I was smiling as soon as Leslie Knope’s face lit up my TV screen. Heck, I was smiling as soon as the show’s quirky title sequence livened up my living room – both things I never thought I’d experience again following the end of Parks and Recreation’s original run. The Pawnee Parks Department is back to assuage our stay-at-home blues with a greatest hits run of iconic bits and recurring show motifs— along with some quarantine jabs thrown in for good measure. Sure, the episode lacks the polish of a usual production and is missing the surefire energy of an in-room ensemble, but this Coronavirus relief special is nonetheless a momentous reunion delivered at the right place and right time.
Leslie Knope is struggling to manage work responsibilities from home and check in on dear friends both near and far – admittedly a very Leslie thing to do. “We need to remember what’s most important in life,” Leslie once had outlined, “Waffles, friends, work.” I have no doubt Leslie has mastered the art of waffle-making by now, but it’s housekeeping of the other two that drives her daily routine now. She is all of us, basically, as we each struggle to reckon with the many obstacles presented by our current pandemic.
Pawnee is no stranger to health issues (a dynamite flu episode, plus a memorable town slogan, “First in friendship, fourth in obesity”) just as the town has had it’s share of economic contractions (end of Season 2). In many ways this is a natural, if opportune progression, but we’re mostly just catching up with this optimistic bunch via Zoom. The show instead uses a Gryzzl application – the tech conglomerate that took over Pawnee in Season 7. Tidbits like this might not matter for the uninitiated, but for devotees, it’s a display of obsessive passion held by the show’s dedicated team of writers after all these years.
The writers clearly had a blast constructing this video-chat episode. From a cold open which I won’t spoil, to dual Joan Callamezzo AND Perd Hapley segments (both will go down as all-timers imo), to appearances by some epic Pawnee citizens, this special has been given free rein to throw in as many recurring jokes and guest stars simply because it would totally rule if they did.
Because this is all in service of raising money, there’s really nothing to lose, only more to gain. But it’s amazing how much the writers were able to stuff in while never losing the single and determined thread weaving us through this gallery of laughs – Leslie’s concern and compassion. Yes, there’s sincerity behind this Parks and Rec special, but it still functions like a Parks and Rec episode.
Nobody wanting to be the one to call Jerry is very on brand, and Jerry himself accidentally activating his video filters is classic Jerry. Idea man Tom Haverford pitching quarantine products is madly inspired, and Ron’s ex-wife Tammy 2 ditching quarantine protocol to stalk her ex-husband feels like a given considering Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally are married in real life— yet the premise is still so damn funny. Ben Wyatt taking another geeky and misguided dive into the world of Claymation is my personal favorite returning bit. (Tag yourself! I’m Ben’s “Letters to Cleo” t-shirt.)
It’s reassuring to see these characters faring about as well as some of us are on the other side of the screen – and perhaps the point of the whole enterprise. (To know that Timothée Chalamet exists within the show’s context is most reassuring of all.) They may be optimistic but they’re still very fallible people, and watching them deal with their hurdles together and come out stronger and more unified at the end was what made Parks and Rec so endearing in the first place.
You’re free to take or leave this episode. (In case you were wondering, it fits snugly into the show’s canon.) You won’t miss anything if you decide to skip, nor will it deepen an understanding of these characters you might already have. Us fans are OF COURSE gonna eat this up as comfort food, iPhone video quality and all. The aesthetic might be a thorn for some, but it’s perfectly in-keeping with how most of us are staying connected to each other via Facetime and Zoom. The show’s prior “talking heads” structure already does much of the legwork in selling the style of this episode, go figure.
Even with the constraints of a virtual room, their combined chemistry hasn’t missed a step. These personas remain unimpeded by time or distance, whether it’s Leslie relentlessly checking in with everybody and borderline annoying some of them, Ann Perkins resuming her usual sunny disposition (when Rashida Jones graced my screen, I did the steamy hand slide from Titanic), or Andy Dwyer failing and succeeding at a PSA in his trademark lovable dimwittedness. You almost wish you could get their Zoom IP and join in on the riffing.
More than anything, this Parks and Recreation special made me realize how much I missed this splendid cast and this weird little town. That sense of longing, of missing and wishing this reunion could last longer than a rare episode is precisely why the show is so darn special. (You can bet your ass I cried during the ending sing-along.) We are spoiled with 7 seasons already, and so for the show to return under any circumstance, it had to be for something greater than its own purpose.
The show kindly asks viewers to donate and help wherever possible, and, for those of us feeling the heat of stir craziness, to treat ourselves kindly. The Parks Department may not provide a cure to the virus or an end to the lockdown, but the special provides a thing we all need and need most right now: a laugh or two, or 20. Or 30.
Now if you’ll excuse me, another Parks and Rec binge is in order.