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Saturday morning I made myself a cup of coffee, wrapped myself in a blanket on the couch, and turned on the Parks and Rec Special. If you haven’t watched the special and are planning to, spoiler alert. But honestly if you haven’t already watched it…that’s kind of on you.
For those of you with no idea what I’m talking about, Parks and Recreation is an NBC sitcom (in the documentary style ala The Office) that aired from 2009 to 2015. The show follows Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), an overly optimistic and perky workaholic employed by the Parks Department of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana. She’s joined by a cast of equally quirky characters – the libertarian Ron Swanson (whose greatest delight would be the closure of the very government he works for), the dark and cynical April Ludgate, accident-prone Garry “Jerry” Gergich, vain entrepreneur Tom Haverford, divalicious Donna Meagle, childlike Andy Dwyer, health fiend Chris Traeger, no-nonsense nurse Ann Perkins, and nerdy Ben Wyatt.
For 125 episodes we followed these characters as they solved one crisis after another, fell in and out of love, ran for public office, put on festivals, buried a miniature horse, and worked tirelessly for the good of their town.
I should say more about the miniature horse. Li’l Sebastian was, as Leslie writes in his obituary, “Pawnee’s horse. He was an animal, a legend, a friend. He was our beacon of light.” The residents of Pawnee didn’t agree on everything, but they all loved Li’l Sebastian. He was the main attraction at festivals. His long face bedecked t-shirts and posters. And when he died, the whole town came together to mourn. Andy was charged with writing a song for the occasion that would top Candle in the Wind,” and in his typical not-so-nuanced fashion, he came up with “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind.” The song quickly became the municipal anthem of Pawnee, Indiana, and – I’m not exaggerating here – the heart song of viewers and fans across the country.
When NBC announced a reunion special to raise money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, the news traveled fast amongst my friends. Heaven knows we needed some good news. And we needed the Parks and Rec special. Filming from their own homes, the actors portrayed their characters doing what we’re all doing these days – calling each other on Pawnee’s version of Zoom: Gryzzl. They checked in with each other, remarked on how they were passing the time (in ways that felt far too familiar to those viewing), and in the end, as a pick-me-up for Leslie, broke out in a rousing rendition of “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind.”
And honestly, it was the most comforted I have felt in seven weeks. I laughed. I cried. I felt seen.
I’ve been reflecting on that this week. It seems lots of other people also experienced the show as deeply therapeutic. Twitter was full of crying and heart emojis, #treatyoselfs, and people exclaiming that this was exactly what they needed.
Maybe it was the fact that this was comfortable and known. We knew this TV show. We knew these characters. We knew what to expect from them. And in a day when the news changes by the second and we can’t plan ahead or count on anything, we need shows and books and movies that are familiar.
Maybe it was the fact that they just love each other so much. And so we love them. And to have characters we’ve loved enter into our own situations and stories and also be experiencing the drudge that has been 2020 was immensely therapeutic. Especially since these characters, unlike people in our real communities, don’t ask anything of us. We wouldn’t be required to have a twenty-minute conversation rehashing this newspaper article and the next, wouldn’t have to bite our tongue or manage our frustration, wouldn’t have to wonder what to believe. We could simply exist. And watch them exist. And that was restful.
Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve got “Knope for President” pins on our backpacks and purses, and Leslie’s dedication, desire to serve her community, and never-ending hope is exactly what we want from our leadership right now.
Or maybe it was singing a song about a miniature horse that united a town, because in a day when our communities and countries feel more fractured than ever, we could all use a Li’l Sebastian to rally around.
And if it’s all of the above, I wonder what that says about me, about us. Is all of this just a strange and maybe unhealthy emotional attachment to fictional characters? Or is there more to unpack here? Does this tell us something about community, relationships, leadership, emotions, and our love for all things miniature?
I’m not sure. I’m sure there are research papers written about such things. But right now I don’t have the energy to read them. I’m going to go watch Parks and Rec instead.