Why I Cried at the “Parks and Recreation Reunion” Special
The reunion reminded me of all of the things I loved, and love, about the show and its view of the world.
Ask anyone who knows me even moderately well, and they’ll tell you that I’m a crier. I’ve been known to break down into tears at the slightest provocation, whether it’s at a commercial or even a particularly moving meme. So, it wasn’t really a surprise that I repeatedly found myself choking up while watching the Parks and Recreation reunion special last night. Part of it was from the simple, unadulterated joy of seeing these beloved characters back in the living room, but a greater, more powerful, part stemmed from the spirit of the series. And, what’s more, it came from the knowledge that the optimism that the show expressed in its original run all too soon came into conflict with the buzz-saw of reality.
In other words, I cried for the world that Parks and Rec represented but which, since 2016, has seemed to vanish utterly. Instead of Leslie Knope as our president we have a malevolent form of Bobby Newport. Instead of a government steered by well-meaning and competent people, we are living in a dystopia where profits matter more than people and where the federal government has botched nearly every aspect of its response to COVID-19.
I a moment like this, Parks and Rec was just what the doctor ordered.
I’ve been a fan of Parks and Recreation for years now, and I recently took the opportunity of the quarantine to do a re-watch. I was struck anew at the series’ relentless optimism and ebullience, about how it encourages us to believe that public servants truly do believe in the betterment of the public, that it is possible for government to work for the good of the people that it is supposed to serve (even if they are, at times, infuriatingly ungrateful and sometimes downright stupid). The show operates in a spirit of good faith, and it asks us to as well. In an age in which cynicism and bad faith are more of the rule than the exception — even in television — that was and is a refreshing change of pace.
Last night, as soon as Leslie and Ben appeared on the screen, I knew that I was going to be in for the same sorts of feelings that I always experience when I watch Parks and Rec. I felt, strange as it may seem, as if I were among friends, as if these were people that I knew and that I wanted to be with. We often speak about the magic of the movies, of the power of the big screen image to move us into a different plane of experience. I think that there’s something similar that animates the television sitcom, though its magic is subtler, more intimate, though certainly no less utopian.
We see this magic in almost every exchange that occurs on the screen. It’s there in the obvious love that exists between Leslie and Ben, two very different people who have nevertheless managed to build a relationship that respects both of them and their respective career goals. It’s there in the partnership of opposites that it Leslie and Ron, two people who’ve somehow managed to be friends and to work together despite their diametrically opposed political philosophies. It’s there in the clear love between April and Andy, between Anne and Chris and the mutual indulgences of Donna and Tom. And yes, it’s even there with the hapless Gerry, now serving one of his multiple terms as mayor.
The magic is even there in the most infuriating characters that make their own cameos: Councilman Jamm, Joan Callamezzo, Jean-Ralphio, and Tammy Two. There is no such thing as pure evil in the world of Parks and Recreation, and that’s part of what makes the show, and the reunion, so unrelentingly pleasant to watch.
What really got me, though, was the rendition of “Bye, Bye, Li’l Sebastian” that concluded the episode. There was something about all of them singing together, joined in a strange sort of virtual community, that just caused me to be overcome with feeling. It was sweet and joyful, yes, but there was also a tinge of sadness to it as well, a reminder of what has passed beyond recall. Not just the sweet little horse, but also the bright future that Parks and Rec imagined in its final season.
For, in Parks and Rec fashion, beneath all of the joy and cheer that suffused the episode, there were two moments that allowed us a glimpse into the reality of the world that we live in. The first was the opening, in which Bobby Newport, after reading his lines, seems flummoxed at the notion that there is a pandemic raging outside of his cushioned existence. It’s a pointed reminder that the wealthy continue to inhabit a different world than the rest of us.
A similarly pointed moment occurs when Andy, in his persona as Johnny Karate, tries to reassure kids that someday this will all be over. In typical Andy fashion, though, he inadvertently remarks that “it might never happen.” It is, of course, played for laughs, but there’s something poignant about the recognition that the world as we knew it might, in fact, be gone, that we might never fully return to normal.
To my mind, that is the brilliance of a series like Parks and Recreation. While it is a fundamentally optimistic series about the ability of government, and of public servants in particular to help solve our most pressing problems, it also points out the inequities and problems of our world, the ingratitude and self-destructiveness of people, though it always wears such honesty lightly. Even if, as Johnny Karate suggests, the world may never return to normal, we can take comfort from the fact that we have characters like these to help us through the dark times.
When, at the end of the episode, Ron reminds Leslie to take care of herself, it almost feels as if he is speaking to all of us, as well. That last reunion of all of those beloved characters, orchestrated by Ron, is a reminder to all of us as well, to reach out and contact those that we love. Community and family is more important now than ever.
I earnestly hope that this isn’t the last time that we see all of these characters together. There’s no question that there are some dark days, perhaps even years ahead, and we need shows like Parks and Recreation to remind us that there is beauty and goodness and light in the world, that there are people who have beautiful souls and want to make the world a better place.
When I wept last night, it wasn’t just with sadness, it was also with joy, joy at getting to see these beloved people once again, even as I was reminded that Parks and Recreation is no longer on the air. It is in that mingling of joy and sadness that true magic happens.
In other words, thank goodness for Parks and Recreation.