Here's your 'Parks and Recreation' catch-up guide before the reunion special

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The Parks and Recreation gang is reuniting for a special episode. (Photo: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Five years ago, Parks and Recreation departed the airwaves with a series finale that showed us the near — and distant — future of our favorite Pawnee citizens. On Thursday, April 30, the entire cast of that NBC favorite is reassembling remotely for a special episode that functions as both a sequel and a prequel to that last episode, “One Last Ride.” Series creator Mike Schur orchestrated the half-hour reunion, which airs at 8:30 p.m. following a special telecast of The Paley Center Salutes Parks and Recreation at 8 p.m., and chose to set the all-new story in 2020 amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Proceeds raised by the special will benefit Feeding America.) 

“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,” Schur explained in a recent conference call with TV journalists. “But [the pandemic] is a compelling reason. This is as compelling a reason as there is.”

Even as fans delight in seeing Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), Garry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) and Donna Meagle (Retta) again, they might also find themselves wondering how this special fits into the multi-decade continuity established in “One Last Ride.” As viewers may or may not recall, the last season of Parks and Recreation, which aired in early 2015, unfolded entirely in the far-off year of… 2017. (For the record, the series wrapped up before President Donald Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015, which is why he goes unmentioned in the original finale.) “One Last Ride” starts on the gang’s final day in Pawnee’s Parks & Recreation office before taking the timeline even further, leaping as far ahead as 2048. 

But the special only takes place in the present day, which required Schur and his team of six writers to do some careful thinking about where all the characters would be in 2020, especially since he specifically intends for this reunion to be considered part of official show canon. “It did present a kind of weird situation for something like this because ordinarily, you could just make everything out and start from scratch,” he said. “But we had already said what had happened to everyone… so we had to sort of go back and retrofit everything and make sure it made sense.”

Schur even admitted to hiring an independent Parks and Recreation expert to vet the special’s storyline: Sam Sackett, son of the show’s executive producer, Morgan Sackett. “He probably knows more about Parks and Rec than I do at this point. On the first day of writing, we were trying to remember things and Morgan sent a text to all of us that laid out where everyone was. I was like, ‘How do you remember all of that?’ And he said, ‘I asked Sam.’ So maybe Sam should have gotten credited as a continuity consultant or something!”

Yahoo Entertainment took its own look back at the chronology of the finale to make sure tomorrow’s reunion fits in with the established timeline. Are you ready? Here we go. 

Leslie and Ben

Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in the Parks and Recreation series finale episode "One Last Ride." (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

In 2017, Pawnee power couple Leslie and Ben are preparing to move to the nation’s capital with their three kids and trade their state employee jobs for federal gigs. Leslie is the new Deputy Director of Operations at the Department of the Interior, while Ben enters the Capitol Building as an elected representative from Indiana. In 2020, both are still juggling those jobs in the radically-changed landscape of Trump’s Washington, with the added challenge of raising triplets. (Ben is also still pursuing a side hustle as a game designer, dreaming up the next edition of his dizzyingly complex Cones of Dunshire.)

Even bigger changes await five years in the future: During a dinner at Joe and Jill Biden’s, Leslie and Ben are approached separately with the offer to run for the soon-to-vacate Governor of Indiana seat. (It should be noted that the Bidens don’t appear to be residing in the White House circa 2025.) Ultimately, Leslie is the one to officially hit the trail, with the ever-loyal Ben serving as her campaign manager. She goes on to serve two terms as governor and by 2035 is contemplating an even bigger office… as in Oval. A quick flash-forward to 2048 midway through the episode reveals that America is very likely being led by President — or Vice President — Knope. 

Don’t expect any confirmation on that promotion, though. Schur said he avoided any additional foreshadowing of Leslie’s presidential future. “There are no future Easter eggs — at least none that are intentional, anyway,” he remarked, “We wanted the entire story to just be about what is happening to this group of people right now, and how they're helping each other and reaching out to each other. So we didn't get too cheeky with links to what’s going to happen in the future. It just didn't seem like it wasn't keeping with the mission statement of the special.”

Ron Swanson

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in the Parks and Recreation series finale episode "One Last Ride." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Pawnee’s resident meat-loving, gold-hoarding libertarian remains in his hometown even as the rest of his colleagues scatter to different corners of the country. “Ron is an actual libertarian unlike most of the people in Washington who call themselves libertarian,” Schur said. “That was sort of the design of that character. He basically lives his whole life off on his own and he's doing that in the special.”

Not that he’s a hermit in the wilderness or anything. As of 2020, Ron will still be running his aptly-named construction firm, Very Good Building Company, alongside brothers Don, Lon and Vaughn. On the homefront, he and his third wife, Diane (Lucy Lawless), are raising her daughters, Ivy and Zoe, and their son, John. Two years after the events of this special, he’ll resign from his company and pay a fateful visit to Leslie in Washington D.C., who pulls some strings to secure her old boss his dream job: running Pawnee National Park. 

April and Andy

Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate and Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer in the Parks and Recreation series finale episode "One Last Ride." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

What a difference a decade makes: In 2009, sneering Parks Department intern April Ludgate couldn’t hide her contempt for Leslie. By 2017, she’s following her mentor to Washington D.C., and into government service. While Leslie takes up her station at the Department of the Interior, April works at the American Service Foundation. Of course, the move means that her boisterous husband, Andy, has to give up his role as local kiddie TV superstar, Johnny Karate. At least, he’s keeping the role-playing alive by donning FBI super-agent Burt Macklin’s super-cool shades at Halloween. (Expect Burt and Johnny to Gryzzlbomb the special.)

