The main cast and a nice slice of the supporting one reconvened after five years Thursday night on NBC for “A Parks and Recreation Special.” They came to raise money to feed those in need and to send good vibrations and embedded mental health PSAs to the world at large. It was the right idea at the right time — a paean to community at the very moment in this strange global adventure when Selfishness is asserting itself in the face of Sacrifice — and as perfectly executed as a Simone Biles floor routine. And performed on the traditional night.
I guess I didn’t realize how much I loved and have missed this show, but the old opening credits put a catch in my throat. (Perhaps I just miss 2015.) As absurd as the series could be, “Parks and Rec” was the rare series in whose characters I felt completely emotionally invested, over whose fictional fates I fretted or rejoiced. And somehow it felt that the truth of what was onscreen was inextricable from, and an accurate reflection of, the relationships of the people who put it there. (Except for everyone hating Jerry.) This isn’t always the case, to be sure — we are forever learning about chummy characters played for years by actors who couldn’t abide one another — and if you happen to know anything contrary about the people in “Parks and Recreation,” I wish you would keep it to yourself.
“A Parks and Recreation Special” is one nice surprise after another, and I was glad to have each be, you know, surprising. It’s like a party where you expect to see certain people and then it’s, like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so and so! And, look, it’s that person! And you, how I have forgotten you?” (If you haven’t watched it yet but plan to, and you love the series, for goodness sake, stop reading now. I’m putting this extra sentence in to give you time to back out, before your eyes skip ahead.)
Most of the special is set up as a series of video calls, arranged by Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), concerned that her web of forever friends and old colleagues from the Pawnee, Ind., parks department are not staying sufficiently connected. As before, Leslie takes everything on her shoulders, and likes it. As all new productions will be for at least the near future, it’s set in the situation we are in: “Have you been practicing social distancing?” Leslie asks Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson. “I’ve been practicing social distancing since I was 4 years old,” he replies, the actor’s own woody workshop an appropriate backdrop for his character.
Obviously there’s a challenge in making a show about community when everyone is living in their own castle with the drawbridge up, especially when some of your main characters are married to one another while the actors who play them are not. The writers, led by co-creator Michael Schur, isolated the characters in appropriate ways: Leslie finishing up work at the Department of the Interior, while husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) is at home, collapsing into renascent nerdism; Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), locked in a shed, preferring to break his way out than getting April (Aubrey Plaza) to open the door; Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), volunteering as a nurse, isolating responsibly from Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) at the other end of their house. (At the request of the CDC, Chris, a “super healer,” is donating blood four times a week: “My red cells are so big you can see them with the naked eye — they’re like cherry Froot Loops. And my blood type is just … positive.)
Contrariwise, since Offerman is actually married to Megan Mullally, who played Ron’s predatory second ex-wife, town librarian Tammy, she was able to make a cameo with him, tied up in the background for Ron’s protection. Though characters appeared on screen side by side, that was the only actual two-shot in the episode.
Also reporting in: Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), before a tropical backdrop, “blitzing some entrepreneurial ideas,” including “double breasted pyjamas,” “lasagna that’s also toilet paper” and “a protective mask with other people’s teeth printed on it: ‘Stay safe and look fresh as hell with Timothee Chalamet’s smile.’” There was Donna Meagle (Retta), speaking of her Mercedes-Benz, her character’s wealth nicely illustrated by the color-sorted wall of shoes behind her, and Garry Gergich (Jim O’Heir), whom everyone used to call Jerry, and whom no one on the phone tree wanted to call. (My only real problem with “Parks and Recreation” was the way everyone treated him.) G(J)erry accidentally applied filters to his call, appearing as a dog, a horror movie clown and a pile of excrement. Possibly I identified.
Intersecting these calls were remote editions of local TV shows “Pawnee Today,” with Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) broadcasting from home, going mad; and Perd Hapley’s (Jay Jackson) “Ya Heard? With Perd!,” where Andy put on his Johnny Karate character to reassure the kids: “Things will get back to normal. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, it might not be next week, might not be a year, or a hundred years, or a thousand years, it might never happen. But it will eventually.” (I was happy to see all these actors back in their old suits, but I have to say it was a palpable relief to find Chris Pratt scraggly again as Andy; Pratt’s success notwithstanding, it’s almost as if he’s been lost without him.)
And interrupting those programs were advertisements from Dr. Jerry Jamm (Jon Glaser), in a self-inflicted quarantine haircut, advertising do-it-yourself dentistry (”Is it legal? Probably. Is it safe? That’s up to you”); Jean-Raphio (Ben Schwartz), posting his own phone number (”Call me any time you want, I am that bored”); and perfumer Dennis Feinstein (Jason Mantzoukas), flogging Miracle Cure, a new scent promised to kill all viruses, and any living thing it comes in contact with. And at the top of the show was Paul Rudd, always a promising appearance, as woolly headed aged rich boy Bobby Newport, introducing the special, from “Switzerland,” understanding neither what he was reading, nor that there was a world health emergency.
It was, as one might have rightly guessed given the constraints, episodic rather than plot-driven — such narrative momentum as there was involved the community’s response to Leslie’s need for community — with a finale performance of Mouse Rat’s “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” a tribute to Li’l Sebastian, the miniature horse whose super-equine charisma was the only thing every character in the show, and every citizen of Pawnee, could always agree upon, and which put the whole cast onscreen together in what would be the world’s best Zoom shot, if it weren’t brought to you by Pawnee’s own Gryzzl.
It all felt honest, made with love. There was never any sense that the actors had been away from their characters for five years, or of shoehorning old material into a weirdly shaped new box. It was pure Leslie Knope, addressing the real emergency by raising money, addressing the series by staying true to its spirit, and addressing the audience as part of the community.
“Someone needs to stop me before I say this was the best month of my life,” said Leslie, and though a pandemic is a bad excuse for half an hour of beautiful television, half an hour of beautiful television is good medicine in a pandemic.
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