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Parks and Recreation's coronavirus special was so perfect that it shouldn't be copied

  • "It’s been a thrill marveling at the ingenuity with which Hollywood has improvised, setting up livestreams and MacGyvering together tribute concerts, late-night talk shows, fully staged theater, and, in the case of Pop’s One Day at a Time, announcing an animated episode to account for scripts it wasn’t able to film before the shutdown," says Kevin Fallon. "All accomplish two of the entertainment industry’s most crucial assignments: diversion from the realities of the particular moment, and reflecting them back at us. Sometimes those are dueling tasks. Other times they’re complementary. If someone or some series was going to take on the fool’s errand of creating original scripted coronavirus content, they were going to have to accomplish the latter. Parks and Recreation was the perfect show to do it. And hopefully nobody else will ... Noble intentions are one reason to applaud the effort. The fact that it was pretty damn good is another. The premise was slight, yet profound—kind of emblematic of daily life under quarantine, in which the minute and the mundane suddenly seem monumental." Fallon says the end of the episode was especially unique. "The sight of this cast that I love all on screen together doing something nice to make these hard times more manageable, even if just for a moment, was incredibly moving—just as the gesture was for Leslie," he says. "That’s why I don’t think any other show could have pulled something like this off. I mean, yes, they could have pulled off a reunion of the original cast from their respective quarantines, and many series have done just that for different charity endeavors. It’s been lovely and fun. But a scripted effort like this is far more precarious."


