Parks and Recreation ended in 2015’s lost dream of 2017. The final flash-forward season of NBC’s mockumentary imagined a near-future America full of hard-won optimism and compromise. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) staged a two-front land duel against the old-money Newports and the brash kamillionaires at Gryzzl. In the end, the upstart tech lords incinerated $125 million of capital to bestow a new national park unto a small Indiana town. Everyone got a happy ending: married with children, elected to ever-higher office, merely rich. You sensed some melancholy in the series finale’s suggestion that anyone with ambition had to get out of Pawnee. But the outlook was smiling and positive when the credits rolled on Feb. 24, 2015.
Eight days earlier, elsewhere on NBC, Donald Trump wrapped another season of The Celebrity Apprentice. His impending career change rendered Parks’ sunny prophecies rather void, which gives Thursday’s Zoom reunion A Parks and Recreation Special way more poignance than you’d expect from a blunt-by-nature charity call.
The theme music is chipper as ever, and the circumstances have never been more dire. The Leslie Knope of 2020 multitasks through our global pandemic, phone-a-friending all her old co-workers from her office at the Department of the Interior. We know, of course, that said department was only recently overseen by a private-plane-loving oil-and-gas toady, who left just in time for a government shutdown that turned national parks into understaffed trash cans. What has Leslie’s life been like, this government true believer doomed to be a cog in the rollback machine?
None of this comes up on the special, for forgivable reasons. This won’t be a proper review, because it’s churlish to pass any judgment on something so lovingly designed around a message and a mission. The project raised funds for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, and $500,000 in matching donations will be made by State Farm, Subaru of America, NBCUniversal, and the Parks writers, producers, and cast members.
I want to appreciate, though, the sheer impossibility of producing this half-hour gem in the days of social distancing. Showrunner Michael Schur and several returning Parks staffers pack the script with grace notes and callbacks, plus check-ins from beloved Pawnee eccentrics. They find creative routes through impossible obstacles. Actors sheltering in different places play spouses in houses. Various children are explained away (not successfully). Any props or costumes are locally sourced; thank goodness the cast held on to all their swag, and good thing Nick Offerman keeps a Megan Mullally in his garage!
There are sparkly comic moments. Ron (Offerman) has hunted “a 12-year supply of venison jerky.” Tom (Aziz Ansari) spouts a vintage entrepreneurial burst: “10 tiny iPads, for each finger” and “a clock with dials that just move randomly.” Thanks to Mayor Garry (Jim O’Heir), we now know that Pawnee holds an annual Popsicle Lick ‘N’ Pass, a phrase I just laughed over again. Jay Jackson’s line readings as ever-specific Perd Hapley are still just perfect: “My first question is more of a query,” and “You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen, and the ‘it’ that you heard was the things that these people just said!”
Poehler emcees a fictional variation of an at-home late-night show. And her unflappable Leslie centralizes the most emotional moments. The vibe is light and explanatory, but it’s a twist to the heart to learn that Ann (Rashida Jones) has reactivated as a nurse to help out during the health crisis. A bare hint of plot generates: Leslie really wants to talk to all her friends at once, you see. In the climax, everyone call in for a “5,000 Candles in the Wind” singalong, led by Andy (Chris Pratt). There I was in tears again, requiring a second watch to treasure how Retta’s voice soars on “Humans cannot riiiiiide a GHOOOOOOOOST!”
This quarantine has seen many cast reunions, and FaceTime singalongs, and fair-to-middling attempts at actor-generated cinematography. I’m so thankful that everyone involved here makes the extra effort to slide back into character. Somewhat unexpectedly given his franchise megastardom, Pratt gets the disturbing sequence. Andy, as Johnny Karate, tells kids things will go back to normal. “It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, and it might not be next week,” he says, face sweaty in Blair Witch-y close-up. “It might not be a year, or 100 years, or 1,000 years. It might never happen!”
It will — though what was “normal,” anyway? In its seven-season run, Parks and Recreation was a ray-of-sunshine farce about the impossibility of America, darkly aware of how great intentions wavecrash against powerful greed and mob madness. The special is a fun-with-characters piece, not quite the sitcom-Wire of yore. Still, I admire how Schur curls our pandemic reality back to the foundational Parks and Recreation saga of civil service in the face of overwhelming odds. Everyone really is doing their part: staying inside, staying healthy, washing their hands for the first time ever.
Maybe that’s still too optimistic. Even infectious diseases get political, turns out, and real-world Gryzzl types cry fascism when the government hurts their bottom line. I wonder what a full-fledged Parks and Recreation continuation would look like in a context where entertainers don’t have to offset official state ramblings about injectable disinfectant with boring old truth.
Against all odds, though, A Parks and Recreation Special is a genuine return from one of the best TV series ever made. In a strange way, the sitcom’s faux-documentary structure lends itself well to the videoconferencing conceit. Unlike The Office, Parks never even tried to explain why the characters interstitially broke the fourth wall. It was just their hyperlinked riffing on the action, a chance for everyone to improv. (Eventually, I started to think of the confessionals as thought balloons.)
In the special, all that talking to the camera has a new purpose. Leslie and Ron have a lovely final conversation, they’re looking at us — and at each other. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” Leslie promises. “I’m sure you will,” Ron says. They’re in this together. So are we.
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