From Ray Richmond, who is contributing to Deadline Hollywood’s TCA coverage:

You really can’t blame the production team behind the Amy Poehler NBC comedy Parks and Recreation for feeling pretty good about itself these days, having survived something of a critical drubbing (“It’s a clone of The Office!”) following its premiere in April 2009 to become an unlikely critics’ darling in its second season.

And now with the delayed launch of its third season on Jan. 20, the show finds itself in a unique position: moved behind its sister mockumentary The Office on Thursdays at 9:30 PM after having had months of extra time to fine-tune the product. It’s why executive producer Greg Daniels and showrunner Michael Schur were all smiles this afternoon during a TCA event on the show set at CBS Radford in Studio City. “As Amy says, we started out with ‘Your baby’s ugly’ and now it’s ‘Your baby’s cute’,” Schur said during a private interview prior to a group Q&A. “It really didn’t matter if we’d done a show about Eskimos in Alaska at the beginning, people would have said, ‘Oh, remind me of ‘The Office’.’ There was really no way to avoid that. So we had to take our lumps.

The early reviews of the first six episodes were not kind. But then, Schur says, he began to notice a bit of a turn as the last episode of that first season was airing. “We really started focusing on the characters personal lives more than we had, and something just kind of clicked. We finally figured out what we wanted to do.”

Suddenly, as Parks and Rec moved through season two last year, the reviews transformed from lukewarm to glowing. If there were a Most Improved Player Award for a TV comedy, it would have received it. “Now we’ve got a chance to kind of start over and have word of mouth spread organically,” Schur believes. “And being after ‘The Office’ gives us an opportunity to be exposed to a larger audience.”

During the Q&A, a reporter raised the issue of launching a critical season just as Comcast is poised to take charge of NBC’s fortunes – and if that presented any sort of anxiety. “Well,” Schur noted, “it’s nothing we can control. Whatever the machinations are with the powers that be are out of our hands. The good news is thar we’ve had all of this time before the episodes hit the air to get it exactly right and the way we want it, which is just an incredible luxury.”