    • Parks and Rec knew how to tackle the coronavirus era because it premiered during a crisis: "Producing a very special episode of a beloved show in response to a crisis can always be dicey — the less said about the post-9/11 West Wing one-off, 'Isaac and Ishmael,' the better," says James Poniewozik. "For a drama today, the risk would be sanctimony or mawkishness. For a comedy it’s that, well, a deadly plague is not funny. There is definitely an uneasy undercurrent in the Parks special, as there is now in every remote late-night show interview and Zoom-call sketch. The reason for all those toilet-paper and home-schooling jokes, after all, is the fear of disease and death. Throughout new TV today, it’s the unspoken realities that often ring the loudest. So is Parks and Recreation too light and sunny to deal with this moment? It may be the classic comedy that’s just light and sunny enough — in part because that lightness has always been grounded, however subtly, in reality."
    • Please don't let this be the future of TV!: "I was excited to see how some of the smartest minds in TV writing, led by showrunner Michael Schur, would tackle the problem of presenting an entire episode of television like a Zoom conference call and making it engaging and interesting," says Emily VanDerWerff. "To tell you the truth, they mostly didn’t. The special was frequently amusing, and I couldn’t help but feel warmth toward its charitable goals. (It was created to raise money for Feeding America.) But it never solved its central issue: how to tell a story in this format. And if some of the best minds in all of TV can’t solve that, how can anyone else be expected to do so?" VanDerWerff says the special seems to have taken inspiration from the recent SNL At Home episodes. "If you look at the special as an episode of a sitcom, it mostly falls flat," she says. "The story, such as it is, barely exists, and its big moment of emotional catharsis involves all of the characters performing a song from the show’s best season, in an ending the special doesn’t remotely earn. But if you think of the special as a collection of comedic sketches starring the Parks and Rec characters, it hangs together much better."
    • 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," says Robert Lloyd. "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." He adds: "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?'"
    • Parks and Rec showed how other scripted shows can move forward with remotely filmed episodes: The A Parks and Recreation Special "managed to approximate both something closer to TV-sitcom production values than might have been expected and some of the bonhomie of the original, even with its cast separated," says Daniel D'Addario, adding: "Its production was up to the moment; so, pleasantly enough, was the show itself. The special’s success is replicable not only if other shows put in the production work but also if other shows can, similarly, strike the right balance."
    • The special was a coronavirus-era reunion we needed: "Humor-wise, the special wouldn’t make anyone’s top 10, or even top 50, Parks episodes list," says Alan Sepinwall. "That’s no great sin when we’re talking about the best comedy of the last decade, and especially given the conditions under which it was delivered. But I could not have felt more thrilled, or relieved, or just plain comforted, if the special was somehow the second coming of 'Flu Season' or 'April and Andy’s Fancy Party.' Even when it aired in a far safer and saner time in American life, Parks was always equal parts warm hug and cool hilarity, and the former felt more welcome now."
    • Parks and Rec delivered to its fans what the show is famous for: Hope, sweetness, enthusiasm, and light comedy: "It was peak Parks—a community brought together by necessity, geography, and a niche interest in miniature stallions," says Sonia Saraiya. "It’s nice to revisit the show’s cheery optimism, especially as it pertains to politics. But the special, with its unfamiliar format and far-flung characters, reminded me just how distant the world of the original seasons is. Parks and Recreation is a show about kind-hearted government types working together for a better world. If you can remember such a time, good for you."
    • The episode just lets our old friends back to play around for our much-needed amusement and comfort-viewing for a while: "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," says Dennis Perkins. "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."
    • One thing A Parks and Recreation Special missed was its most enduring quote: "treat yo’ self": "It was a genuine delight to see Aziz Ansari and Retta on-screen again as soulmates Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle," says Josh Kurp, "and while there was plenty of talk about Bali and the importance of teachers (all of whom deserve a brand-new Mercedes), I kept expecting them to drop a 'treat yo’ self,' but they never did. We did get 'clink' noises, though. This is not a complaint, as I didn’t want the reunion special to only be wink-wink nods to fans, but it is genuinely surprising, as Treat Yo’ Self is now a holiday. It’s a quote that even non-Parks fans know and use, like how Homer Simpson’s 'd’oh' is part of the lexicon. 'Treat yo’ self' even appeared on the show’s official Twitter before the special. I wonder if it’s because, frankly, Aziz and Retta are probably sick of it."
    • Parks and Rec writers created something that feels urgent without being self-important, and sweet without being saccharine: "Revisiting Parks and Rec in 2020 feels like returning to a more hopeful and optimistic world," says Emily Heller, adding: "Was it necessary to revive a sitcom that already feels dated? Of course not. Is it jarring to see such familiar characters in this new context? Maybe a little. Did I still cry when the cast started singing along to 'Bye Bye Little Sebastian (5,000 Candles In the Wind)'? You bet your a** I did. And then I donated to Feeding America and started thinking about ways I can be a Leslie Knope in my own community. That call to action is what makes A Parks and Recreation Special different both from other celebrity quarantine events, like SNL at Home or Gal Gadot’s celebrity-filled cover of 'Imagine.'"
    • The key to enjoying A Parks and Recreation Special was to look at it as "utopian science fiction": "Even in its heyday, Parks and Recreation was pegged by some critics as a 'liberal fantasy' and faced criticism for its 'childish optimism'—both fair assessments, as far as I’m concerned," says Judy Berman. "Most of us probably decided long ago how we feel about the show’s limited range of emotions, its inability to imagine a harder, crueler reality. (Wouldn’t a real-life Ron Swanson, staunch libertarian that he is, be grumbling about the overreaches of a hysterical 'nanny state' these days?) Watching the reunion special, I found I could still enjoy its bighearted comedy, albeit less as optimistic realism and more as utopian science fiction."
    • Parks and Rec relied on people being together, so it was stunning to see the remote special exceed expectations: "One of the reasons I tried — oh, I really tried — to keep my expectations low with this special is that Parks has always been, for me, a show about togetherness," says Linda Holmes. "At weddings, at funerals, at parties and weird public events, it's typically been at the height of its powers when a group connects. And I've seen enough Zoom calls to know that groups of faces on a screen have their charms, but they can't really get to the emotional place that a group hug wants to go. I was wrong to doubt."
    • A Parks and Recreation Special was impossible to dislike – even if it was inescapably melancholy: "Just as the original Parks & Rec matched the naive, stubbornly upbeat worldview so many of us had prior to Trump and Brexit, this, too, was a reflection of where we’re at today," says Adam White. "It may not have been intentional."
    • Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was happy to learn Ann Perkins is a volunteer nurse fighting coronavirus in her state
    • Nick Offerman found filming the special to be "moving": "We’re always aware that there will most likely never be any sort of actual reunion roundup of Parks and Rec," he tells Variety. "It seems that, because of the way Mike Schur does things, which involves integrity and quality — for which we’re all extremely grateful — I don’t think we’ll ever come back. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to eat those words at any moment, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. And so to get it to get an email from Mike that says, 'Hey guys, here’s this idea' and put on a little pageant to raise some money, there’s a lot going on there. A) This thing is supposed to be impossible; we’re supposed to never get back together and do this, so that’s already incredibly moving and I’m already welling up. And then of course the heart of the show — the heart of Mike’s empathy and the way that rubs off on the rest of the production — this show teaches us all, even as we’re making it, to look out for our neighbors and to love our fellow man and and take a vested interest in our citizenship. That’s the incentive and the driving force. And it’s an opportunity to raise a bunch of money to feed some unfortunate people, and so you know the whole thing just just leaves me in a warm, wet puddle of tears."

    TOPICS: Parks and Recreation, NBC, Amy Poehler, Gretchen Whitmer, Michael Schur, Nick Offerman, Coronavirus

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