What Parks and Recreation Says about Culture, the Coronavirus and Us

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Coronavirus, Meet Ron Swanson.

Five years after NBC’s Parks and Recreation went off the air, Ron, Leslie Knope and the rest of the show’s gang are reuniting tonight (virtually speaking) to raise money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund. It’ll air on, y’know, old-fashioned, traditional TV (NBC, of course) at 8:30 ET/PT.

To me, this reunion—and that anyone cares about it—illustrates how fickle, malleable and, at times, weirdly inspiring pop culture can be.

Parks and Recreation began in the dark ages of 2009, when Netflix was still the company that’d mail you DVDs. The show centered around the Parks and Recreation Department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, and it seemed to originally want to channel the sort of workplace cynicism that made The Office a hit. Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler starred as the optimistic, ambitious and slightly shrill bureaucrat Leslie Knope. The show also featured a bevy of little-known actors (including a chubby Chris Pratt, who was originally supposed to be just an occasional first-season guest star) in supporting roles.

Hardly anyone cared. Fewer than 7 million people watched the show’s opening episode—good numbers in today’s fractured television landscape, but abysmal back then—and the audience declined for every one of the five episodes that followed that first season. By the time the 2009 season wrapped up, it was broadcast television’s 96th most popular show.

Parks and Rec found its creative footing in season 2 and became a critical darling. Leslie Knope became less a clueless Michael Scott-like foil and more an adorable (if exhausting) underdog. Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson—the wildly conservative libertarian who, ironically, runs the Parks and Rec department—slowly became the show’s breakout character. Parks and Rec lost some of its cynicism and became something of a feel-good (if still deeply problematic) show. And as time went on, those “little known” castmates weren’t so little known anymore. The show brought in Rob Lowe and Adam Scott. Pratt landed the lead in a little movie called Guardians of the Galaxy and became a bona fide superstar.

And still no one cared.

Sure, it racked up the Emmy nominations—16 over the show’s run. But they never walked away with hardware from television’s most esteemed award-awarding body (Poehler eventually won a Golden Globe in 2014), and the ratings kept sinking. Turns out, being the 96th most popular show was Parks and Rec’s high-water mark. In season 4, it was ranked 134th. Fans loved it, but they were precious few fans indeed.

“Being a fan of Parks and Recreation over the past six years has meant loving a show that almost always seemed on the verge of cancellation,” wrote Vulture’s Josef Adalian in 2015, the day before the show really did come to an end.

But the truth is, rarely do shows ever truly end these days—even shows that no one, initially, watched. Parks and Rec found a new home and new life on Netflix. In 2019, the streaming giant noted that the little-watched comedy was one of its most-watched shows.

Count me as part of that statistic. Sometimes people ask me, as a television reviewer, what I watch in my free time. Truth is, I don’t watch much. But my wife and I have seen every episode of Parks and Rec on Netflix.

For fans, the show has always felt like a refuge from a difficult, bewildering world. For all of its content problems (which you can read all about in our review), Parks and Rec had a hunk of sweet, nougaty goodness at its core. Pawnee was a place where a government wonk like Knope and an anti-government stalwart like Swanson could work together and even (platonically) love each other.  It was a town rife with flawed, selfish characters who nevertheless sacrificed and helped each other. It was a place where the most slighted, most picked-upon character—Gary “Jerry” Gergich (played by Jim O’Heir)—also marries a literal supermodel (Christie Brinkley guest-starred for several episodes as his wife) and becomes one of the city’s most beloved residents.

A friend of mine once admitted that as he soldiered through a particularly difficult time in his life, one of the things that got him through was Parks and Recreation.

So maybe it’s fitting that it’s Park and Rec, of all shows, that’s returning when fans could use a smile—a little Ron Swanson pragmatism, a little Leslie Knope optimism. All of the show’s regulars, including megastar Pratt, will be back and in character. All of them are, of course, in isolation themselves, and Leslie Knope—like so many of us—will be talking with her old pals via social media. The actors, incidentally, are sequestered in their homes, too, which forced some creative explanations about why the married characters aren’t in the same room.

Sometimes we imagine that celebrities live in a bubble apart from us all. For weeks now, the coronavirus has shown us that’s not entirely the case: Talk show hosts interview stars via video chat, chummily talking with one another in their own respective living rooms or kitchens or studies. Rock stars produce impromptu, lo-fi concerts. And now, through the weird meta-reality of the sitcom, we see Parks and Rec stars and characters shuffling through coronavirus uncertainty just like we all are.

Will the show be good? Disappointing? Super-problematic? Who knows? I’m not suggesting anyone watch the thing. But honestly, just knowing that the folks in Pawnee, Indiana, are soldiering through these difficult days just like we all are, that they still care enough about each other to link up for a video chat, encourages me a little. It reminds me that Amy Poehler, Leslie Knope and I are in this thing together … and still trying to smile through it all.

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