A Parks and Recreation Special, the socially distanced, one-off reunion episode of the beloved NBC comedy, is an act of service. That’s true in the sense that it exists to raise money for Feeding America. But it’s also true because the whole episode was well-executed, heartfelt fan service.
The term “fan service” usually applies in a negative sense to moments that cater too blatantly to fan desires. The Parks and Rec reunion, in keeping with that concept, was packed with callbacks and Easter eggs designed to strike a chord with loyal viewers of the show, which ended its run in 2015 after a final season that flash-forwarded Pawnee’s finest to 2017. But all the shoutouts didn’t feel like pandering so much as gifts from the team that worked on the series and wanted to do something nice for the people who love and miss it.
In the socially distanced reunion, set in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, every central character returned: Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), Donna Meagle (Retta), Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), and even Jerry/Garry Gergich (Jim O’Heir). So did many supporting favorites, including Jean-Ralphio Saperstein (Ben Schwartz), his hair looking as full as ever; talk show host Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins); “newsman” Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson); City Councilman/orthodontist Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser); and, kicking off the whole show, Leslie’s former political opponent Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), who learned before our eyes that the world is in the midst of a pandemic: “Is something going on? I haven’t watched the news lately. [Long pause.] WHAT?”
On top of all the returning faces, there were tons of familiar jokes and references to old episodes. Ben’s obsessions with stop-motion animation and his self-created board game, Cones of Dunshire, reared their heads immediately. Later, so did Andy’s alter egos Bert Macklin and Johnny Karate, Tom’s penchant for ridiculous business ideas such as face masks with other people’s teeth on them (“Stay safe and look fresh as hell with Timotheé Chalamet’s smile”), and everyone’s disdain for Jerry/Garry. Even the teleconferencing platform the characters used was powered by Gryzzl, the insidious Amazon/Google-esque company that figured prominently in the final season. According to her profile, Donna, naturally, has achieved Elite Gryzzl Gold Status.
All of that “hey remember this?” nostalgia could have felt cheap, but it didn’t. In addition to having an all-star cast who were able to slide easily right back into character, Parks and Rec assembled an Avengers-level group of its former writers to script this extremely DIY production, including creator Mike Schur, Megan Amram, Dave King, Joe Mande, Aisha Muharrar, Matt Murray, and Jen Statsky, all of whom also worked on The Good Place, which shared the same skeptical yet warm-hearted sensibility that Parks always had.
The structure of the episode was, admittedly and understandably, loose. Leslie forced all of her former co-workers to maintain a phone (or Gryzzl) tree to make sure everyone is staying safe, and the episode was built around those conversations, as well as a couple of talk show appearances and commercials thrown in for fun. But it held together well enough. The writers also wrote new material that was funny on its own merits, but even funnier because it was steeped so deeply in character. The idea that Jeremy Jamm thinks it’s a good idea to run a dental delivery service in which he drops off tools and talks people through root canals online is ridiculous. But it’s even more satisfyingly ridiculous because it’s so in keeping with the kind of jackass behavior that Jamm engaged in during the show’s run.
To their credit, the writers did show some restraint in the fan-service department. I waited for the moment between Tom and Donna when they would inevitably say, “Treat yo’ self.” It didn’t come. It would have been an easy gag and one that fans probably would have enjoyed. But in the midst of a pandemic when a lot of people can’t afford to pay their rent, it might have sounded a wrong note. Seeing a Haverford-Meagle reunion was just as enjoyable, even without their catchphrase.
This is an obvious observation, but nevertheless worth repeating since the people making TV often seem to forget it: Memorable characters are what turn a good show into a truly beloved one that people will revisit over and over again, for years and years. Parks and Recreation created a wonderfully idiosyncratic gang of lovable weirdos, then crafted storylines that were consistent with who those people were. Because of that, A Parks and Recreation Special landed the same way that a Zoom call with high-school classmates or former co-workers from a decade ago does. It made us feel like we were reconnecting with old friends. It also traveled the path that those conversations tend to travel, one that inevitably leads to reminiscing about all the crazy things that were said and done back when we were all together. Even the simple sight of the Parks and Rec opening titles — remember watching those before each brand-new episode, instead of ones we’ve streamed a hundred times? — brought a rush of happiness back to the heart.
Did it make sense that Leslie Knope, a woman whose life is based on amassing enough knowledge to fill every binder in the Office Depot national warehouse, wouldn’t realize that Gryzzl allowed people to have group chats? Technically, it did not. But it allowed the episode to build to where you knew it would eventually go: with all the characters distanced from each other, but back together in the same frame of television, singing “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” the tribute to the late, great Li’l Sebastian. And wow, that was heartwarming to watch.
Was it fan service-y? Yeah, for sure. But even that felt right. At its core, Parks and Recreation, a series about the dysfunctionality and good deeds done by local government workers, was always about how to be of service to your community, both the community at large and the community you build among your friends. By raising funds for a worthy cause, the reunion special did a service to the broader community. By raising the spirits of its audience for a half-hour, it performed a service for its friends, too.