‘A Parks and Recreation Special’ brings nostalgia, catharsis

As Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) once said,“Crying is only okay in two places: funerals and the Grand Canyon.” But I would like to add a third place—my bedroom, with my computer screen playing “A Parks and Recreation Special.” It has been five years since the Emmy Award-winning show had its acclaimed finale, but the cast and crew got back together to put out a special on April 30 to support a Feeding America fundraiser during the pandemic. For someone who binged “Parks and Recreation” episodes during 14-hour plane rides to China, this special also allowed me to revisit my favorite characters in Pawnee, only screens apart once more.

“A Parks and Recreation Special” begins with the ever-vacuous Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) vacationing in Switzerland and fiddling with a clip-on mic, all while proudly donning a Knope 2012 zipper hoodie in tribute to the Sweetums heir’s loss against Knope in the election. Bobby Newport, who’s never had a real job in his life, breaks the fourth wall to explain how the special came to be through the cast and writers, who reunited to create the special as a way to raise money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, or as Newport puts it, “for people hurt by the coronas.” He admits he hasn’t seen the news recently, and in a very Bobby Newport way, asks, “What are they talking about?” in regards to the pandemic.

Once the iconic theme song hits, so does the wave of nostalgia. We are introduced to our beloved characters, all practicing social distancing as Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) tries to keep in touch through her daily phone tree. As Leslie and her friends lead the phone tree, little glimpses of their lives reveal references to earlier episodes—Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) has found his Claymation doll and is planning to make a film based
on “Cones of Dunshire”—both of which are projects of his former social isolation in the show, reflective of the ultimate quarantine mood. Meanwhile, Ron Swanson’s ex-wife Tammy 2 (Megan Mullally, also Offerman’s real-life spouse, thus justifying her real-life presence in the same scene) has managed to sneak into Ron’s hideaway cabin; Ron has subdued his obsessively sexual ex and tied her up so as to send her to the authorities.

Outside the parks department, glimpses of recurring characters appear in talk shows and advertisements to reveal how they are dealing with the pandemic. Ben and Leslie interact with Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) on “Ya Heard? With Perd,” where the duo stresses the importance of staying connected, while Dennis Feinstein (Jason Mantzoukas), ever the snake oil charlatan, promotes a seemingly dangerous cologne that supposedly stops the virus. And Joan Callamezzo mirrors the terrifying tediousness of staying home, leaning into the brink of craziness with only dolls to keep her company.

The script, visuals and editing are cleverly pieced together in a way that makes the characters feel connected, despite their evident distance, in a subtle yet inventive manner. For the most part, the narrative’s flow maintains itself: Nothing feels choppy as we breeze through the phone tree, as characters catch each other up on their social distancing lives. However, I feel that there are a few slip-ups; for example, even though we know Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt can’t act as April and Andy together, I feel like the two are distanced from their characters. Instead of seeing their cat-and-dog-like personalities interact, we’re left with Andy stuck with the goofy gimmick of freeing himself from the garden shed in which he’s trapped, and April being reduced to relying on exaggerated costumes instead of the dry and sarcastic personality that we love her for. Additionally, Retta’s Donna Meagle barely had enough lines for me to be excited about her appearance. Even though the special doesn’t have the same charm as the “Parks and Recreation” we love, I still admire the writers and cast for pulling it together, as well as managing to raise 2.8 million USD for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

While the humor has some bumps, the real joy of the special comes at the end. Ron gathers all the members of the parks department to sing “5,000 Candles in the Wind”—everyone’s favorite tribute to everyone’s favorite miniature horse—as a way to cheer up Leslie, who has been missing her friends during the pandemic. As I listened to the cast sing, my eyes were drawn to Offerman, who looked like he was about to cry. And I felt my eyes begin to tear up. Although this wasn’t a typical “Parks and Recreation” episode, watching our beloved Pawnee residents sing left me with the sentiment of unison and loved ones being nearby.

Ron’s message to Leslie highlights the real message that I think this episode wanted to bring. “Don’t spend all your time looking after other people,” he tells her near the special’s conclusion. “Look after yourself once in a while.” This statement’s power is two-fold. First, it is reminiscent of the charming friendship and profound respect these opposites have for each other—I in particular cannot help but to recall how the finale ended with the cheerful Leslie holding the deadpan Ron’s hand on the swings and later helping him find his place as a park superintendent as they stood overlooking the lake of Pawnee National Park. Second: It reminds us—fans or not—to remember to take care of ourselves.

We find ourselves, like these characters, struggling to adjust to a changing world. And while most of us have pushed through to practice social distancing for the well-being of others, there are times where we forget to check in our own well-being—there may even be times that our moods fester within our confinement as we lose what our personalities once were outside our windows. And so, this special to me is a way to take a break for myself: a way to watch something new from a series I love, and let myself laugh and cry a little—because we all need that.

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