Parks and Recreation has only been off the air for five years, but what a five years it has been. When the NBC sitcom about a tireless, obsessive, irrepressibly kind public servant—Amy Poehler‘s Leslie Knope—and her beloved colleagues aired its finale, on February 24, 2015, America had a very different collective self-image. A global network of Ebola fighters had just won a tough, worrisome but nonetheless decisive battle against that deadly virus. After a devastating summer of police violence, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement at least seemed poised to effect positive change. As pop culture was making unprecedented strides in trans representation, an unstoppable queer rights movement was about to make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Our first black President still had two years left in his second term, and Donald Trump was four months away from officially kicking off his campaign. The idea that the best way to represent a red state like Indiana—home to Parks‘ fictional city of Pawnee and the titular department Leslie helps run—was as a hub of cheerful, multicultural, bipartisan progress didn’t seem that farfetched.
But by April 30, 2020, as the show returned to NBC for a one-off reunion special to benefit Feeding America, the national mood had—to put it extremely mildly—shifted. In contrast to post-racial Pawnee, we’ve had to contend with a fresh wave of white nationalism and xenophobia; “kids in cages” is not a phrase I can imagine coming out of the mouth of anyone in that city’s government. #MeToo has all but squashed the notion that a woman could rise to a position of power without encountering some form of sexual misconduct. (That reckoning eventually came for both series regular Aziz Ansari and—to a far greater, more disappointing extent—frequent guest star Louis C.K. “I don’t remember when I heard the rumors about him,” co-creator Mike Schur said at the time. “But I’m sure it was before the last time he was on Parks and Rec. And that sucks. And I’m sorry.”) And a country where Leslie Knope works in the Department of the Interior, a position to which she ascended in the finale, is not a country that could be blindsided by the novel coronavirus. Her gentle, scrupulously informed competence can’t exist in the same universe where entire news cycles are devoted to parsing whether the President suggested drinking bleach.
And so the reunion takes place not in the real Indiana or America but in a sort of utopian alternate Indiana, USA—one that has also somehow fallen prey to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scripted by Schur with a handful of the show’s original writers and filmed via smartphone from each social-distancing star’s home, the half-hour episode is a collage of video chats and local news programs. Leslie has, of course, instituted a daily “7 PM phone tree” to make sure all of her former co-workers, spread out across the country though they may be, are mentally as well as physically healthy. Her loving