The ‘Parks and Recreation’ Quarantine Special Was Perfect. Please, Nobody Else Do This.
The cast of “Parks and Rec” reunited for a coronavirus charity special. It was so good, and an undertaking that only this show could have pulled off. We pray no one else tries.
Does anyone actually want TV shows and movies to tackle life under coronavirus quarantine? Parks and Recreation’s one-time reunion special proved Thursday night that there may be exactly one case when the answer to that question is yes. And this was it.
It’s inevitable that once the world opens up again, so will the floodgates on all the attempts to encapsulate this very unusual time on screen. (How long after this until the teens of Riverdale solve a murder via Zoom?) The apathy, bordering on allergy, to the prospect of this was evident earlier this week when Netflix ordered a quarantine anthology series titled Social Distance from Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan, an announcement met with the social media equivalent of a loud groan.
Maybe that’s because the thought of being reminded of the unnerving peculiarities of life right now once it’s all over is unpleasant, or maybe because there’s so much immediacy to current circumstances. How are we going to get through this, moment by moment? It’s a concern, though hardly paramount, that extends to what we are going to watch. What is going to entertain us now?
It’s been a thrill marveling at the ingenuity with which Hollywood has improvised, setting up livestreams and MacGyvering together tribute concerts, late-night talk shows, fully staged theater, and, in the case of Pop’s One Day at a Time, announcing an animated episode to account for scripts it wasn’t able to film before the shutdown. All accomplish two of the entertainment industry’s most crucial assignments: diversion from the realities of the particular moment, and reflecting them back at us.
Sometimes those are dueling tasks. Other times they’re complementary. If someone or some series was going to take on the fool’s errand of creating original scripted coronavirus content, they were going to have to accomplish the latter. Parks and Recreation was the perfect show to do it. And hopefully nobody else will.
Airing six years after the finale, Thursday night’s A Parks and Recreation Special reunited the NBC feel-good comedy’s main cast, most memorable guest stars, and writing staff for a one-time reunion episode to, as surprise cameo Paul Rudd says in the introduction, “raise money for people hurt by the ‘coronus.’” NBC Universal, State Farm, and Subaru would be matching donations made to Feeding America throughout the special.
Noble intentions are one reason to applaud the effort. The fact that it was pretty damn good is another.
The premise was slight, yet profound—kind of emblematic of daily life under quarantine, in which the minute and the mundane suddenly seem monumental.
Ever the bleeding heart, Poehler’s Leslie Knope has mandated a daily phone tree every night at 7 pm, in which one of her old friends from Pawnee calls to check in on another, passing it down until everyone’s wellness has been certified. It’s too hard to organize everyone onto one call, so this is the best she can do to ensure that the people she loves are in good emotional and mental health.
It’s a clever realization of the “I wonder what they’re up to now…” game that fans of any canceled TV series play. Outside of hypothetical interviews with creators and cast long after a series left air, we rarely get this gratification.
So we find out that Leslie is the deputy director of the Department of the Interior. She’s closed down the national parks in her jurisdiction according to social distancing guidelines, but she’s still hard at work heading several committees formed to help people through these difficult times. Of course, she also started all those committees.
Her husband, Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt, is a congressman who, thanks to the shutdown, is now also homeschooling their kids and losing his mind a bit. In his delirium and boredom, he decides he is going to write and create a Cones of Dunshire claymation movie, two very specific and very delightful references to popular Parks and Rec storylines.
Ron (Nick Offerman) is happier than ever, locked away in a cabin in the woods hoarding game meat and jerky. As he tells Leslie, “I’ve been practicing social distancing since I was 4 years old.”
Tom (Aziz Ansari) is bummed that the remainder of his book tour has been canceled, and is using his free time to spitball deranged new get-rich-quick ideas he comes up with during his 11 p.m. naps. “Isn’t it weird that time has no meaning anymore?”
Donna (Retta) is in awe of her husband Joe’s miraculous teaching skills, somehow managing to be effective during social-distance learning: “Every teacher deserves a brand new Mercedes after this.”
Gary (Jim O’Heir) is still mayor of Pawnee and, naturally, the one who can’t figure out how to properly get his webcam to properly work.
Andy (Chris Pratt) has locked himself in a shed, which explains why he is not in the same video chat frame as his wife, April (Aubrey Plaza), who is as weird as ever.
Ann (Rashida Jones) has returned to nursing in the wake of the coronavirus, so she is quarantining in a separate area of the house than husband Chris (Rob Lowe). Chris has also been doing his part, donating blood four times a week. The CDC requested him personally to donate because he is so healthy. His red blood cells are the size of Froot Loops, and his blood type is just “positive.”
Even just accomplishing the basic logistics of this “where are they now” exercise is impressive. The Parks and Recreation finale aired in 2014, but took place in 2017 and flashed forward even farther into the future. Not only did the special have to stay true to where in their lives the characters would be according to that finale timeline, it also had to make it believable that the three central couples would be checking in from separate isolations despite still being happily together. A rousing success!
But this isn’t just gathering a beloved cast together for the hell of it. Just as was always the case with Parks and Rec, there is an overarching point to all the silliness. Leslie isn’t just a well-meaning busybody nostalgically helicoptering over her friend group. She’s genuinely concerned about their emotional and mental health, and caring for them in the only way she knows how: By being a lot.
Of course, as Ron surmises, it’s Leslie who needs to be checked in on. It’s a poignant, underserved, yet important message as we weather these weeks and months. There are so many ways that everything happening eats at our anxieties, our fears, and our stability. Leslie stands in for those who respond by springing into action, who take on the weight of everyone else’s well-being, at once doing too much and not enough for herself.
The episode then builds up to everyone getting on the phone at the same time in a group video call to cheer up Leslie. And you know what? It cheered me up, too! The sight of this cast that I love all on screen together doing something nice to make these hard times more manageable, even if just for a moment, was incredibly moving—just as the gesture was for Leslie.
That’s why I don’t think any other show could have pulled something like this off. I mean, yes, they could have pulled off a reunion of the original cast from their respective quarantines, and many series have done just that for different charity endeavors. It’s been lovely and fun. But a scripted effort like this is far more precarious.
Parks and Recreation is a show that people have turned to over the years for solace. It’s one of those “comfort binges” people talk about, shows like Schitt’s Creek, Happy Endings, The Office, or Golden Girls that they go back to time and again when they need a streaming service to give them a warm hug. But more than that, it’s a show that reveals the platonic ideal of politics and government serving its community.
You can view that in contrast to the current reality of the administration’s actions and see it as a depressing indictment of where we are. Or you can view it as an inspiring and hopeful reminder that there are civic leaders out there somewhere, even if just in small-town Pawnee, who desperately, passionately want to do the right thing by us all. It’s something we need to hear.
By nature of its premise, only Parks and Recreation could have hit the right tone in a coronavirus special, the just-right balance of acknowledging our new normals without a heavy-handedness, or a naivete, or, worse, a jadedness or cynicism.
A Parks and Recreation Special worked. It really worked. Let’s hope no one tries it again.