In the series finale of “Parks and Recreation,” Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) looked around at all of the changes coming for her friends in Pawnee, Ind. and asked her husband Ben (Adam Scott) when this group of people would ever be together again.
“That’s all I want: all of these people, in the same place, in the same time,” she said.
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“It will happen, someday,” he replied.
The finale did show a few of those somedays, as it jumped in time to show Leslie and Ben visiting Pawnee from their new home of Washington, D.C. to consider which of them should run for governor. But now, the show is bringing everyone back together again for a one-off half-hour special episode — something that might have never happened if not for the coronavirus pandemic.
“I never thought we would do this because of the particular brand of ending it had,” Scott tells Variety. “Jumping into the future is a reunion-proof ending in a lot of ways. But when Mike [Schur, co-creator] sent the email, it just, at least in my mind, felt like, ‘Of course.’ This is essentially the only circumstance that would call for a ‘Parks’ reunion, I think: to help people out. It makes emotional sense, and creative sense as well.”
Scott recalls getting that email just a month ago: The pandemic had shutdown production, and those who were out of work because of it were sheltering in place in their homes. Schur sent a message to the core cast of “Parks and Recreation” asking them to take part in this episode that would be produced remotely, set in present day, directly addressing the self-quarantine situation and raising money for Feeding America. (Feeding America is a non-profit that works to make sure no American goes hungry, serving meals through soup kitchens, food banks and other community programs.)
“I think any sort of food insecurity is something that needs to be addressed whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic or not,” says Scott. “It, along with healthcare, is something that no one in our country should have to worry about. It just felt right that the ‘Parks and Rec’ reunion would be to help people.”
“I get messages a lot where people going through things [are saying], ‘”Parks” saved me during this’ — and even more so because people are just at home and have no nothing else to do,” adds Retta. “So, for us, this was to give fans a little treat. It was an opportune opportunity to bring a little bit of light to the fans who love the show and then on top of it Mike convinced NBC to make it a fundraiser. That was just the icing on the cake.”
Although “Parks and Recreation” centered on characters who worked in the government — Ben is a Congressman in the 2020 timeline — and “the pandemic and the quarantine situation is the backdrop of the episode,” Aubrey Plaza says the episode is not “necessarily too political.” Instead, it focuses on “what would happen if this was happening in Pawnee?” she notes. “Where would we find these characters in their own quarantine situation?”
Not all of the characters are even still in Pawnee, as Donna and Joe (Keegan-Michael Key) moved to Seattle by this point. But because of the nature of digital technology, everyone is able to check in with each other easily, to ensure they are healthy, safe, and abiding by the appropriate social distancing practices to slow the spread of the virus. Of course it all starts with Leslie and her ebullient organization skills. And yes, even Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is willing to use technology for this purpose.
Although there was an enthusiasm about getting to work together again — and on such an important episode — the idea of such a production didn’t come without complications.
“A long, long time ago, [April Ludgate] was based off of me in real life,” notes Plaza. “It’s a very personal character, so to be asked to get back into that mode 10 years later, it brought up a lot of things. It really was just about trying to remind myself how that character evolved over the years. It was fun, but it was also a daunting task.”
For Retta, who plays Donna, finding the character again came as soon as she heard Aziz Ansari read his first few lines as Tom Haverford, she shares. “Aziz is very Tom, so I immediately went into Donna mode as a result. It didn’t take too much!” she says.
Where her concerns about the special came were in the actual production of it. Noting that she has an iPhone 8, Retta says she was worried her footage wouldn’t look the same as everyone else’s. Luckily, Schur and the production team put together bins for their cast, which included the new iPhone already on the tripod. “All you had to really do was position the light and plug it in,” Retta says.
Unlike self-taping auditions, the prep work for the “Parks and Recreation” special was about more than just finding a quiet corner in one’s home to film, though. There were “location scouts,” Plaza says, which consisted of her sending photos of spaces in her house to Schur and director Morgan Sackett.
At first, she says she wanted to shoot in her laundry room because she has this “giant demon warrior figure in there from Halloween,” and that feels like something April might have lying around the house. But when there were concerns the figure might be a licensed character, she pivoted to her garage.
“I’m not going to make any assumptions, but I will say that I maybe have the best set and that my production design could win an award. Once I got in there I felt like it was totally where April and Andy live,” she says.
Retta shares that she filmed herself in her closet because “I think Donna and Retta have similar closets,” while Scott set up his shots in the office he shares with his wife. Scott also got a bit of an assist from production and just plain luck when it came to some iconic Ben imagery. “They did send me a piece of wardrobe, and there was a prop that they wanted to use that I had kept all of these years,” he teases.
Although the cast had read the script together over a virtual table read on Zoom, they shot their scenes without scene partners. With Schur, Sackett and a script supervisor on Zoom, they received guidance on how to frame shots or when to try a line a different way, sometimes based on adlibs from other actors who had already shot their parts.
“I was improvising with no one, but I know [my] character and I know the other characters so well, that I was making up my mind what they would say to me and then I would respond,” says Plaza. “It was a really an imagination exercise.”
Adds Scott: “It’s usually this big disconnect when you’re having to do something with an eyeline that is not there or whatever it is. But what I found with this was my emotional connection to the show is still so palpable that it was not difficult to lock into that. We spent so much time making the show and made so many of them that it’s just permanently embedded in my heart.”
Being able to produce an episode of television remotely is not a feat lost on these actors, and they do admit to finding some advantages to working this way. One, according to Retta, is that the “workday moves a lot quicker.” Another, per Plaza, is getting back to that “child-like state of mind” where you can just shoot something on your own when you feel like you have a story to tell. But the process also made them more appreciate of the collaboration that comes from working with crew members.
“There’s a magical vibe to these sets and I think that is respecting the craft and the artistry that goes into all of these departments and understanding that whatever someone is doing is just as important as everything else,” Plaza says. Going forward “I think there will have to be some compromises made, but I think it will be a cool time to tell stories.”
Treat yo’ self to the “Parks and Recreation” reunion special April 30 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.
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