By Linda Holmes
It’s been five years since Parks and Recreation ended its run, after a final season that jumped forward into the future — specifically, to 2017. We haven’t got the nifty transparent touchscreens their 2017 showed. Instead, we have a pandemic, and we have social distancing, and we are doing without many of our comforts, large and small. But for a half-hour on Thursday night, we did not have to be without our friends from Pawnee.
The special, conceived, written and filmed during the weeks of isolation that have idled much of Hollywood, began — after an intro from Paul Rudd’s lovable rich dummy Bobby Newport, who’s living an oblivious life in Switzerland — with Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) checking in via video chat. He was at home with their kids; she was somewhere else. He’s in Congress; she works for the Department of the Interior. There are nods to the things he’s done to amuse himself during lonely moments in the past, from his Claymation experiment to his complicated board game, Cones of Dunshire. She’s worried about him.
But Leslie, being Leslie, is running a phone tree with all her former colleagues, because she checks in on everybody to make sure they’re all right. She calls up Ron (Nick Offerman), who’s out in his workshop in the woods — and he’s still doing battle with his second ex-wife, played by Offerman’s wife Megan Mullally. What makes that particularly funny is that Ron is with Tammy 2, but the show is otherwise stuck with the limitations of actors who can’t be in scenes together, even though the story would have them living together. This is sometimes solved with humor, as when April (Aubrey Plaza) is not with Andy (Chris Pratt) because he’s locked himself in the shed (classic Andy). It’s sometimes solved with simple logic, as with Ben and Leslie’s busy jobs, or when Ann (Rashida Jones) is quarantining separately from Chris (Rob Lowe) and their kids because she’s still working as a nurse. It is a pure quirk of casting and the intersection with reality, but it’s also very funny, that out of all these people, only Ron and Tammy 2 can be together.
The episode, written by show creator Michael Schur and a virtual room of the show’s former writers, finds some very clever ways to incorporate the oddities of video calling. Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta) are using the same tropical background on their call together, because they are always looking for ways to live well. To treat themselves, as it were. And Garry (or Jerry, or Terry, or whatever they’re calling him right now) (Jim O’Hehir) is unable to figure out how to turn off the camera filters that make him look like a dog or a baby.
But 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. 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.
Because of course they found the perfect final moment; of course. It wasn’t just the “Bye Bye Li’l Sebastian” singalong (although it was that, obviously). It was that we got a little slice of what became my favorite story of love in all of Pawnee when Ron reminded Leslie to stop taking care of everybody else and let people take care of her. This group of writers found a true character beat, one that made sense for the moment and is absolutely what the Ron we know would need to tell the Leslie we know, that they could write into this special. Mostly, yes, it’s just a visit — with the whole gang, with Joan Calamezzo and Perd Hapley and Dennis Feinstein and Jean-Ralphio. And that was such a spirit-lifter that it would have been really fine.
But then there was that little bauble of a reminder that even though they’ve been separated for years, even before social distancing, these people still love each other, and they still know each other. It’s so funny now to look back at the great feature Vulture did in early April in which writers speculated about what their COVID-19 episodes would look like. Schur said a lot of things that didn’t come true in the special, quite. But he also said this: “Ron would be thrilled because now there’s a reason for him to be alone with no one bothering him. But he would worry about Leslie.” And that little bit of emotional realness in an entry that’s largely jokes, is the part that survived.
That, and the lighters, and the singing … well, I cried, of course. But it was the nice kind of crying. Maybe I even needed it. And hey, sometimes that’s all you can ask for from a visit with old friends.