How the COVID-19 crisis brought 'Parks and Recreation' back for a one-time special

Rob Owen
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Don't worry, "Parks and Recreation" fans, the one-time pandemic special episode airing at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC is considered canon and doesn't disrupt anything in the flash-forward in the series finale.

"That was a real trick because our last season aired in (2015) but took place in 2017 and the finale jumped to 2065, so the first thing I had to do was say, where the hell is everyone? Almost no one is in Pawnee still," "Parks" executive producer Mike Schur said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday. "But for a fan who cares about canon, they should consider it canon. We never mentioned (this get-together via video chat) it in the finale when they met up, that it had taken place — OK, we didn't know it was going to happen — but I would certainly consider it canon. We had to go back and retrofit everything and make sure it made sense."

The one-time special — "I don't anticipate any long-term revival or anything like that," Schur said — follows a Paley Center "Parks" retrospective at 8 p.m. Thursday and will also serve as a fundraiser for Feeding America.

FILE - In this March 21, 2019 file photo, Amy Poehler arrives at the "Parks and Recreation" 10th anniversary reunion during the 36th annual PaleyFest in Los Angeles. Five years after audiences said goodbye to the show, the cast will reunite for NBC and Universal Television's all-original "A Parks and Recreation Special" to benefit Feeding America. The special is set to air Thursday, April 30. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

From the time the idea this "Parks" special first came up to getting on the air it was only about three weeks, Schur said, noting that NBC executives approached him with the idea for recording a table read of an existing episode's script. He decided it would be better to tell a new story if they were going to the effort of getting the cast back together virtually.

Cast members quickly agreed to return for the special, as did some of the show's writers ,who broke the script with Schur in about three days. iPhones, lights and tripods were sent to the cast member's homes so they could film themselves in recording sessions that took place over four days. The visual effects team from Schur's "The Good Place" added graphics to jazz up the visuals.

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Schur said the story — friends reconnecting via online video streaming — was the least difficult part of the process.

"There's only one thing happening in the entire world," he said. "If you're going to get any group of people together and not have the story be about them during the pandemic, what are you doing?"

None of the characters in the special had or have COVID-19, but the "Parks" special does address their reactions to the crisis. Leslie (Amy Poehler) asks Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) if he practices social distancing in his off-the-grid cabin.

"I've been practicing social distancing since I was 4 years old," says Libertarian Ron.

Schur said there will be appearances by many "Parks" semi-regulars beyond the main cast. The first face to appear is that of a non-series regular — my money is on news anchor Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) — and given that Offerman is married to actress Megan Mullally, who played his ex-wife, odds seem good that Mullally's Tammy Two may appear alongside Ron.

Of course, the special also has to take steps to explain why some of the couples who are married aren't in the same room since the actors recorded their roles in self-isolation.

Schur notes the main message of "Parks" — Leslie's belief in the power of community to hold people together and the notion of government as a force for good — is why a special reunion episode makes sense during this crisis.

"We're now obviously in one of those moments where we're seeing at a national scale and at a local scale that government is where we're all turning when we need help," Schur said. "I honestly didn't think there'd be a 'Parks and Recreation' reunion for any reason, that the show had a point to make and we made it and we ended the show and it didn't seem like there was a compelling reason to come back but this is as compelling a reason as there is, not only is it part of the reason, it's why this thing happened."