might be able to pull it off. That is, until Trish took center stage. “I’ve been on YouTube. I love wearing bikinis at the beach…with everyone there. Are y’all having a good time?!” Armed with a barely-there outfit and…baton-twirling abilities (“she’s not even twirling!”), “the hot one” was the clear front-runner.

Leslie, whose intricate scorecard featured categories for “‘HERstory,’ ‘Je ne se quas,’ and the ‘Naomi Wolf factor’,” was not so impressed. More taken with Susan, the piano-playing Indiana U. student, she tried to get the other judges on her side. “What was your talent?” she asked Miss Pawnee 1994, a fellow judge. “I packed a suitcase.” After imploring them to select the best young woman they had seen…the crown still went to the hot one. Watching Miss Pawnee 2009 do shots with her 1994 counterpart just made Leslie’s night that much worse.

Silver lining — Officer Dave showed up to ask Leslie what the deal was with their date. He hadn’t heard from her. “It’s just that I’m busy, and–” she started before Dave laid it all out. “I’m not a guy that plays games. I like you. And I like coffee. If you want to get coffee, here’s my number.” He gruffly bumped into Trish on his way out…and Leslie finally saw what she had been missing before. Maybe he doesn’t know the names of her favorite female politicians. So what?! Like her girl Susan, the guy’s got inner beauty. At episode’s end, they arranged a Friday night dinner date.

So that was episode three. What’d you guys think? How many more until we see the fully-realized Parks and Recreation we know this cast and crew is capable of?