Unlike Ben and Leslie, April and Andy don’t have to worry about homeschooling. The couple doesn’t add a kid to their team until 2023, when Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer — a.k.a. Jack — enters the world. He won’t be alone with his creepy-cool parents for long: In 2025, April quietly reveals that they’re expecting another kid, who will likely have an even crazier name. 

Tom Haverford

Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford in the Parks and Recreation series finale episode "One Last Ride." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

According to Schur, Ansari was the first cast member to commit to the reunion, and reprised his role as semi-successful entrepreneur Tom Haverford from his current home in London. Interestingly, Tom’s post-finale career arc most closely dovetails with real-world events that the writers couldn’t have predicted at the time. In 2017, he’s got a 5-year plan to expand his posh Pawnee restaurant, Tom’s Bistro, into a national chain. But the expansion goes belly-up well before the five-year mark due to a trio of crises that sound like signs of the times: a tanking stock market, drying lines of credit and a beef shortage. Leave it to Tom to reinvent himself once again: By 2025, he’s revamped himself as a self-help guru who peddles a wildly successful book about — what else? — failure. He’s also in his first successful relationship, happily married to Lucy (Natalie Morales). 

Donna Meagle

Retta as Donna Meagle in the Parks and Recreation episode "Save JJ's." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

While Leslie and Ben and April and Andy head east, Donna charts her own course west, moving to Seattle with her new husband, Joe (Keegan-Michael Key), to launch a real estate empire. But the architect of the Treat Yo’ Self movement makes sure to balance work and play. Her extracurricular adventures include a trip to Venezuela with April, competing on Italy’s Got Talent and serving on a NASCAR pit crew. With that track record, we’re sure that she’s found the perfect place to ride out the pandemic. Perhaps this global crisis becomes part of her eventual decision to give back to the world. In 2023, she puts the money she’s banked from real estate towards a new non-profit education initiative: Teach Yo’ Self. 

Garry Gergich

Jim O'Heir as Garry Gergich in the Parks and Recreation episode "Save JJ's." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

He may be the butt of every office joke, but Garry Gergich — not Jerry, Larry or Barry — always gets the last laugh… not that the ultimate nice guy would ever laugh at his co-workers. Outside of the Parks Department, he’s got a beautiful wife (Christie Brinkley) and family, plenty of artistic passions (including painting) and a relentlessly positive outlook on the world. His likability is the reason why Ben taps him to be Pawnee’s interim mayor, a job he ends up winning outright in the next election. That means he’ll be in charge of managing Pawnee’s coronavirus response in 2020, making the tough calls to keep residents safe.

In the decades to come, Mayor Gergich becomes a staple of Pawnee life. Garry is re-elected to office 10 times, finally retiring before his 100th birthday in 2048. He passes away that very day, and his funeral is attended by his extended family, numerous friends… and the likely President of the United States. 

Ann and Chris

Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in the Parks and Recreation series finale episode "One Last Ride." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Sorry Ben, but Leslie’s one true soulmate will forever be Ann Perkins. In 2014, the level-headed nurse left Pawnee for the bright lights of Ann Arbor, Mich., with her fiercely-healthy life partner, Chris, by her side. According to Schur, he and the writers initially contemplated a storyline that would place Ann on the frontlines of Ann Arbor’s coronavirus response in 2020, before ultimately ruling that out. “She does say in the special that she's doing outpatient care primarily,” Schur revealed. “We didn’t want to trivialize or make light or find humor in what is the least humorous aspect of this entire thing. So we had her describe that her job is not the same job as all the people who are really in the middle of this nightmare.”

Eventually, Ann and Chris do find their way home. In 2025, they surprise Leslie at a Ben-organized Parks Department reunion and announce that they’re returning to Pawnee to raise their two kids. They also reveal their plans to encourage a fledgling romance between Ann’s son Oliver and Leslie’s daughter Sonia, thus ensuring they’ll become family in addition to best friends.  

Jean-Ralphio Saperstein

Ben Schwartz as Jean-Ralphio and Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford in the Parks and Recreation episode "London." (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Besides the core cast, Schur revealed that the Parks and Recreation reunion will feature the return of some other popular Pawnee residents. “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, so you’ll get a decent number of them as the show goes along.” One of those side characters, Ben Schwartz — who played the gloriously weird and improbably-coiffed Jean-Ralphio Saperstein — revealed his involvement on Instagram, writing: “Not cutting my hair for months has finally paid off.” (Be on the lookout for additional cameos from a straight-talking Pawnee newsman, an overbearing talk show host and a shady dentist.)

Jean-Ralphio unexpectedly got serious in the series finale, revealing that Leslie was the love of his life. (Her response? An “I know” that would have made Han Solo proud.) But he was quickly back to his goofy ways, plotting a long-range insurance scam that eventually results in him faking his death circa 2022 and then running away to parts unknown with his sister, Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate). We like to think he’s somewhere out there still dancing to his favorite song: “Bend Ova” by Lil Jon featuring Tyga. 

A Parks and Recreation Special premieres Thursday, April 30 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC; the complete run of Parks and Recreation is currently streaming on Netflix.

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