'Parks and Recreation': Inside the Reunion With a Purpose

Co-creator Mike Schur opens up about the challenges of producing the special that doubles as a fundraiser for Feeding America.
Courtesy of Photofest
The cast of 'Parks and Recreation'

Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur never wanted to do a revival, reboot or any sort of reunion for his beloved and star-studded former NBC comedy. Then the novel coronavirus shut down the world and changed everything.

"I didn't think Parks and Recreation would ever reunite; the show had a point to make and we made it and it ended and there was no compelling reason to do it — but this is as compelling a reason as there is," Schur told press, including The Hollywood Reporter, during a 45-minute conference call Tuesday, mere days before Amy Poehler's brilliantly optimistic Leslie Knope returns to the network in a special that doubles as a fundraiser for Feeding America.

Parks and Recreation, Schur recalled, was forged during the economic recession in 2007-08, when it was clear the government would have to play an active role in people's lives. That same need is true today, with people across the world turning to local and national governments to navigate the novel coronavirus and its economic fallout as many look for food assistance, financial aid to cover rent/mortgages and so on.

The special, which was written and filmed remotely during the past month, will see the core Parks and Rec cast — Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Jim O’Heir and Retta — will all return for the special alongside many familiar faces. (Schur noted the first face viewers see will not be one of the 10 stars.)

The 30-minute special will find Pawnee's most dedicated public servant, Leslie, determined to stay connected with her friends and colleagues during a time of social distancing. To hear Schur tell it, Leslie's eternal optimism and belief in the power of community and friendship — and government — made sense to explore now when much of the world is stuck in quarantine. 

Schur came up with the idea for the special after NBC execs reached out to him to see if he could reunite the Parks and Rec cast for a remotely filmed table read of a former episode. That quickly went out the window when the entire cast responded in under an hour. "If you get all 10 of these performers together, even virtually, you should do something new," Schur said, noting he briefly considered a table read of one of the three Parks and Rec episodes where some characters battled the flu. "We moved away from that quickly because I was terrified of seeming like we were making light of the most serious international crisis in 100 years," Schur said. None of the Parks and Rec characters in the special will have or will have had COVID-19 for those same reasons.

"The whole special is not about the disease," Schur said. "It's about people coping with it and navigating their daily lives. The most important theme of the show is: Leslie Knope believes in friendship. She was loyal and friendly and put all her eggs in the power of friendship. It's about her connecting with people and holding that group of characters together at a time when they're unable to leave their homes. That's the running theme."

That said, Schur and the Parks and Rec team did find ways for their characters to respond to the global health crisis (expect some sort of acknowledgement to come from Lowe's Chris Traeger, aka "the world's healthiest person"). Ann (Jones), meanwhile, was a nurse during Parks and Rec and now works doing outpatient care. "We debated having [Ann] on the front lines but didn't want to trivialize or make light or find humor in what is the least humorous aspect of this entire thing," Schur explained.

In terms of the creative, Schur said challenges included trying to remember where the cast left off from the finale — which aired in 2014 but took place in 2017 and featured the core characters at several points decades into the future. The special will also explain why the married couples on Parks and Rec — Leslie and Ben (Scott), Ann and Chris, April (Plaza) and Andy (Pratt) — are not experiencing quarantine together. "We had some logistical questions we had to answer but they were fairly minor," Schur said.

One plot point that die-hard Parks and Rec fans should not expect is an answer to the one question the series finale left open: Leslie's future political success. While Schur said the special should be considered canon, that was intentionally omitted from the special.

"We made a bunch of references in the finale to potential things that might happen to various people and we left all that out," Schur said. "We wanted this to be about what was happening in their life at this moment. There are no future Easter eggs — at least none that are intentional, anyway. We wanted the entire story to be about what is happening to this group of people right now and how they're helping each other. We didn't get fancy or tricky with any sort of winks about what was going to happen in the future; we wanted to keep with the mission statement of the special."

In terms of logistics, the special — like NBC's Saturday Night Live and CBS' forthcoming drama All Rise — was produced remotely. Actors were sent rigs with a tripod and iPhone, lights and microphones, all of which were disinfected. The cast filmed themselves using iPhones while Schur and other members from the Parks creative team looked on from other angles via Zoom.

Schur said production on the special as "slow and laborious" after a relatively speedy writing process that took between three and four days. He attributed the ability to pull this off to members of the production team who volunteered their services because the special is designed as a fundraiser. (The graphics and VFX team from The Good Place also contributed.)

Still, the prolific producer — whose Peacock comedy Rutherford Falls, starring Ed Helms, was among those shut down amid the global pandemic — doesn't see his experience producing the Parks and Rec special as a way forward for the industry.

"This isn't the way TV is supposed to be made," he said. "TV is a team sport from the beginning to the end, with groups of people functioning in a holistic ways and collaborating and being in the same room at the same time. I don't think there's any way this is a sustainable method for making TV. It was fun to get the crew and everyone back together. I took screengrabs of the virtual table, which was a lot of fun and hard work but it's not any kind of model for going forward."

Oh, and as for a proper scripted reunion series/revival/reboot? Better enjoy the special, since Schur said he doesn't anticipate anything more substantial in the long term.

The Parks and Recreation special airs Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT, with a special Paley Center tribute to the series opening the night at 8 p.m., on NBC.