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TV review: ‘Parks and Recreation’ special provides warmth, laughter in face of COVID-19

(Courtesy of NBCUniversal)

"A Parks and Recreation Special"

NBC

April 30

By Kristin Snyder

May. 1, 2020 2:20 pm

Parks across the country are closed, but that didn’t stop the “Parks and Recreation” cast from reuniting.

In “A Parks and Recreation Special,” the cast of the NBC sitcom, which ran from 2009 to 2015, participated in a new scripted episode to raise money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund. The episode follows Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) checking in on her friends through a scheduled “phone tree” of required calls as she and her husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) participate in a Pawnee media tour regarding COVID-19.

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Opening with a scruffy looking Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) discovering there’s a global pandemic and telling viewers to donate, the special quickly settles into a rhythm of Zoom-esque calls. As characters call each other – and try to avoid being the one to call Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) – they discuss how they’ve been handling social distancing and their own mental health.

Of course, seeing the cast filming from home after seven seasons of professional lighting and makeup inherently sets “A Parks and Recreation Special” apart from previous episodes, and looking at everyone straight on lacks the nuance of a staged episode. But the episode leans into this, grounding jokes in virtual tropical backgrounds and Jerry’s inability to turn off filters.

Some explanations for the technical obstacle of separated spouses seem a bit forced, like Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) being stuck in a shed. When Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), however, discuss being quarantined separately as Ann volunteers as a nurse, it reflects the heartfelt nature of the episode. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and his ex-wife Tammy Two (Megan Mullally), on the other hand, appear together in a characteristically twisted interaction, with the two actors building on their real-life marriage as Tammy sneaks into Ron’s workshop.

Inevitably, however, the episode is one of fan service. It would be difficult to reunite a beloved show without calling back to the most iconic moments, and the network has to fill time without much of a plot to fit in almost the entire cast. “Ya Heard? With Perd” revives the bumbling newscaster, and “Pawnee Today” gives a glimpse into Joan Callamezzo’s (Mo Collins) particular brand of chaos amped up as a result of social isolation.

Without distinct plot points, the special calls back to classic “Parks and Recreation” motifs. Ben is seen dipping back into both claymation and “Cones of Dunshire” – two products of his past mental spirals – as he works on a script combining the two. Later, Andy appears as Johnny Karate to remind kids to wash their hands while an on-screen reminder informs viewers that the coronavirus cannot, in fact, be karate-chopped away.

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The actors fall back into their roles effortlessly, with Lowe channeling Chris’ upbeat attitude toward his body apparently being as healthy as both Megan Rapinoe’s and a panther’s. Aubrey Plaza, on the other hand, suddenly shoves the camera towards her open mouth in a distinctly April Ludgate moment. Without the help of a set or in-person cast chemistry and having to serve as their own tech crew, it’s commendable that each actor was also able to dust off old characters’ personalities.

The episode culminates with “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” which popped up throughout the seven seasons’ more sentimental moments. As the cast sings along, Ben continues to be perplexed by the mini horse’s popularity, and Ron sings in near-tears. Seeing the cast together one last time, despite the unfortunate circumstances, still creates a warm, touching moment.

Though most side characters aren’t given much screen time, glimpses into their lives provide a welcome path back into the show. It’s uplifting to know that even as the world changes – Jerry is still bumbling, April’s still surly and Donna Meagle (Retta) is still treating herself, all while Leslie continues to help others. For fans wishing to slip into familiar relationships and jests, the special offers an excellent escape.

And with many feeling dissatisfied with the real-life government, it’s comforting to fall back into the “Parks and Recreation” world, in which public servants actively work to better their community. Admittedly, the content can verge on cheesy at times, with urges to consider one’s mental health ending up heavy-handed. But in the end, when Leslie’s friends clear their schedules just to cheer her up, their reunion is a joyful suggestion to lean on one’s friends.

“Parks and Recreation” was always about friends, waffles and work. With limited access to friends, work transferred to home and sit-down restaurants closed, the special offers a cozy escape – and a reminder that it doesn’t hurt to treat yourself every so often.

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Kristin Snyder | Podcast producer
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
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