'Parks and Recreation' co-creator Mike Schur: 'Fairly confident' about renewal, and lots more on season 5
"Parks and Recreation" just concluded its fifth season. I reviewed the finale here, and I emailed co-creator Mike Schur a bunch of questions about the finale, season 5 as a whole, the stories he laid the groundwork for in season 6 — which he feels "fairly confident" will happen — and a lot more, coming up just as soon as I convince the school board that napkins are a vegetable...
Given what we talked about last time about how you have to approach each finale like it could be the end of the show, what were you trying to do with "Are You Better Off?" that you felt would be a strong closing statement for the series? Or given the number of season 6 storylines it sets up, were you already feeling a bit more confident when you wrote it?
Mike Schur: We felt fairly sure we’d be coming back, so there wasn’t as much of a “let’s wrap things up” feeling. This finale is closer to Season 2’s, when the government was shut down and Leslie and Ben had just met, and we set a bunch of things in motion for the next season. It’s trying to put a punctuation mark on the end of this specific season, rather than the series.
By this point, the media is treating your renewal as a done deal. If you were making this episode without the fear of cancellation, would you have done anything differently? Or did the flashbacks to all of Leslie's big moments on the city council feel like an appropriate end to the season, either way?
Mike Schur: We always do whatever we want, creatively, regardless of what our hopes and fears are regarding the future. This, I should note, is due in large part because NBC largely leaves us alone, which is wonderful and makes us feel very lucky. We felt like this episode ended the year in a fun way – it bookends with the premiere really well, with its “year in review” theme, and the last time you see Leslie she is heading out on another Saturday to clean up the Pawnee River – the project she set in motion in the premiere – which is the ultimate way to fight back against her critics.
Upfronts are a few weeks away. While much of NBC's schedule has fallen apart in 2013, you've stayed consistent. How confident do you feel about renewal this time? Of the seasons when you've been on the bubble (as opposed to after year 1 or 2), do you feel more secure than in the past?
Mike Schur: We feel fairly confident I’d say. Cautiously optimistic. But I’ve come to really enjoy the uncertainty. I think it breeds good ideas. Never taking anything for granted is a good way to make sure you’re exploring every possibility for a show.
How did the pitch come about for Diane to be pregnant, and how much have you guys already thought about the combination of Ron Swanson plus baby?
Mike Schur: There were a lot of ways we could’ve gone – all of the women on the show were strong candidates to end the year pregnant. But we felt like the most fun version, all things considered, was Ron and Diane. From there it was just about laying in the misleads, starting several episodes ago – Ann and Chris were already trying, but then we did an episode where Leslie seemed like she wanted to start trying. Mona-Lisa seems like a disaster waiting to happen, and we used April’s secret plan to become a vet as a mislead… I’ve said this before, but I think in this day and age, surprise is the ultimate weapon for comedies. If we were gonna get someone pregnant in the finale – a tried and true TV convention -- I wanted the story to include like seven different fake-outs.
Speaking of babies, when Ann's story arc started out in "Ann's Decision," she seemed to be looking for little more than a sperm donor, but when Chris came into the picture, it was just treated as fact that he'd be involved in raising the baby. Was there anything written or pitched about that issue that got dropped along the way, or did you just feel that because it's Chris, who has a history with Ann, it didn't need to be discussed?
Mike Schur: At one point we were going to get more in-depth about the difference between a sperm donor and a deeper partnership, and it was a storypoint that Chris would only do it if he could be a more involved co-parent. At the end of the day, we felt like it was obvious – Ann would naturally want that too, if she chose Chris – so it didn’t seem necessary to make that explicit.
You've always done stories riffing on stories from national politics, but it felt like you did more of them this year, and in some cases (the giant sodas) were fairly specific. Was that just a result of Leslie being on the city council? And while the show in general takes Leslie's political point of view, there are sometimes episodes like "Bailout" where Ron's small-government viewpoint is shown to be correct. When you think about balance, is it purely about comedy (i.e., if Ron's always wrong, this stops being funny), or is there ever a concern that you're making the tent too ideologically small?
