Five years after taking us for “One Last Ride,” Parks And Recreation returned to NBC’s Thursday night lineup—for one night only, and with the purpose of raising money for charities like Feeding America and The National Alliance on Mental Illness while once more immersing viewers in the lovable yet infuriating environs of Pawnee, Indiana. In addition to our review, The A.V. Club hosted a mini-town hall (read: an email thread) to get staff reactions to the special.
It seems ungrateful or at least grumpy to receive the Parks And Recreation reunion special with anything but gratitude and ready laughter. But while I did laugh plenty, the return trip to Pawnee felt rather slight at first, the video call to end all video calls notwithstanding. The story was bare bones: Leslie (Amy Poehler) sets her mind to something—in this case, keeping the phone tree she established going in the midst of a pandemic—and then it happens. The familiar beats are all hit upon, though not quite as strong; even Ron (Nick Offerman) immediately falls in line, though he and everyone else put off calling Garry (Jim O’Heir) until the last possible moment. I don’t envy Dennis having to assess this half-hour as the latest installment in this series, but that’s just it: Despite the familiar faces, this reunion special exists in a world of its own. So with that in mind, I enjoyed the episode for what it was—the most standalone of standalone episodes. The references to COVID-19 were organic and all in good taste. The callbacks were delightful, including the preternatural state of Chris’ (Rob Lowe) health; let the record show, there was a standing ovation in my living room when Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) and his mohawk. And seeing Rashida Jones singing on camera reminded me of the Gap commercials she was in back in the ’90s:
This social distancing special proves what a bunch of good-hearted people, both on and offscreen, can do. But while the “5000 Candles In The Wind” singalong was magical, the reunion’s structure isn’t going to be easy for other shows to replicate. Town hall filibusters aside, the people of Pawnee often acted like one big extended family, a dynamic that lends itself well to a massive video call. For any other production to have the same kind of success, they’ll have to find a similarly complementary angle. Then again, Leslie Knope singlehandedly kept a diner in business, so maybe she’ll spark a whole wave of philanthropic one-offs.
Full disclosure: I’m typing this through tears. Does it get any better than this group of civil servants? I started taking some notes at the beginning of the episode, thinking I’d jot down a few highlights to mention here. But from Bobby Newport opening the show to Garry/Terry/Larry begging Leslie to help him with his computer, I could not have asked for a better special. Each time a new character came on screen, my smile grew. And then came the tears—instant tears—seeing the entire cast pop up to surprise Leslie. This wasn’t an “Aw, that’s sweet” and after-I-think-about-it-a-while cry, this was a zero-to-100, “Oh my God, why are my cheeks wet?” cry. I didn’t realize how much I missed this chosen family, how much their positivity and light would mean to me in this moment. And while I wish the pandemic never began, I can’t imagine a more perfect way to reunite this massive cast of characters. So many kudos to the writers for finding ways to organically bring back not just the series regulars but so many guest stars. And knowing this was all shot in these actors’ homes made it all the more fun: Did you see Retta’s closet? I thought it was a fake background at first. Did Chris Pratt clear off those bookshelves, or is that just what his house looks like? Did Mo Collins just have all those dolls and portraits around her home? I’ve only just finished watching this thing and I can’t wait to watch it again.
Fictional towns come and go, but to me, Pawnee, Indiana always harbored an especially idyllic quality that set it so far outside of reality. Its most pressing issues were an unseemly rise in Paunch Burgers and an aggressive gang of freewheeling raccoons. It wasn’t the most cutting-edge town, but it still felt oddly untouchable, immune to the ills of our world. It made for the perfect weekly escape during its seven seasons of life, and returning each year felt like coming home in a way that remains difficult to articulate. But this homecoming felt heavier from the second Paul Rudd broke the fourth wall to inform the audience of the reunions special’s fundraising objective, and the weight of that sobering moment felt almost as inescapable as the pandemic that many of us try not to think about every waking moment of the day. Very suddenly, the barrier that protected Pawnee from outside life had deteriorated. It made enjoying the fortuitous “gathering” of sorts more of a task than I had anticipated, even during the parts that I found really satisfying. And mind you, there were definitely moments that I loved, from the return of Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) to Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) and his aggravating, but deeply missed roundabout speech patterns. Even Megan Mullally’s wordless appearance as a bound-and-gagged Tammy 2 and Tom Haverford’s (Aziz Ansari) laugh of insubordination inspired welcomed guffaws from me.
