A lot has changed in the five years since Leslie Knope and the Parks And Recreation crew left us alone with our memories of Little Sebastian, swarming raccoons, Sewage Joe, and a time when post-Obama civic optimism hadn’t yet been squashed by the flat-footed loafer of farcically cynical celebrity show-presidency. For one thing, that gang could all actually still hang out with each other whenever they wanted (late-season geographical character scattering notwithstanding). For another, complaints about now-legendary series creator Michael Schur’s deceptively complex humanism tipping—in Parks And Rec’s final seasons—into too-cuddly wish-fulfillment felt like the necessary counterbalancing of a show whose roughest edges had been burnished in the telling to a warm, golden Indiana glow.
But that was then. Now is now, a time when—even before a pandemic turned the entire country toward sensible yet fear-based self-isolation—tiny TV outposts exhibiting the best (if often misguided) instincts of American politics and public life weren’t a sought-after antidote to the too-broad-for-satire daily shitshow that is the Trump administration. Now is when we would go to extreme, heretofore-unthinkable lengths just for a fleeting half-hour visit from some of our best and goofiest friends, real or fictional. And if the one-off A Parks And Recreation Special isn’t an actual, legendarily restorative Leslie Knope bear hug, its cleverly constructed dog-pile of cameos from our favorite Pawneeans is as close as it gets, especially since, this time out, even the indefatigable Leslie could use some help.
Formed, as are most interactions are these heavy, formless days, from the nightly 7 p.m. video phone tree current Deputy Director of the Department of the Interior Leslie has forced onto every member of her inconveniently dispersed work family, the episode wastes no time. Mainly because there’s no time to waste. With its accumulated ten main characters and a uniformly welcome handful of side-cameos to squeeze in, the story is pared down to the basics, while still allowing for enough fan service, exposition, callbacks, cameos, and one shockingly effective emotional singalong to serve as a welcome care package sent from Pawnee, Indiana individually to everybody in the country. Written by a Parks And Rec all-star team of Schur, Megan Amram, Joe Mande, Dave King, Jen Statsky, Matt Murray, and Aisha Muharrar, the episode manages to give us just enough of what we want in the way of catchup, while managing to, with a minimum of observable effort, deliver a very Leslie Knope-esque message about what do to when things seem the bleakest.
With such a breakneck pace of pop-ins and jokes, it’s hard not to spoil the enjoyment in the telling, but everybody’s doing about as you’d have expected when the show left them. An onscreen legend solidly fixes events in the present day, so while Congressman Ben and government official Leslie are still hard at work on a “media blitz” disseminating factual, conscientious, and non bleach-injecting guidelines for staying safe, we’re still left to wonder just whose Secret Service detail that will be at Garry’s funeral far, far in the future. Amy Poehler and Adam Scott fall into Leslie and Ben’s lived-in connubial camaraderie without a hitched step, with the video-calling Leslie spotting some familiar red flags right away. Ben’s Letters To Cleo concert tee prompts Leslie to suspect, rightly, that isolation and non-stop homeschooling of their three sugar-rushing kids has him reaching back to one or two brain-twisting old habits. (“I know that shirt and it worries me,” Leslie exclaims, and she’s not wrong.)
From there, the episode mainly follows Leslie’s phone tree from Ron (whose lifetime of social distancing has stood him in fine stead, Leslie’s calls notwithstanding), to April and Andy (wearing the first five articles of clothing plucked from a garbage bag each day, and accidentally locked in a shed for two days, respectively), to Tom (Bali backdrop subbing for his cancelled life coach book tour), to Donna (naturally sporting the “Elite Grizzlgold status” call window badge), to—finally and, for everyone, begrudgingly—the honorable Mayor Garry Gergich. Everyone’s last stop on the phone tree, Garry remains as blissfully immune to insult, even as he accidentally turns his head into the poop emoji and bemoans the fact that, while his citizens are mainly following the rules, the notoriously fickle and hair-trigger people of Pawnee are pissed at him for cancelling the town’s “Popsicle Lick-And-Pass” festival. (Topping the Pawneeans’ unsanitary drinking fountain habits must have been tough for the writers room, but congrats.)
In an interview, Schur explained that nurse Ann Perkins’ participation would be the toughest for the room from a narrative standpoint. Ann’s career and character trajectory was always one of Parks’ wobbliest, but her position as a medical worker during a highly infectious pandemic no doubt provided a challenge in writing a feel-good reunion show. As it turns out, the unassuming Anne typically doesn’t make a big deal of things and, even though she apparently retired from nursing, she’s volunteering doing outpatient care in Michigan. Sure, she and husband Chris (Rob Lowe, snapping back into hyper-positivity mode thanks to Chris status as a “super-healer” blood donor and the fact that he’s run their home treadmill into a flat incline) are taking the exhaustingly wise step of sequestering themselves in different quadrants of their house. (The detail that Chris has cautionary custody of kids Oliver and little Leslie passes by with just a shadow on Rashida Jones’ face of how much that part of medical pros life these days completely sucks.) But they’re at least together (if not really), unlike Leslie and Ben most of the time. And, well, Leslie and everyone, all of the time.