Mike Schur: Certainly, Leslie’s an elected official now, so topical issues took center stage in a way they hadn’t when she was a bureaucrat. It’s also just fun to do those episodes. And while I don’t know that I’d characterize either Leslie’s or Ron’s viewpoints as “correct,” I do think it’s important to show Leslie lose some of her battles. All political points of view have consequences – real, tangible consequences – that are unpredictable and complex and affect people’s lives in ways that pundits and theorists can only guess at. Our show has always been about rubber-meeting-road politics, so we like to show the practical results of right and left actions. In the case of the video store, Leslie interceding caused exactly the kind of problem Ron predicted, but Leslie also got to make a point – that the government can provide community services and create valuable group experiences without the pressure of needing to turn a profit. The show tries to avoid declaring what’s “right” or “wrong,” and just show what people can do if they work hard and believe in what they’re doing.
Beyond Leslie, you've moved some characters into different roles, like Ben at the Sweetums Foundation, Tom running Rent-A-Swag, Jerry becoming an intern, and now April going to vet school in Bloomington. Other characters have stayed in the same place, like Andy failing to qualify for the police department. You told me last year that you didn't want Ron to become Chris' deputy because some stability is important, especially when your main character was about to take a new job; how do you decide when it's time for a character to advance or change in their job and when you're better off not messing with what works?
Mike Schur: I don’t know that there’s an overarching philosophy to that, other than: when it seems like a character needs to be shaken up, we shake him/her up a little. Jerry retired after 41 years in government, and I think his generation is the last to find tranquility in the “steady job.” April, Andy, Tom – their generation is more risk-taking, more striver-y, more apt to jump to something new without worrying what will happen. Professional life is much messier for 25 year-olds today than it was when Jerry was 25. I read somewhere that the average person entering the job market today will have nine jobs in his/her lifetime.
Also, having done Jim in Stamford on "The Office" and Ben and April in Washington here, what lessons about long-distance relationships and characters in other locations are you going to apply to April for next season? And even though Andy has his two low-level jobs in Pawnee, why wouldn't he just go to Bloomington with her?
Mike Schur: We’re not sure what the end result of April’s Vet school acceptance will be. We won’t know until we get back together in June. Also, Chris Pratt is going off to be a superhero for a while next year (Pratt is starring in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), which means that he will miss a few of our episodes, so we have that to deal with as well. (It also means that Andy is going to inexplicably be super buff next September.)
Are there any story arcs or new additions to the larger world of Pawnee (Jamm, for instance) you feel worked particularly well? Any you wish you had a mulligan on?
Mike Schur: I thought the introduction of the city council – Jamm and Milton, particularly – gave us a fun new set of villains and obstacles for Leslie. As for “mulligans,” we crunched the numbers after the finale was shot, and it turns out every single decision I made this year was perfect. First time in TV history! I’m being honored for it at a banquet in July at the TV Academy. The trophy is shaped like Johnny Carson watching Season Four of “The Wire.”
Even before that interview in January, it felt to me that this season was being designed as one long victory lap for the series: Leslie gets into politics and marries Ben, Ron finds a healthy relationship, Tom becomes a semi-successful businessman, Jerry takes his dream retirement, etc. The finale sets a lot of stories in motion for season 6, but have there been any times this season where you've thought, "Boy, things are going so well for everybody, it's going to be hard to generate story if we come back"?
Mike Schur: No – the characters have layered lives, and lots of ambition, so it’s never hard to make things go sideways for them. It’s one of the great things about developing an entire city – there are so many corners of Pawnee that we can delve into. Like the mysterious businessman who wants to drive Tom out of business. We decided not to reveal his/her identity, but wouldn’t have made that move unless we had a good idea of who it should be. And I think it will be fun and surprising for the audience when they find out.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com