Making half an hour of scripted, original television in the middle of a pandemic isn’t easy, but “Parks and Recreation” co-creator Mike Schur told press Tuesday that the current climate presented a “compelling reason” to create one more story for Leslie Knope and other beloved characters from the NBC series for the fundraising special that will air on Thursday.
At the heart of the reunion’s reason for being is the eternal optimism of Amy Poehler’s Knope, her belief that the incremental moments of connection were “vital to the social fabric,” as Schur puts it, and her faith in the government to be a force for good. The original show was forged in the economic crisis of 2007-2008, “when it was clear to Greg Daniels and me that government was going to be playing a very active role in people’s lives at the national level, the state level, the local level, everywhere. And we’re now obviously in another one of those moments.”
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, so fans will be able to check in on their favorites from Pawnee, Indiana. The money raised will go toward Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
“I honestly didn’t think that ‘Parks and Rec’ was ever going to reunite for any reason, just because I felt like that show had a point to make, and I felt like we’d made it, and we ended the show and it just didn’t seem like there was a compelling reason,” he said. “But this is a compelling reason. This is as compelling a reason as there is.”
Universal TV president Pearlena Igbokwe had first reached out to Schur about the idea of doing a special, which he suggested should be for charity. The cast enthusiastically replied to Schur’s email in less than an hour. When Schur took a walk with his wife, “Single Parents” co-creator J.J. Philbin, later that day, he realized that the show should be a scripted original, and not just a table read.
Calling the logistics “very difficult,” Schur credits directors and executive producers Morgan Sackett and Dean Holland, as well as script supervisor Valeria Collins, with making the special happen. Schur reached out to half a dozen of the old writers from the show, who conceived of and penned the script for the special in less than three days. They then mailed or dropped off a “little rig with a tripod,” an iPhone, a light and microphones with the cast, and Schur and his team directed the actors and adjusted their framing via Zoom. The special was shot in just four days. Schur recruited “The Good Place” graphics and effects team “to make it not look like everyone was just sitting alone in their houses staring at a computer.”
While the process was fun, he said, there’s no doubt that it was also “slow and laborious.”
“Is there anything about this that points the way forward for TV production? And the answer is a resounding no,” said Schur. “For me, this is not the way TV is be supposed to be made. It required an incredible amount of basically goodwill volunteer work, or guild minimum, union minimum volunteer work from from sound designers and editors and supervisors and all sorts of people really just doing it, because it’s a fundraiser, because it was fun to get the cast back together. But, you know, TV is a team sport. From the very beginning to the very end, it’s about groups of people functioning in holistic ways with each other, and collaborating and being in the same room at the same time. And, you know, I don’t think there’s any way that this is a sustainable method for making television.”
While Schur kept mum on who would make a guest appearance, he did say that there are “probably half a dozen” familiar faces who will pop up at one point or another. The very first face that will appear on screen will not be one from the regular cast.
“It wouldn’t have been a ‘Parks and Rec’ special if there hadn’t been some of the super fun and enjoyable side characters and tertiary characters who used to pop up on the show being involved,” he said. “So you’ll get a decent number of them as the show goes along.”
Given the multiple leaps into the future in the series finale of “Parks and Recreation,” which aired in 2015, Schur said that fitting the special’s story into the timeline of the show was “a real tricky one.”
“The first thing we had to do is say, ‘Where the hell is everyone?’ Where did everyone end up?” he said. “Gary’s the mayor, based on how we left him, but Leslie and Ben and April and Andy are in Washington and Donna’s in Seattle, and Chris and Anne are in Michigan.”
But as to whether this special should be considered canon, Schur says that “any fan cares about canon should consider this canon. … But it did present a kind of weird situation for something like this because ordinarily, you could just make everything out and start from scratch. But we had already said what had happened to everyone in years past, so we had to sort of go back and retrofit everything and make sure it made sense.”
As for what new episodes of television will look after the end of this global public health crisis, Schur says that it’s tough to figure out whether TV’s current set of characters will be planted into a world impacted by COVID-19. He noted the wide range of responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the TV landscape, “Friends”‘ decision not to address it, to “The West Wing” dedicating an entire episode to the incident.
“It’s very hard to try to figure out what people will want down the line in September or beyond,” he said. “Will people want to see shows reflect the reality of what they went through, or are still going through? Or will they want pure escapism? You know, there’s no playbook for this.”