NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I s it okay to pan a much-awaited sitcom reunion that was put together for charity, that had to be filmed in a very awkward fashion to comply with social-distancing requirements, and that everyone else, critics and fans alike, seemed to love? Because that’s what I’m about to do.
Now, to be fair, there are different types of Parks and Recreation fans, and I might have been a little less primed than others to enjoy what the creators put together for Thursday. Lots of people adore the show’s big, goofy heart. But me, I loved the wicked cynical streak Parks had during the first half of its run, and while I stuck with it through all seven seasons, I wasn’t too sad to see it go by the end. Moreover, I’ve never quite forgiven Parks for killing off Party Down, another of my favorite comedies, by poaching its lead actor back in 2010.
Thursday’s pointless half-hour lead-in, a documentary in which the actors blathered on about how much they like each other, didn’t help build any anticipation. And by the time 9 p.m. rolled around and the new episode was over, I understood something Larry David once said on Curb Your Enthusiasm: “You know those reunion shows, they’re so lame, really. They never work. The actors are 10 years older. It doesn’t look right.”
Nothing about the new episode worked.
The entire concept made no sense. Five years after the show ended, the employees of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department are former employees and scattered all over the place. Leslie Knope works for the Department of the Interior; her husband, the guy who should have stayed on Party Down, is a congressman; Jerry Gergich is mayor; Ann Perkins is volunteering as a nurse in Michigan; Ron Swanson is holed up in a cabin; etc. And yet they’re apparently all still close friends, and Knope has set up a system where they check up on each other daily during the COVID crisis through a “phone tree,” not by simply calling or texting each other but by chatting face-to-face online.
Obviously the writers were working under some demanding constraints. The final season of Parks dictated the future of each of the characters, ruling out an episode where they all still work together, and COVID-19 made it impossible for them to get together in person. But sitcoms work best when they feel natural, and there’s nothing natural about this incredibly contrived situation.
This isn’t a group of government employees goofing off on the job, struggling against the stupidity of both the state and the public while trying to handle piddly local-government tasks, and indulging their hilarious personal foibles. It’s a group of people who worked together years ago and are now talking online for no real reason at all.
The actors’ chemistry seemed thrown off as well. This is a cast that gelled on screen for more than half a decade. Judging by that gushy lead-in show, the rapport wasn’t all an act. Yet here the members of the cast, each in his own room away from everyone else, couldn’t seem to make a conversation feel normal. It felt like they were just sitting there saying lines at each other.
The jokes? People weighing in on the episode via social media seemed to love ’em. But I didn’t laugh out loud once; everything was either a self-conscious nod toward a recurring gag (everyone hates Jerry! Andy’s so stupid! Tom and his crazy inventions!) or simply not that funny (Jerry clicked the wrong Zoom button and now he looks like a dog!). I was impressed by how many side characters they managed to work into a single time slot — Paul Rudd kicks off the episode as Bobby Newport; news anchors Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo each interview Knope and her husband; Swanson’s ex-wife shows up at the cabin — but nothing rekindled the old magic.
Again: I’m a certain type of Parks fan. To me, rekindling the magic would mean a trip back to 2011, not 2015. If you enjoyed the show’s dorkier later years and missed the reunion, by all means stream it when you can. And much respect to everyone involved with the show for pitching in to raise money for charity. The show and some sponsors are matching donations to Feeding America and you can contribute here.
But I can’t lie. The episode didn’t do it for me.