A Parks and Recreation Reunion Episode Was Off the Table. Then a Pandemic Hit.

Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC

Parks and Recreation showrunner Mike Schur says he felt “like crying a little bit” when he e-mailed Amy Poehler and the show’s other nine lead actors three weeks ago about participating in a charity reunion episode of the NBC comedy, and they all responded within 45 minutes that they were interested.

Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe had approached Schur about doing a table read of a favorite Parks episode, but as he considered which episode to choose, he thought it would be a waste to gather the show’s superstar cast to go over “previously trod ground.” Schur says he and Poehler agreed against a Parks reunion long ago, but the pandemic provided the “most compelling reason” to do so. The episode will air Thursday night on NBC after the Paley Center’s salute to the series.

Leslie Knope “is eternally optimistic and believes in the power of community to hold people together,” Schur said during a conference call with press on Tuesday. “She believed that incremental moments of connection and togetherness were crucial and vital to the social fabric, and she believed that government could be a force for good and could really help people in small but meaningful ways. What you’re seeing on a national scale and local scale is governments are where we’re all turning [to]. We need information. We need help. We need assistance … The government in these moments of crisis becomes the place where people have to turn.”

Schur teamed up with six of the original Parks writers to turn the script around in three days. Their biggest challenge was remembering where they left each character and how they would fit into a story set in 2020. The series finale, which aired in 2015, covered the lives of the characters from 2017 to 2065, and almost none of them were in Pawnee when the story ended, except for Jerry (Jim O’Heir), who was left as mayor. Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie (Poehler) are in D.C., where he is a congressman and she’s working for the Department of the Interior. Ann and Chris (Rob Lowe) are in Michigan, where he works in the University of Michigan admissions department.

“Any fan who cares about canon should consider this canon,” Schur said. “It did present a weird situation because ordinarily you could just make everything up and start from scratch. But we had already said what had happened to everyone in years past this, so we had to go back and retrofit everything and make sure it makes sense.”

In the new story, none of the characters has suffered or is suffering from COVID-19, but Ann (Rashida Jones), who has returned to nursing, will address why she’s not on the front lines. Since the actors are all quarantined in their homes across the country and even in London (Aziz Ansari is there), the writers also had to find creative ways to explain why some of the married couples are not seen in the same rooms. In addition to the entire main cast, half a dozen special guest stars will pop up in the episode. In fact, the first person on camera will be one of them.

“It’s not about the disease; it’s about people coping with it, trying to navigate their daily lives,” Schur said. “Leslie Knope was a person who believed in friendship. She was a very loyal person. She was a very friendly person. She put all of her eggs in the basket of the power of friendship, and so it’s really just about her connecting with people and holding the group of characters together through a time when they’re unable to even leave their home.”

But as tricky as working out the story was, logistics became the biggest challenge. Production delivered or shipped every actor a small rig with a tripod, an iPhone, a small light, and a microphone so they could be their own camera crews. The “slow and laborious” process took four days, Schur said. Director Morgan Sackett, executive producer Dean Holland, script supervisor Valeria Collins, and Schur watched on Zoom as the actors recorded on their iPhones. “The actors would send a screenshot to show what their framing was and we would be able to listen and watch from a weird, oblique angle as they recorded themselves,” Schur said. Then the graphics and effects team from The Good Place worked on the episode “to make it not look like everyone was just sitting alone in their houses.”

Although Schur praised the Parks team for working on the special, especially because it is raising money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, he was quick to note that it should not be a model for Hollywood returning to work when the quarantine ends.

“TV is a team sport, from the very beginning to the very end,” he said. “It’s about groups of people functioning in holistic ways with each other, and collaborating and being in the same room at the same time. I don’t think there’s any way that this is a sustainable method for making television. I don’t want to downplay it. It was fun to have the crew back together. I took a bunch of screen grabs when we did a table read because it was the first time that this group of people has been together for a while, even if it’s only virtually. It was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work, but I don’t think it’s any kind of model for what we’re doing going forward.”

A Parks & Rec Reunion Was Off the Table—Then a Pandemic Hit