Throughout the episode, the idea that people need to take care of their “mental and emotional health” keeps sticking out, especially once Leslie and Ben’s media tour takes them back to the home versions of the shows of a pair of very welcome Pawnee media figures. (One, in particular, is obviously losing what few marbles she had in glitzy isolation, with Leslie’s informational interview doubling gradually as a stealth intervention.) That media blitz also gives the episode an excuse for some funny and deeply welcome commercial cameos from a few Pawnee area businesspeople (and one ever-hilarious former sort-of businessperson), doing their level best to uphold their suspect commercial ambitions during the shutdown. Schur and company use one such ad to take suitably acidic swipes at those hucksters, televangelists, and, you know, U.S. Presidents hawking fraudulent, untested, and/or outright lethal “miracle cures” for COVID-19, about as close as the special gets to being overtly political.
Instead, the episode just lets our old friends back to play around for our much-needed amusement and comfort-viewing for a while. Donna does tout the hard, tele-educating work of unseen teacher husband Joe, noting that every teacher except Joe should receive a brand new Mercedes after this. (Real estate tycoon Donna already bought him one, natch.) And Ann’s tired eyes coupled with Leslie’s barely restrained best friend worry about Ann’s safety serves as the episode’s eloquently not-preachy salute to everyone in that field. But mainly, the mere fact of Ben and Leslie’s tireless, clearly uphill efforts to simply restate the need for science, fact, and common sense is the show’s subtlest commentary on the fact that America is currently being bombarded with the opposite of all of that, including from its so-called leader. (A mid-interview appearance from former local kids show host Johnny Karate responsibly puts up the disclaimer: “The virus cannot be karate-chopped.”)
And, honestly, if all this cobbled-together reunion show did was to give us one last episode of Parks And Recreation in these times when Americans have stress binge-watched right to the bottom of the streaming barrel, I’d say a profound and grateful thank you. But the real kicker comes at the end when, in response to the drooping demeanor of their own leader (Leslie confesses she’s only been getting two hours’ sleep, instead of her customary four), the sentiment-averse Ron Swanson essentially pulls a Michael Schur, gathering everyone on a group call to have Andy lead them all in a rousingly silly rendition of Pawnee’s unofficial anthem. “5,000 Candles In The Wind” might just be an overblown and underwritten rock paean to what the still-unimpressed Ben Wyatt once termed “kind of a small horse,” but the gleefully goofy togetherness of this disparate group of friends finds us—like even Ron Swanson—irresistibly and even tearfully crooning along with unexpected emotion. As Ron puts it with signature Ron Swanson brevity when Leslie thanks him for his efforts on her behalf, “It was easy. I just called all your friends and told them I thought you needed a little help.” Thanks, everyone. We needed this.
- Apart from tending to viewers emotional and mental well being simply by existing, this episode is raising money for various charities designed to help out the vulnerable during this truly lousy and trying time. They are Feeding America and The National Alliance on Mental Illness. Appearing as herself after the episode, Amy Poehler added that those are just suggestions (although Feeding America donations will be matched up to $500,000), urging people to support “any other charity that supports frontline healthcare workers, food insecure people, or citizens in need.” Here’s one list.
- The episode opens with a surprise appearance from Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) who’s been fox hunting at his family’s estate in Switzerland and has no idea what’s been going on. He does, however, call what we’re about to watch a Parks And Recreation episode, suggesting Bobby Newport’s infamous dimness might actually allow him to see right through the fourth wall.
- Sure, Saturday Night Live did the unintentional internet face filters gag on its own homebound episode last week, but it’s just so Garry a thing to do, that it’s hard to get too upset. Still, dammit, Garry!
- Ben still gets no respect on a certain Pawnee talk show, first being introduced as Leslie’s houseboy and then, after correcting things, his onscreen chyron being replaced with “congressman.” (Quotes courtesy of Pawnee Today.)
- Chris’ blood has potential healing research properties only shared by, according to Ann, “Megan Rapinoe and a panther at the Miami Zoo.”
- Let’s all leave together singing the most absurdly touching sentiment from Little Sebastian’s theme: “Here’s the part that hurts the most/Humans cannot ride a ghost/Maybe someday we’ll saddle up again.” Indeed.