Column: We all love a nostalgia trip like the ‘Parks and Rec’ reunion. Here’s why it’s dangerous
Like millions of Americans, our family laughed and cried its way through the “Parks and Recreation” reunion special Thursday night. And the best known citizens of Pawnee were not the only people the show reunited.
Although there’s been a lot of TV watching in our house during the COVID-19 shutdown, most of it has been done separately on laptops or in in subgroups around bigger screens; even when two or more of us agree on a movie or series, the chances of a unanimous vote are not good.
But we all love “Parks and Rec” and so there we were, lined up on sofas and chairs, shoving and shushing one another in the ways of a bygone era when there was an electronic hearth with cords to be managed, not cut.
Well, not exactly. Our son, Danny, is still sheltering in his college town of Columbia, Mo., and, like most members of his generation, he does not have access to broadcast television. So he joined us on FaceTime, and the rather hilarious sight of my cellphone atop a tripod — positioned so he could see the screen and we could see him (albeit upside down) — kept nostalgia, hovering over the moment like the wave in “The Poseidon Adventure,” from completely washing us away.
As did “Parks and Rec,” for that matter. Yes, the special expertly twanged our heartstrings and, perhaps more important, reminded us of the days when a show like “Parks and Rec” — a broadcast television weekly sitcom that debuted with a brief and bumpy first season and never quite achieved the ratings or awards glory it deserved — was allowed to exist.
But the special itself was resolutely forward-looking. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and all her kith and kin were in pandemic isolation, but their lives had clearly continued to unfurl in the years since we last saw them, and no one was pining for the past nor bemoaning the future as too scary to face.
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An excellent lesson for those of us in danger of using the shutdown as an excuse to, well, wallow.
I myself have been wallowing with great purpose and intensity; whenever the Summer Olympics take place, if there is a new weep, pray and wallow event, I am fully prepared to represent these United States.
With more free time than I have ever had in my adult life, I have done nothing to catch up on all those new books I’m usually too busy to read. Instead, I have curled around the books of my youth — “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Dark is Rising” series; all the Joan Aikens, E. Nesbits and Laura Ingalls Wilders.
I have reread much of Dickens (“Bleak House” being my go-to comfort novel) and every mystery novel that I own, which turns out to be quite a few — Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes knockoffs, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth Peters, Ellis Peters, Dorothy Sayers and, of course, all the Agatha Christies.
With societal permission to non-professionally park myself in front of a screen and finally watch all the shows I have missed because there is so much television these days that it’s impossible not to miss most of it, I have instead lowered myself day after day into a warm bath of old favorites, including but not limited to “Parks and Rec.” (If my husband hears the plaintive opening strains of “Foyle’s War” one more time, I think he will divorce me.) I have watched only one new show for more than two episodes, and that was “Belgravia,” which bled very nicely into my binge of “Pride and Prejudice.”
With all the new just-in-theater movies currently available for streaming, I chose to watch Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” for the fourth time before surrendering to “Nanny McPhee” and “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”
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I know why I’m doing it. I’m doing it for the same reason that so many television series — “Chuck,” “Frasier,” “Friday Night Lights,” “High School Musical,” “Melrose Place” — have been offering us reunion specials, for the same reason so many people have been staging college-roommate and summer camp reunions on Facebook and Zoom. Because briefly reconnecting with people from your past during a time of crisis is comforting, sustaining and safe.
I am returning to the stories I love best because I know exactly what will happen and how it will make me feel. In a world where the news is filled with death and economic/cultural collapse, a world that is literally defined by uncertainty, I simply cannot bear any more.
I am reluctant to watch a new show or film or read a new book because what if it’s terrible? Or what if it’s good but it makes me feel worse in some way? What if it’s one of those stories in which justice doesn’t triumph or transcendence is not achieved or the whole point is that life is (a) meaningless and (b) completely outside our control?
Why do people even tell stories like that anyway?
I can’t even bring myself to watch the final three episodes of “Homeland,” for god’s sake, because what if I don’t like the way it ends? What if (and don’t tell me) Saul Berenson dies? It’s hard enough with my daughters binge-watching “Criminal Minds” to see the end of the Mandy Patinkin era creeping up on them. If Saul dies in “Homeland” (seriously, don’t tell me) that might just be the last freaking straw for me.
As you can see, things have gotten a bit out of hand.
But then I watched this “Parks and Rec” special, and as much as I loved it, I was glad it was a reunion rather than a resumption. It’s good that all the characters and their actors have moved on. I love Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson and everyone else with all my heart and soul, but I don’t want to see Poehler and Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, Aziz Ansari, Retta, Rob Lowe and all the rest (honestly, what a cast) trapped forever in Pawnee being endlessly adorable and hilarious.
I want to see what they will do next. Even if it doesn’t make me feel the way “Parks and Rec” makes me feel.
Especially if it doesn’t. Because I still have “Parks and Rec” whenever I need it.
I know I am living with uncertainty, but frankly, if I read/hear/see on more person saying “the world as we know it is over” I will scream. The world as we know it is over every day a person dies or a baby is born, every time something new is invented or some bit of power, large or small, is transferred from one person to another. The world as we know it is over every day the sun sets.
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Obviously, this pandemic will cause more lasting change than the setting sun. As I write this, almost 238,000 people, more than 64,000 of them Americans, have died from COVID-19. Many more have lost their jobs, and those still working are often exhausted and in peril. It is right that we are filled with sorrow and fear, anger and uncertainty. We are social animals temporarily deprived of society in a way that has never happened in any of our lives. The need to seek comfort from the past, even in little ways like rereading the books of our youth, is understandable.
It’s just not helpful. At least not in the long run.
Yes, we need to reconnect with who we were, whether through television or Facebook reunions, but only to help acknowledge who we are and steady us for who we will become. Yes, it’s important for our physical and mental health that we make our physical and mental nests as comfortable as we can so we can stay in them as long as is necessary.
But we also need to prepare ourselves for the moment when we can leave. As Leslie, Ron and all the “Parks and Rec " team were clearly doing.
So this weekend, I’m going to read one of those books I’ve been meaning to read, plow ahead with a show I may end up hating. I’m going to watch the final episodes of “Homeland” and if Saul dies, well, I will feel bad, but only for a moment. He is a fictional character, after all.
And then I’ll move on. Because even if the future is unknowable and scary, I can’t wait to see what we’re all going to do next.
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