Remote production is getting better and better.
“Saturday Night Live’s” second installment during the ongoing quarantine was noticeably more elegantly done than the first. Newscasts and late-night shows, though not quite seamless, are looking less cobbled-together. And “Parks and Recreation’s” reunion special, intended to raise funds for and bring awareness to the food-insecure population during the coronavirus crisis, managed to approximate both something closer to TV-sitcom production values than might have been expected and some of the bonhomie of the original, even with its cast separated.
The thirty-minute special was plot-light — taking place within some version of our reality and coping with isolation, the show’s cast, led by Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, now a government official, communicated through video calls as a way more of keeping tabs on one another than sharing what was new with them. This was less an opportunity to move a story that had ended forward than a check-in. And the show’s ensemble ran through familiar in-jokes from Chris Pratt’s anthem for Li’l Sebastian the horse to the surprisingly robust media scene of Pawnee, Ind. (with both Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo appearing in remotely-recorded shows-within-the-show). It was a display that genuinely surprised for its expansiveness of vision as to what could be done through huge effort in a time that seems stymied to frustrate production. When Joan hosts her show, for instance, surrounded by surreal and creepy dolls: Did some ingenious producer get her the dolls? Or were they somehow already in the actor Mo Collins’s house? Did Chris Pratt really just have a karate uniform? How did Nick Offerman grow a mustache so quickly? And so on.
Such moments kept announcing themselves, making for a show as extratextually rich as its plot was — by design — thin. (Questions raised by COVID-19 existing in the “Parks” world, and Knope now serving as an appointee within the federal government, were left unanswered, and unasked.) The question that lies ahead for TV, perhaps, is to what degree a broadcast like this is replicable, in particular for shows that aren’t just doing a one-time special. It seems apparent that fairly herculean effort was required merely to produce this thirty minutes; inasmuch as new TV can be expected, we may be getting used to seeing episodes dribble out with weeks between them rather than the gush we’ve come to expect in the content age.
And, too, they necessarily must deal with what’s going on in the world at large. Characters who would otherwise be together — even if not on a now-closed soundstage — must necessarily be shot by actors in separate places, forcing the most escapist of entertainments to, no matter how much better-produced they may get, remain focused on this moment’s ills. It was genuinely impressive the way “Parks” adapted its blithe and ebullient tone to a moment that’s anything but, bringing catalcysm to bear on a fictional universe that’s fundamentally light-hearted without trivializing the serious or making unduly serious the trivial. The mask slipped but once, when Pratt’s foolish and innocent character Andy told viewers of his karate demonstration that “Things will go back to normal. They just have to. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow. It might not be next week, or a year, or a hundred years, or a thousand years. It might never happen!” This is, perhaps, humor more mordant than a show about happy coworkers who want to help people can bear.
But it represents, at least, a manner of joking about the moment. “Parks and Recreation” could feel, in its bright and optimistic first run, at times a bit removed from an increasingly negative political discourse. It was wrenched into our moment, and found within it, mostly, reasons to be hopeful. Its production was up to the moment; so, pleasantly enough, was the show itself. The special’s success is replicable not only if other shows put in the production work but also if other shows can, similarly, strike the right balance.