Parks and Recreation belongs to a rare breed of television show – the kind that quit whilst it was ahead. Running for seven seasons, the über-positive show came to an end in 2015 after seven seasons, without having to sacrifice any cast members or risking any of its well-established fan goodwill.
It was a surprise, then – though a delightful one – that last week a one-off reunion was announced. Of course, the times we live in make the production of “new” episodes of any scripted shows near-impossible, but for a show which has remained happily retired in spite of a continued, dedicated following to do so was doubly derailing.
Thankfully, this is an episode that marries both the show’s original happy spirit, and embraces the current state of the world (fictional or otherwise). The last season of the show in particular maintained a fast and loose relationship with the idea of reality, spinning so far ahead into the future of its characters’ lives that it bordered on science-fiction. Luckily, the events detailed in the show’s prior farewell sprang forward enough that they don’t necessarily invalidate anything that’s since happened in our own “timeline”, or vice versa: if anything, the idea of a global pandemic/shutdown may have seemed less believable than, say, the hologram tablets that the show’s 2015 finale had originally predicted.
The story reunites the most famous residents of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana as they check in on each other via video call, led by Leslie Knope (their deputy director-turned-politician, played by Amy Poehler) to make sure that they’re all keeping safe and healthy, physically and mentally. Knope’s comment early on about it being “impossible to get everyone on the phone at the same time” establishes an internal plot, whilst setting up a grand final scene without sacrificing the odd-couple moments that make up a large portion of the show’s appeal.
Unsurprisingly for a series created by Greg “The Office” Daniels and Michael “The Good Place” Schur, the show hit such a creative stride in its original run that its writing staff seemed to know its characters every move in any imaginable scenario. The script here continues that tradition; not only are there plenty of instantly-quotable exchanges, but each individual offers a succinct summary of their place in this pandemic that falls perfectly in line with their characteristics. The surly Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) celebrates the solitude and social distancing that these circumstances dictate, whilst Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) – whose concern for her community was what originally brought this group together – is using her experience as a nurse to volunteer for a local outpatient center. There’s also good work done to cover up the separation of on-screen couples that obviously live apart in real-life, like Andy (Chris Pratt) and April (Aubrey Plaza) – not to mention an inspired cameo by Offerman’s real-world spouse Megan Mullally, who regularly featured on the show. Quite simply, it would be easy to laud these on-point performances for the rest of this review, but there’s a lot more careful detail to be found that furthers this instant familiarity.
It’s a wonder that even these 25 short minutes were able to be put together so quickly, but there’s a group effort on display here. Some of the show’s supporting cast pop up in well-timed segments that allow hardcore fans to check in on their favourite obscure personalities, and all cast members obviously hold the show in such high regard that they still own original props that are reused as believable set decoration here. There is a particularly touching video chat late on in the episode, for which Ron makes note that everyone “cleared their schedule”: this sentiment is spoken not only in-character, but as the cast’s readiness to create the special proves, to the show and its fans in general. Of course, a cynic may say that a global work stoppage is the only reason that cast members like Hollywood star Chris Pratt were readily available, but in the spirit of the show’s good nature we’ll just call it “making the best of a bad situation”.
Of course, this outing exists largely as a distraction, and it isn’t exactly a widely-available one, as all of these features – and indeed, the star rating below –surely resonate only with established fans. Parks and Recreation never really utilised the “clip show” trope that most sitcoms come to use but this is a close-enough resemblance of one – and so, not an example you would show to first-time viewers. Moments like the appearance of Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) will delight any long-time Parks fan even if it isn’t one of the character’s stronger appearances, but these in-jokes will make little sense to newbies. There are also lines of dialogue directly lifted from earlier episodes which, although far from being cases of lazy writing, require a forgiving bend that only devotees can offer. Clearly, this is Pawnee at its most Pawneean.
A very real message about the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak results in this serving as a PSA not just in-universe, but to the viewers on the real-world side of the screen. However, Poehler’s unique traits at its center mean that the concerns of Leslie and her friends come across much more honestly than other recent famous uploads, and it’s a sign of the place this show holds in the hearts of so many that they were able to raise $3 million almost immediately for Feeding America, the charity for which this episode is still raising funds. This is a serving of undiluted Parks and Recreation for its loyal fanbase, and this review misses so much of the features that make it so for fear of diverging into a full-on essay/love-letter. But if you love and miss Leslie, Ben, Ron, April, Andy, Ann, Chris, Tom, Donna, Garry and their inimitable companions, you MUST seek this episode out: after all, there may be little else going on right now, but there may be no better way to spend your time.
A Parks and Recreation Special is available to stream now on YouTube and the NBC website. Have you seen it? What did you think? Let us know below – or on Twitter and Instagram – and be sure to download the Kernel App for more great content, and to track all your favourite upcoming movies.