A Parks and Recreation Special, premiering Thursday night on NBC and streamable as of Friday on Hulu and other services, opens on Paul Rudd’s bumbling character Bobby Newport, heir to the Sweetums candy empire. He’s wearing a “Knope 2012” sweater and calling in from a nondescript pond that he claims is his family’s fox-hunting ranch in Switzerland. Bobby introduces the special, explains that NBC and the cast of Parks and Rec are raising money for the charity Feeding America, and then, confused, looks at a nonexistent offscreen producer to ask what’s going on. Bobby, it seems, has no idea that there’s a global pandemic happening.
This self-aware framing is mirrored at the end of the special, when Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones speak directly to the camera and make two requests. The first is that people take care of themselves and their mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. The second is that they donate to Feeding America, or any other charity helping people who have been most affected by the pandemic. (NBC, the Parks and Rec creators, and sponsors State Farm and Subaru will collectively match up to $500,000 in donations to Feeding America.) It’s a sweet, earnest moment that speaks to how sweet and earnest Parks and Recreation was as a whole. That sincerity is part of what made the show resonate so strongly with people, and why this special feels like a welcome respite from COVID-19, rather than out-of-touch pandering.
The half hour between those bookends is devoted to a Zoom-type video conferencing service (created by Parks and Rec’s fictional tech company, Gryzzl) as Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) tries to keep in touch with her friends during the COVID-19 crisis. All the actors filmed themselves from home, so the special’s writers had to get creative to explain why the married characters aren’t in the same spaces. Leslie is calling from her office at the Department of the Interior, while her husband Ben (Adam Scott) is at home with their kids. Andy (Chris Pratt) accidentally locked himself in the shed, and refuses to let his wife April (Aubrey Plaza) help him out. Ann (Rashida Jones) is volunteering as a nurse, so she keeps herself quarantined from her husband Chris (Rob Lowe).
Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), on the other hand, finds his ex-wife Tammy (played by Offerman’s real-life wife, Megan Mullally) hiding outside of the cabin where he’s social distancing. Beloved side characters like Jean-Ralphio Sapperstein (Ben Schwartz), Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins), Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser), and Dennis Feinstein (Jason Mantzoukas) also appear in their own fictional commercials and/or TV segments.
Parks and Recreation is the epitome of a “comfort food” show — one to throw on when you’ve had a bad day or just need to zone out to something. Creator Michael Schur has an especially gentle sense of humor, which is appealing when the world around you is stressful. It’s comforting to watch this group of misfits form a community. As the citizens of Pawnee got to know and love each other, fans of Parks and Rec got to know and love them too. Watching the special, five years after the show ended, is like seeing old friends for the first time in a while. Things have naturally changed over those five years. The actors are no longer in the rhythm of embodying those characters. Their voice inflections are different. Everyone looks older, except Paul Rudd, who does not age.The settings and lighting are totally different. But these changes don’t make the reunion special feel awkward or unnecessary — they just make the characters feel more familiar. It’s as if they’ve continued to live their lives, and we’re just catching up after years apart.
Unlike some other recent revivals, A Parks and Recreation Special isn’t trying to add new context to the show’s world, like Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer reunions. It isn’t updating the show for a 2020 audience, like Freeform’s rebooted Party of Five, or retconning the finale, like NBC’s Will and Grace revival. It’s just a nice moment in a weird time. It seems like the Parks and Rec reunion exists for no other reason than that Mike Schur wanted to help out during the pandemic, both by raising money for charity, and by simply making people laugh for half an hour.
That attitude of doing what you can to help is core to the Parks and Recreation ethos. There’s a strain of liberal-but-apolitical optimism at the core of Schur’s sensibility. Leslie Knope idolized all female politicians, regardless of party affiliation. (In the show’s first episode, she compares herself to Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Sarah Palin.) While Leslie is fairly progressive (and eventually runs for Governor of Indiana as a Democrat), she has great respect and affection for her staunchly libertarian friend, Ron Swanson. But when Parks and Recreation premiered in 2009, the world looked a lot different than it does now — and not just because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.
Sitcoms, by nature, eventually become dated. Humor sensibilities change over time, and topical jokes become stale at best, offensive at worst. But Parks and Recreation seems to have aged especially quickly. The series’ first episode premiered in April 2009, three months after Barack Obama was elected as the first black president. His campaign message of hope, change, and unity was a clear influence on Leslie Knope’s politics. Parks and Rec even created a parody “Knope” poster in a season 2 episode, when Leslie unwittingly became the face of gay rights after she presided over a marriage ceremony for two penguins that turned out to both be male. (The fact that Leslie Knope, crusader for equality, felt uncomfortable accepting the accolades of Pawnee’s gay community shows how much the world has changed in 10 years.)
Revisiting Parks and Rec in 2020 feels like returning to a more hopeful and optimistic world. As Vice writer Meredith Balkus wrote in 2019, it’s “the America we were promised,” in which a woman can be elected president, and progress can be made with bipartisan support. It’s a world that never actually existed. Parks and Recreation ended in April 2015, two months before Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, and a year and a half before the #MeToo movement took hold, bringing decades of sexual assault and misbehavior to light (including misconduct allegations against Parks and Rec guest star Louis CK and, controversially, main cast member Aziz Ansari). But in the middle of a global crisis, it’s comforting to think that there are Leslie Knopes out there doing what they can to help.
Was it necessary to revive a sitcom that already feels dated? Of course not. Is it jarring to see such familiar characters in this new context? Maybe a little. Did I still cry when the cast started singing along to “Bye Bye Little Sebastian (5,000 Candles In the Wind)”? You bet your ass I did. And then I donated to Feeding America and started thinking about ways I can be a Leslie Knope in my own community. That call to action is what makes A Parks and Recreation Special different both from other celebrity quarantine events, like SNL at Home or Gal Gadot’s celebrity-filled cover of “Imagine.” Rather than pure escapism or cringe-worthy seriousness, the Parks and Rec writers created something that feels urgent without being self-important, and sweet without being saccharine.
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