Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
A couple columns back, I remarked on the absence of art that reflects our new normal. How, with no way to safely produce art and entertainment that adequately reflects what we are now going through, some people have taken to creating art and entertainment in isolation in their homes. Well, the cast of the beloved Michael Schur sitcom Parks and Recreation stepped it up and on April 30 released a special episode filmed entirely via social distancing methods from their homes to raise money for Feeding America. The resulting story is something that feels like it shouldn’t have worked, but thanks to a monumental effort, the love and enthusiasm of old friends, and probably more than a little Leslie Knope magic, it somehow not only comes together but it reminds us why a song about a miniature horse can be just what we all need right now.
The episode opens hilariously and appropriately with Paul Rudd reprising his role as the clueless Bobby Newport (who doesn’t know there is a pandemic happening) on his family’s “private fox hunting estate.” He reads information for where viewers can donate to Feeding America, and then the show cuts to Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in her office starting a phone tree with her friends. Leslie, like so many of us, is following social distancing guidelines but is also starved for connection, so she’s instituted a weekly call schedule between herself and the people we all know from the show. Beginning with her husband, Ben (Adam Scott)—who is at their home taking care of homeschool duty—it moves more or less one at a time through the characters from the Parks and Rec Department of Pawnee, Indiana.
Watching Leslie struggle to cope and connect meaningfully with her friends during our current quarantine makes for a viewing experience that is real in a way we haven’t seen within a television program since this pandemic struck. Because the episode had to be filmed individually by each actor inside their own homes, excuses are made within the script for why characters who should be together are not together. For example, Andy (Chris Pratt) has “locked himself in a shed,” which is why he’s not sharing the call with his wife, April (Aubrey Plaza). And Ann (Rashida Jones) is volunteering as a nurse with COVID patients and so has to quarantine herself in a different part of the house from her husband, Chris (Rob Lowe), which is why she is not sharing the call with him. The quarantine Gryzzl calls (Parks and Rec’s version of Zoom) are cut with cameos from long running show side characters acting as newscasters or commercial actors, and somehow, piece by individual piece, a story is told.
Despite a lack of professional camera operators, makeup departments, any of the actors being in the same physical location with each other (except for Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally—who play Ron Swanson and Tammy Two and are married to each other in real life [editor’s note: WHAT?]), or any of the other people and professional trappings that go into producing television magic—the show comes together and somehow works.
The whole thing is a feat of not just artistic and storytelling innovation, but of friendship, love, and determination—within the show and without. At the heart of the story is Leslie Knope’s longing for connection with the people she loves during the pandemic. Anyone who has been following social distancing protocols and sheltering in place can relate to this. We all long for connection; it is not good for us to be alone, and if you’ve watched Parks and Recreation, you know that Leslie Knope would be the sort of person who would follow social distancing protocols to the letter no matter the personal sacrifice to her natural need to lavish love and affection on everyone. Watching her struggle to cope and connect meaningfully with her friends during our current quarantine makes for a viewing experience that is real in a way we haven’t seen within a television program since this pandemic struck.
This is the first scripted and televised storied content that has been set directly inside of our new normal. For the first time we can tune into a story that says, “This is what is happening,” rather than turning to an older story in which we have to search for a way to say, “This is like what is happening.” While both sorts of stories are important to help us process, to see the world as it is reflected in a fictional world for the first time is like lifting a veil.
Furthermore, the challenges of creating this particular medium of artwork—a television show—during the pandemic makes the effort of the Parks and Recreation cast and crew so very meaningful. With the exception of single host talk shows, we haven’t really seen any regular programming yet reflect the world as it now is. It is ridiculously hard to operate a show from home even when it is a one-person operation; imagine organizing the entire cast of Parks and Recreation—not to mention the writers and editors and more that it took to produce the episode—all to work from home to make this one story come together. The viral clip of BBC Dad from a few years back showed the world what can happen in the unscripted moments of working from home in front of a camera. Now hundreds of thousands of people around the country are working from home via programs like Zoom, making BBC Dad more relatable than he possibly already was. Stephen Colbert recently interviewed John Oliver about the difficulties of parenting two small children while trying to film his own network show from home, and Oliver’s responses come across as pretty much all of us right now. “I’m basically at a four . . . on a scale of zero to fifty,” he says, smiling through the pain. The logistics of working from home, especially with children, especially doing something like filming a television show from home, make it almost a certainty that we shouldn’t expect any new storied content for a very long time.
