This review contains spoilers for NBC’s A Parks and Recreation Special reunion episode. You can donate at Feeding America here.
Leslie Knope’s brand of guileless optimism might’ve seemed extreme to us mere mortals back when Parks and Recreation first premiered, but it feels downright revolutionary at this particular moment in 2020 – even if our plucky heroine finally looks as frazzled and worn out as the rest of us. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of the Parks and Recreation Special – if a person as effervescent as Leslie Knope is having trouble holding it together, it’s no wonder the rest of us are, especially when a random check-in from a friend can mean the difference between a crummy day and a slightly brighter one.
Sure, it’s a little jarring to see our favorite Pawneeans in the harsh glare of ring lights and iPhone cameras instead of on full sets with hair and makeup, but the scrappy, DIY feeling of the Parks and Recreation reunion special is perfectly in-keeping with Leslie and her friends’ equally scrappy, DIY approach to local government.
In fact, despite the obvious logistical challenges of putting this reunion together, it’s a special that makes perfect sense within the Parks and Rec universe and the emotional lives of these characters. As executive producer Mike Schur told reporters earlier this week, “Leslie Knope was such a person who believed in friendship … she was a very loyal person, she’s a very friendly person and she put all of her eggs in the basket of the power of friendship. And so it’s really just about her connecting with people and holding the group of characters together through a time when they’re just unable to [connect in person].”
Schur revealed that the actors were delivered phones, tripods, microphones, and small lights (all disinfected, of course) to film the special from home, with the directors and editors calling them via Zoom to help them. “They had to be their own camera people. They had to hit record and then stop and they had to take themselves and say ‘take three’ and then clap for sound,” Schur explained, describing it as a “laborious” process and “not the way TV supposed to be made.”
Still, for the purposes of this exercise, it allows us a realistic window into the world of our favorite characters – lord knows we’re all painfully familiar with communicating via Zoom at this point – even if, in the Parks and Rec universe, the video messaging app of choice is, of course, Gryzzl. (For those keeping score, Andy has somehow racked up the most “Gryzzl Points” with 3,394,446, although Donna’s obviously doing better, since she has “Elite GryzzlGold Status.” Jerry/Garry/Larry/Terry/Barry has somehow managed to get minus 2,287 points. Typical Jerry.)
Naturally, the special has to go through some narrative contortions to explain why married couples like Leslie and Ben, Andy and April, and Chris and Ann aren’t together in lockdown, but once those explanations are out of the way, it mostly just feels like we’re eavesdropping (Zoom bombing?) on the characters’ phone calls, catching up with old friends and hearing about their daily struggles much like many of us are checking in with our own loved ones these days.
Still, in terms of pure escapism, the special is at its best when it finds ways to break out of the video call format in small ways, like Leslie and Ben’s pitch-perfect appearances on the local Pawnee talk shows like “At Home with Joan” and “Ya Heard? with Perd.” The cameos from other deranged Pawnee mainstays like Dennis Feinstein (Jason Mantzoukas), Dr. Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser), and Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) – taking the form of commercials – help break up the format further, and each character is pretty much exactly where we’d expect them to be given the circumstances. Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally’s real-life marriage also allows for a deliciously twisted Tammy Two appearance, thank goodness.
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The special is light on plot (obviously, since no one can really do anything right now), but that feels like cheap criticism for an episode that seems designed as the TV equivalent of a warm hug, and on that front, it delivers in spades, especially in the emotional and nostalgic final scene. More than most Parks and Rec episodes, the time seems to fly by here, but each returning cast member gets a moment or two to shine (and drop some easter eggs for fans). Chris Pratt, in particular, seems to be in his element as the lovably doofy Andy Dwyer – especially when he gets to break out his Johnny Karate alter-ego, which is arguably the comedic high point of the episode (closely followed by Jean-Ralphio’s literal cry for help).
While any newly-produced entertainment right now has to strike a tricky balance between acknowledging our strange new status quo and distracting us from it, this return visit to Pawnee manages to navigate that tightrope admirably – it’s pure comfort food, but right now, it doesn’t need to be anything else, especially considering how well the show ended.
Schur made that point when talking to reporters, admitting that another Parks and Recreation reunion is unlikely: “I would never say never, because why bother saying never? But this felt like a moment in time and a cause that we could all rally behind and that made sense,” he said. “When it ended – Amy and I used to talk a lot about this – we felt like we made our point. Like, we had an argument, we made the argument and we got out. And I don’t see the point of rebooting a show or revamping a show or getting a show back up and running just to do it. It was really fun. It was a true joy to make the show when we did and I really felt like we made our argument and then we left and I think that’s the right move.”
We didn’t need another visit to Pawnee, and this special certainly doesn’t add anything to a series that got to go out on its own terms and already cemented its place as one of TV’s best comedies, but it’s still a trip worth taking – just for an excuse to catch up with old friends.
Source: IGN.com A Parks and Recreation Special Review