But the special, with all of its objectively wonderful intentions, also managed to highlight an aspect of Parks And Recreation that can be easily forgotten at times: Part of Pawnee’s unflappable charm stemmed from its stable of weird, creatively executed side characters that surrounded this cast of comedic aces. Without them, this revisit felt incomplete in a way. I guess I gained more enjoyment from seeing this cast trying their best to do some serious good than the actual end result—and it’s really nobody’s fault at all, but rather the challenge of creating productions during the pandemic that aren’t inherently weighed down by the reality of things. And at the risk of pissing off my blissfully intact eardrums: Where the heck was Craig?
Look, it was deeply satisfying to take this little journey into the Parks And Recreation universe. All our old friends, together again, singing the Lil’ Sebastian song! It would take a cold heart indeed to remain completely unmoved by the sight. (Yes, I got a little choked up at the end, when Ron and Leslie had their moment and he explained that it wasn’t that hard to get everyone together—he just told them Leslie was feeling a little down. “They cleared their schedules.”) But here goes my petty criticism corner nonetheless, because I am someone incapable of truly experiencing joy: The entire structure of the first act was built around the thing I have always truly hated about this universe, and that is everyone being a total piece of shit to Garry. The show always seemed to think it was hi-larious that all these otherwise decent people had this one weakness: a human who brought out their worst tendencies (admittedly, it was pretty in keeping with April’s personality), and that he would bear it all with inexplicable good grace. But it’s not fun to me to watch everyone turn into a bully, and a really obnoxious bully at that. I get no joy from seeing all of my favorite kind-hearted Pawnee people turn on a dime and treat someone like garbage. That’s Jeremy Jamm’s job! Okay, he’s a little busy running a home dentistry delivery service—if you can’t successfully pull off a root canal as he walks you through it, that’s on you—but there are plenty of characters in this world who make sense as inconsiderate jerks, and Leslie Knope isn’t one of them. So I had hoped the five-year interval would give these characters a chance to reflect on the worst part of themselves, and maybe make a little change, grow as people, that sort of thing. Nope; everyone still becomes an asshole when it comes to the new mayor of Pawnee. For that reason alone, I almost wish it had ended with Garry telling everyone to stay safe—and go fuck themselves. But I’ll settle for Ron and Leslie making me cry.
Last night, I would’ve counted myself alongside Alex in the cynic column: There were parts of A Parks And Recreation Special that just rang a little hollow for me. The near-simultaneous invocations of Requiem For A Tuesday and Cones Of Dunshire at the top felt sweaty. “5,000 Candles In The Wind” was a nice touch, but wouldn’t “Catch Your Dreams” have been a more inspiring Mouse Rat singalong—and a chance for a Duke Silver cameo?
But the more I sit with it, the more my takeaway is one that I’ve seen echoed online this morning: This didn’t feel 100% right as a new episode of Parks And Recreation (and given the circumstances of its production, how could it?), but Parks And Recreation is the right show for right now. For all the themes of community and connection referenced above, but also because, like Shannon mentions, the distance between the satirically exaggerated Pawnee and our own heightened reality doesn’t feel particularly vast in the spring of 2020. Here’s the rare example of the sitcom form where the “situation” part of the equation is exactly the same on both sides of the screen, where the shortest path to comedy is putting the ubiquitously meaningless adspeak of “in these uncertain times” in the mouth of snake-oil peddling odor monger Dennis Feinstein (Jason Mantzoukas). I much preferred the special’s media-blitz second act to the video calls, which didn’t get me fully onboard until that final expression of Leslie and Ron’s friendship. But it’s hard to argue with the video calls conceptually, as yet another way of feeling like we’re weathering the coronavirus right alongside the Parks & Rec crew.
When the special kicked things off with dopey Bobby Newport, I knew it would be great. (I love a good “talking too close to the mic” joke.) The episode was warm and heartfelt, and brought hit after hit, plus tantalizing glimpses at our pals’ lives today. The special was all uplift, even when characters dealt with trying times, like Ann and Chris’ separate living spaces, or Andy’s tragic two-day shed lockdown. I really liked how the writing dealt so handily with the actors having to appear separately. It felt seamless and explainable. I also loved Megan Mullally’s Tammy 2 surprise, which gave us another hilarious look at Ron’s sadistic side. They even took advantage of Ben Schwartz’ enormous no-haircut hair with a quickly trending-on-Twitter appearance from Jean-Ralphio and his un-dialable phone number. There were parts I thought I’d seen before, like Garry’s Instagram filter mishaps, which SNL did for its first COVID episode, or the big Li’l Sebastian singalong, which felt just a tad hokey, but the show still managed to bring heart to a tough situation.