And yet. The cast of Parks and Recreation found a way. And the result is pure Leslie Knope magic.
The Li’l Sebastian subplot is simultaneously one of the dumbest things the Parks and Rec writers ever cooked up and one of the most brilliant.I think the only reason the reunion special works is because somehow Leslie Knope is actually a facet of Amy Poehler’s real-life persona. Leslie Knope’s addictively enthusiastic personality is part of what makes Parks and Rec eminently rewatchable—Leslie Knope, who shows genuine joy, love, and appreciation for every single person in her parks department. She makes everyone around her a better person because she sees the best in them, expects the best from them, and then holds them to that standard until they achieve it.
Pawnee is filled with some pretty awful people, but because Leslie unironically believes Pawnee is the greatest city on the face of the earth, she elevates it in our eyes, too. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope is the star and the glue that holds everyone together, and the show is filled with sheer positivity because of her. That doesn’t mean she’s a Pollyanna, or that bad things don’t happen in Pawnee or over the course of her run as the Parks and Rec Department head (and the other roles she takes in the city). Bad things happen all the time, and sometimes Leslie has to learn to temper her enthusiasm and her relentless positivity because she is, as Ann tells her in one episode, a “bulldozer.” But at the core of Leslie’s drive—what keeps her going, her friends loyal to her, and what keeps viewers enthusiastic about the show still after five years off the air—is the love-in-action she displays for everyone. (Even Gary.)
One of the bad things that happened on the show was the death of Li’l Sebastian. For those unfamiliar with the sitcom, Li’l Sebastian was a miniature horse who, inexplicably, was something of a celebrity in Pawnee, Indiana. Beloved by everyone, when Li’l Sebastian dies, the entire town goes into mourning, but most especially Leslie for whom his death is a deep cut. Thus Leslie orders a memorial service extravaganza and demands that Andy Dwyer (lead singer of the band Mouse Rat and parks employee) write the perfect song to send Li’l Sebastian off in glory. The result is the ridiculous and catchy “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind.” The lyrics are basic Andy Dwyer nonsense, but at the memorial service, the whole town—so often divided over petty disputes—ends up singing along to the song to send off the miniature horse as if he were a true celebrity and the song a classic rock ballad. And the first performance is far from being the only performance of the song on the show.
The Li’l Sebastian subplot is simultaneously one of the dumbest things the Parks and Rec writers ever cooked up and one of the most brilliant. The love the residents of Pawnee share for the miniature horse defies logic and crosses barriers, bringing together people from all walks of life. At the unity concert between Pawnee and Eagleton—the neighboring cities that are bitter rivals—Andy once again ends up on stage singing the song and finds himself joined by real-life bands and musical artists (including Land Ho, The Decemberists, Letters to Cleo, and more). Li’l Sebastian’s memorial song was a repeating motif in the show signifying unity, love, and the importance of holding onto each other when life changes. Furthermore, going back to the first time it was ever performed, “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind” is also a song that mourns the loss of innocence.
The use of the miniature horse and “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind” is such a silly thing, but when the Parks and Rec cast got together after five years via their separate houses and sang those ridiculous lyrics for us—also stuck in our separate houses—it suddenly wasn’t so silly anymore. It was as poignant as the characters in the show always felt it to be. It was filled with the grief of a normal that is gone, but the cheer of friends who are still here.
There is something surreal about seeing these characters back on the screen, in character, acting from their real homes. Acting in the world in which we now live. They didn’t have any obligation to carve out the time and effort to tell one more Parks and Rec story, but they did. They stepped back into the stream of their story to let us know they’re still here for us, and I don’t know why that should be so comforting, but it is. For seven years many of us welcomed them into our living rooms, inviting them to tell us a story about life that was not so different from our own. It’s fitting that as we shut the door on a normalcy that feels like it was only yesterday, we’d greet these particular old friends on our television screens and join with them in a rousing encore of “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind,” viewing our first televised story about what life looks like now. “Bye bye, L’il Sebastian. We miss you in the saddest fashion.”