My long-standing love of sitcoms has only deepened since I started sheltering in place in my apartment in Queens, New York, at the beginning of March. There's a fervor to my watching shows like "The Golden Girls" and "The Office" now that feels inextricably linked to the sirens I'm hearing outside my window.
Sitcoms have long had a bad rap from some critics who write them off as being vapid or cheesy entertainment conceived to appeal to the masses. But for me (and I suspect others), watching sitcoms has gone beyond simply being entertaining, and has become an important part of my Covid-19 self-care strategy, thanks to the genre's format, allowing conflicts to be resolved in 22 minutes, as well as providing us with an escape to a different version of reality.
And I'm not the only one who feels this way. Recognizing the value in reuniting audiences with beloved sitcom casts, Michael Schur, the executive producer of the NBC show "Parks and Recreation," put together a one-off reunion episode, which airs Thursday.
Five years after the show went off the air, this episode gives us the chance to catch up with the characters of Pawnee, Indiana, during the Covid-19 outbreak through a series of Zoom-like group video calls, organized by perpetual optimist and overachiever, Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler).
"I sent a hopeful email to the cast and they all got back to me within 45 minutes," Schur said in a statement
NBC emailed to the press. "Our old 'Parks and Rec' team has put together one more 30-minute slice of (quarantined) Pawnee life and we hope everyone enjoys it.
Beginning with the show's cold open, it was clear that one aim of "A Parks and Recreation Special" was to serve as a fundraiser for Feeding America
, but while part of a hugely important effort to combat the pernicious effects of the virus, that was only one element of the episode's societal value.
Throughout the episode, the characters remind each other -- and in the process, the viewers -- of the importance of not only focusing on our physical health during the pandemic, but also taking the time to care for our mental and emotional health as well.
Perhaps the strongest messaging came through Knope -- who, despite organizing a phone tree for her former Pawnee Parks Department colleagues so everyone can check in on each other -- opens up about how she's struggling with her own mental health during this time. To see a character known for always being 10 steps ahead of a problem and abundantly (if not overly) prepared for any challenges that come her way dealing with mental health issues, was incredibly powerful.
It's a good reminder to all of us that even the people in your life that you perceive to be the strongest and/or most cheerful may be falling apart on the inside -- and that this is perfectly normal, especially under our current circumstances. As Ron Swanson (played by Nick Offerman) tells Knope: "Leslie, don't spend all your time looking after other people. Look after yourself once in a while."
Earlier this month, the cast of another beloved sitcom, "The Nanny," also came together
on Zoom to do a table reading of the pilot episode, which aired more than 26 years ago. It has since been viewed nearly 1.5 million times
"Laughter is the best medicine! So, in these challenging times, Petah and I thought, wouldn't it be great if we pulled together the original cast of 'The Nanny' for a virtual read of the pilot?" the show's star and co-creator Fran Drescher said in a statement, referring in her trademark accent to her co-creator, Peter Marc Jacobson.
So why are sitcoms -- particularly these classics -- so appealing and soothing right now, and why have they become part of my (and likely others') pandemic self-care routine? Two reasons stand out, aside from the nostalgia and entertainment factors.
The first is that situation comedies are made to mine everyday life for the funny and/or absurd. Even when certain plot lines feel far-fetched, they're still at least somewhat rooted in "real life" scenarios, whether it's the challenges of living in New York City in your 20s and 30s ("Friends," "Seinfeld," "That Girl," "How I Met Your Mother"), attempting to have a functional home life with your biological or chosen family ("The Golden Girls," "Will & Grace," "Schitt's Creek
," "Who's the Boss?"), or working in an office with quirky and sometimes infuriating colleagues ("The Office," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Parks and Recreation," "Murphy Brown," "30 Rock").
Watching these shows in our pandemic moment offers us the chance to briefly step outside our own lives or revisit aspects of our lives that are no longer accessible and we may be missing.
Second, with everything so uncertain in the world, it's particularly calming to see other people's problems solved in a tidy 22 minutes. With the exception of two-parters or Very Special Episodes that tend to touch on wider societal issues, whatever challenges the characters of most sitcoms face at the beginning of the episode are resolved by the end.
We are living at a time when there is no clear end in sight to a global pandemic. Most of us are experiencing moral fatigue
-- when even the seemingly simple decisions in our lives, like going to the grocery store or visiting a family member, can have major life-and-death implications. Time has largely lost its meaning and we're exhausted and frustrated.
Being able to sit down, give yourself a break from our current reality and watch an entire problem-solving process take place in such a short period of time is the perfect salve for our anxiety-riddled brains.
At a time when there are no easy answers or solutions to this major public health and financial crisis, spending time with characters that feel like old friends and seeing them overcome their challenges is a helpful reminder that resolutions do happen -- even if one to the Covid-19 pandemic feels impossibly far away right now.