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An Absolutely Wonderful Thing: ‘Parks and Recreation’ Returns for Quarantine Reunion

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Quarantine TV production is rough. Camera operators, lighting technicians, and set designers exist for a reason — it’s because that shit is hard. And when the actors are left to fend for themselves, it’s hard not to notice. Armed with iPhone cameras, makeshift tripods, and whatever they can dig out of their garages, our favorite stars are doing their best to provide viewers with the consistent content they need during this trying time — to varying degrees of success. (Weekend Update without a live audience feels a lot like watching an impassioned professor give a Zoom lecture to an entirely muted class.) This past week, one such group of stars — straight out of Pawnee, Indiana — joined the effort.

The cast of NBC’s 2009–2015 sitcom, “Parks and Recreation,” reunited for a one-off special April 30 to raise money for Feeding America. Partnering with State Farm and Subaru, the half-hour special brought us back into the lives of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), and the rest of the Parks gang. Leslie, stuck at home during quarantine, is determined to stay connected to her friends (while also, in typical Leslie fashion, chairing multiple crisis response committees — “every little girl’s dream,” she says).

Using Gryzzl (the show’s Orwellian equivalent of Zoom), Leslie starts a phone tree to check in on all of her friends. Ben (Adam Scott) has started a screenplay for the claymation adaptation of “Cones of Dunshire.” Ann (Rashida Jones) is helping with outpatient care in Michigan. Chris (Rob Lowe) is donating blood four times a day because his blood type is, apparently, “just positive.” Tom (Aziz Ansari) is in full “treat yo’ self” mode in “Bali.” I could go on, but given how wonderfully idiosyncratic these many characters are, it would probably take quite a while.

Amidst the video chat check-ins, the producers scattered reminders of reality: nods to nurses and teachers, reminders to practice social distancing, and frequent messages from Leslie about the importance of mental and emotional health — as well as some non-pandemic-related updates for a show whose final episode aired over five years ago. Tom, for example, has taken up Fortnite, from which he’s learned that “children are terrifying and can make you cry almost immediately.”

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It wasn’t a particularly ambitious piece of television; it suffered, understandably, from the same production shortcomings as all quarantine television does. A stationary iPhone camera doesn’t really allow for the body language or physicality or whimsy that is so integral to the original show’s charm. Lost are the sharp pans and zooms, fourth-wall-breaking camera glances, and interview-style asides. But that’s not what the special was about, anyways. It didn’t need to re-establish Pawnee and its weird quirks and oddities, it just needed to remind us of them.

And that was the name of the game: nostalgia. For a Parks and Rec virgin, I’m sure the special was reasonably enjoyable. For anyone who’s watched the show in its entirety — or in my case, five times over — it was an endless barrage of nostalgia-tapping references, jokes, and guest appearances. From the moment the special began (with a hilarious introduction from always-adorable Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd)) to the moment it ended (a heartfelt, inescapably tear-jerking rendition of “5,000 Candles in the Wind” from the entire cast), it felt like it was trying to cheer you up — like it was saying, “Hey, remember all these things and places and beloved characters that make you laugh? They all still exist! Here they are!”

And that reminder was, I think, its greatest contribution.

“When is this group of people ever going to be all together again?” Leslie asks, in the show’s season finale. “That’s all I want — all of these people together, in the same place, at the same time.”

It bothers me when people describe every new TV show or movie or album that comes out during quarantine as “the uplifting and inspiring piece of art that we need in this uncertain and trying time.” It really does. But as much as I hate to contradict myself, “Parks and Recreation” — the amazing, beautiful, funny show about kind people coming together to do good things for the world — is exactly that. Only Leslie Knope could have accomplished this impossible feat, bringing “all these people together, in the same place, at the same time,” and in the world we find ourselves in today, that’s exactly what we need.

—Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at kalos.chu@thecrimson.com.

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