[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “A Parks and Recreation Special.”]
Listen, critics are used to being buzzkills, and, per creator Michael Schur, the much-anticipated, quickly assembled “Parks and Recreation” reunion special is absolutely part of series canon. So it would be fair to assess the effectiveness of seeing Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, and the rest of the “Parks” crew brought together via Gryzzl video calls, local news programs, and less-than-legal (fake) advertisements. It’s a TV show, TV shows are here to entertain, and the professionals behind this special can handle a little constructive criticism.
But this is as much as you’re going to get: It’s fun. I loved it. Spending 30 minutes visiting these fake characters who I haven’t seen in five years ranked right up there with many of my Zoom calls to friends and family who I haven’t seen in what feels like five years. (Not you, Ma — your calls are the best). And really, at the end of the day, there’s no point in breaking down the pros and cons of a fundraiser meant to help people by raising much-needed donations for Feeding America and relieving audiences from their worries for 30 minutes. What matters is a) donating — so you better donate, and b) maintaining the joyful feeling brought about by the reunion.
So below are six highlights from NBC’s reunion special that I believe we’ll look back on fondly tomorrow, next week, next year, or in 100 years — whenever things are back to normal.
Bobby Newport/Paul Rudd Mispronouncing “Corona”
It takes quite a man to go on national television and introduce a fundraiser without knowing how to pronounce the disease that caused the fundraiser in the first place — and I’m not talking about Bobby Newport.
Opening “A Parks and Recreation Special” with a surprise cameo from an A-lister like Rudd is a smart move — kicking things off with a bang, and getting the celebrity cameo out of the way early so there’s plenty of time for all the series regulars to shine. But Bobby Newport’s intro also makes zero sense as soon as he breaks the fourth wall and reads a message from Leslie Knope referencing “the cast and writers of ‘Parks and Recreation'” — the show he’s a part of and thus shouldn’t be aware exists.
“Recently, the cast and writers of ‘Parks and Recreation’ decided to reunite the cast and make a one-time special to raise money for people hurt by the coronas.”
On the one hand, Bobby is just dumb enough, weird enough, and removed enough (from the core ensemble) to speak on the show’s behalf like this. He’s such a space cadet that you can believe he’d stumble into discovering his own fiction-based existence and just keep plugging away. So really, no one would’ve blinked an eye if Rudd’s line reading was error-free, but he stays in character to read the message, including stumbling over the words “organization” and then asking someone off-camera what’s going on: “I haven’t watched the news lately.”
But the word “coronas…” What is that? What word is written on the page? Leslie Knope, an informed public leader, wouldn’t have typed “people hurt by the corona,” so did she type, “people hurt by the coronavirus” and Bobby read “virus” as a typo, thinking she meant to put “coronas,” like…the beer? He is probably aware of the beer, but no matter the source of the error, let’s give massive props to Paul Rudd for going there. Plenty of actors would’ve avoided stumbling over such an important word, for fear they’d be seen as making light of a serious affliction, but Rudd stayed in character — only cluing us in with a subtle flick of his eyes as he ran over the word. Bravo.
Leslie & Ron, Together Again
Earlier, when I mentioned the triviality of critiquing “A Parks and Recreation Special” in detail (you know, before writing 400 words on its first minute), it was very much with this moment in mind: Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) together on screen. Both have aged a bit since we last saw them in-character; both have slightly different haircuts and mannerisms; both are a little extra askew, given they’re talking directly to camera, sans studio lighting, makeup, and camera placement.
But that’s exactly what makes the reunion so meaningful. What’s offered, first and foremost, in this special is seeing our old TV friends again, and the writing team made sure to focus on that as much as possible. Not only did Leslie and Ron open and close the show, but Schur & Co. made sure to include as many beloved pairing reunions as possible: Leslie and Ann (Rashida Jones) got a moment; Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta) clinked glasses; April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) quarantined apart. The only major duo not to get one-on-one time was Ben (Adam Scott) and Chris (Rob Lowe), which is OK. Even in a reunion, you gotta leave the audience wanting more.
Chris Traeger’s Blood Type
OK, this was just a great joke. When Ann and Chris were updating everyone on their lives in Michigan — she’s helping out as a nurse, he’s taking care of the kids — the conversation quickly turned to the man whose goals including running to the moon and living to 150. “Chris is donating blood four times a week,” Ann says, which leads Chris to explain why the CDC requested his donations, specifically, including red blood cells the size of fruit loops, “and my blood type is just: positive.”
Lowe’s pause before “positive” along with Chris’ signature thumbs up really sold this one. A “super-healer,” indeed.
Everything on “Pawnee Today”
Those dolls will haunt my dreams, but what about that shot of Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) in a tree?! Between the opener, the paintings, and — the dolls, my god, the dolls — “At Home with Joan” during “Pawnee Today” offered the special’s most haunting aesthetic choices. I mean, she’s nestled between a nude Ken doll perched on shelf and a watermelon with eyes drawn on it! Every extra peek we got into Joan’s life during the series’ run proved more and more unsettling, so it’s only fitting that sheltering-in-place would drive her to an extra degree of madness. Plus, another gem of a line: “You’ve got an EGOT?” “Yes, I’ve been banned from all four ceremonies.”
It also opened up the special to include ads, and thus so many more treasured characters. From Dennis Feinstein’s (Jason Mantzoukas) “Miracle Cure” that will kill your pets and Dr. Jeremy Jamm’s (Jon Glaser) “home dental delivery” that will end in a lawsuit, to Jean Ralphio’s (Ben Schwartz) lonely plea for phone calls, “Pawnee Today” felt like a smooth means to feature as many favorites as possible — plus, it brought back Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), and his self-operated, utterly invaluable chyron that offered visual gags like, “Rep Ben Wyatt Is the Person Who Is Talking Now.” The whole local television bit helped keep momentum up, in an episode that’s largely arc-less, without feeling too out of left field.
Garry Avoidance + Garry’s Video Fails
No one wanting to call Garry (Jim O’Heir) on Leslie’s phone tree was a nice touch, but fitting in Jerry’s trademark embarrassing pratfall — this time, disguising himself with silly filters, like a dog and a poop emoji, while he tried to make a valuable point — felt like an efficient way to honor one of the show’s favorite pasttimes: making fun of Garry/Jerry/Larry/Tarry/Barry.
A Little Sebastian Sing-a-Long
Offering both a cathartic moment for everyone watching and a welcome earworm to sing with a shelter-in-place partner, the surprise for Leslie orchestrated by Ron served as an excellent, exuberant ending for what was an excellent, exuberant special. It also gave Adam Scott the best opportunity to channel Ben Wyatt’s outsider spirit, when he says, “This is a long song,” and Tom screams back, “Shut up Ben!”
It is a long song, but damn if it didn’t earn its time. Thanks for singing, everyone.
“A Parks and Recreation Special” is available to stream on the NBC App, Hulu, Peacock, and YouTube. In the spirit of Leslie Knope and do-gooders everywhere, please donate now.