Parks and Recreation Returned, and State and Local Officials Were Here for It

Retta, Amy Poehler, and Jim O'Heir appeared in the Parks and Recreation charity special.

Retta, Amy Poehler, and Jim O'Heir appeared in the Parks and Recreation charity special. NBC

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The reunion episode of the show about local government in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana offered a lighthearted take on the pandemic.

The hit comedy show Parks and Recreation returned to the air this week for a half-hour special taking on the coronavirus pandemic. Devised as a charity initiative to raise money for Feeding America, the show got a mostly positive critical reaction and attracted millions of admiring fans who’ve missed it since the finale aired in 2015.

The special, which was set in coronavirus quarantine features almost all of the show’s main cast and many recurring characters, shows how the residents of the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana are faring in the Covid-19 reality—and it also highlights the challenges of government work at this time. Leslie Knope, the show’s lead character played by Amy Poehler, is now the deputy director of the U.S. Department of the Interior, having worked her way up from her original role as the deputy director of the Pawnee’s parks and recreation department. 

Based on social media reactions, the special accrued a large audience of real-life state and local government officials, including Indiana’s own Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, who Poehler said would have been Knope’s pick for president in the 2020 Democratic race.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also tuned in, using the show as a signal boost for a state initiative to recruit volunteers to help with the pandemic response. “According to Leslie Knope, Ann Perkins is a volunteer nurse in Michigan fighting Covid-19,” she tweeted. “If you’re also ‘smart as a whip and cool under pressure,’ we’d love to have you.”

Other elected officials related to the show’s comic relief, particularly the struggles of Garry Gergich, the hapless parks department employee who later became mayor of Pawnee. Gergich, played by Jim O’Heir, described some of his challenges in rolling out restrictions during the pandemic, saying “some people really fought me when I had to cancel the annual Pawnee Popsicle Lick ‘n Pass.”

Tom Bernard, the real-life mayor of North Adams, Massachusetts, responded, “Oh, Mayor Gergich, mayors everywhere can relate.”

Throughout the show, characters described the struggles of dealing with quarantine and the tough decisions they’ve had to make as government leaders. Knope said that she had to shut down every national park in her jurisdiction, a move she called “sad but necessary.” In real life, the National Park Service has closed most park buildings and facilities, though trails and open spaces remain open in some places. 

The show also touched on the challenges of trying to teach children while schools are closed. Donna Meagle, portrayed by Retta, talks about watching her husband, a school teacher, try to maintain a virtual classroom environment. “Have you ever witnessed someone trying to teach a group of young children something?” she said. “The man is a saint. The job is impossible.”

Also featured in the special was a fake commercial from Dennis Feinstein, played by Jason Mantzoukas, a “fashion scent artist” trying to market one of his colognes as a coronavirus cure. “I know what you're thinking. Shouldn't this be tested out by ‘scientists’ or looked at by ‘doctors’?” he said, putting air quotes around the professions. “No. You should listen to me, Dennis Feinstein, and my rich friends. We know what’s best for you.”

If the Parks and Recreation universe is true to real life in this regard, Feinstein would likely be the target of prosecutors, who have been aggressively hunting down bogus cures and scam treatments in the past few weeks. 

The main thrust of the episode, though, was about maintaining physical and mental health during the pandemic. The characters regularly reminded each other to stay connected, take walks, and try new hobbies. Knope encouraged people to reach out to friends, and “donate your time, your money, your expertise, in any way you can.”

Viewer’s came through on her call to action, and Feeding America expressed their gratitude to all those who donated after watching the special. “Citizens of Pawnee, we can't thank you enough!” the organization tweeted. “If we've learned anything from Leslie Knope, it's that if we put in the work together, we can make a difference.”

The cast closed out the episode by singing “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” a song originally written for an episode where the Pawnee government threw a memorial service for the town’s  biggest celebrity, a miniature horse named L’il Sebastian.

There was a final call to donate to Feeding America or other organizations assisting food insecure people, and a reminder that help is available for those mentally struggling with the challenges of quarantine from the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

“Stay safe and hang in there,” Poehler said.

The episode can be streamed for free on NBC.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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