'Parks and Recreation' co-creator Mike Schur on writing the perfect finale (again and again and again)
Tonight's first episode won't end the series, but it could have
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Do not be alarmed if the first of tonight’s two episodes of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” (it airs at 8:30) feels like a series finale. It was designed to function as one — just in case — as have the last several of the show’s season finales.
For much of its lifespan, “Parks” has been one of the best shows on all of television, but its modest ratings have made the last several renewals shaky at best. As a result, the show’s co-creator Mike Schur and his staff have approached each season finale like it could be the last story ever told about Leslie Knope, Ron Effing Swanson, Ben Wyatt and company, usually involving some kind of big event like Leslie’s election to the Pawnee city council.
Tonight’s first episode is not, obviously, the end of season 5, but it was the last episode of the season’s initial 13-episode order,(*) and Schur didn’t necessarily expect to get more, so he had these 13 episodes build towards the wedding of Leslie and Ben, which they attempt to pull off at the last minute here. It’s an incredibly sweet, funny outing in the manner “Parks” fans have come to know — but it won’t be the last episode, because NBC later ordered 9 more for this season, and the show’s renewal for a season 6 seems likely in the wake of a disastrous midseason for the network.(**)
(*) It’s the 14th episode to air this season, but only because Schur decided to insert “Women in Garbage” earlier into the schedule, even though it was produced as part of the season’s back 9.
(**) Call it “Chuck” Syndrome, defined by the network being in such bad shape that a minor but known quantity becomes more valuable than a new series with a higher ceiling and lower floor. (And also where the creators have to keep writing In Case of Emergency series finale-style episodes.)
Last month, I sat down with Schur to talk about how he approaches each finale, what he looks for in a great series finale in general, whether “Parks and Recreation” might ever address its mockumentary format the way “The Office” (where Schur used to write) has this season, and more.
Shortly before the interview began, Schur was at work with his writers working on the story for what will be the actual final episode of season 5, which he later wound up co-writing with Amy Poehler. As they were discussing all the things they had to squeeze into the script, “Parks” veteran Harris Wittels noted, “It's also deciding the end of the show."
“Oh, we do that every three months,” replied Schur.
I want to talk about what you and Harris said in the room about ending the show every three months. We’re still a ways away from May, but how are you approaching the end of this season? (Alan) Yang later on started talking about setting up stories for next season.
Mike Schur: We found out towards the end of season 2 — when we were shooting the first six episodes of season 3, because of Amy’s pregnancy — that we were going to be a mid-season show. It was like having a near-death experience, basically. And so what we did is we said, “Okay, season 3 could be it.” So we tried to write a season that would end in an episode (“L’il Sebastian”) that — if that were the last episode that ever aired — we would be happy and feel like we had ended the show, not totally closing off every storyline, but just that the characters were being sent off into the great beyond in an interesting way. So Leslie has found a guy that she really loves and her, but she's also approached by people who want her to maybe run for office. And then at the end of it, she looks at Ben and she smiles, and you can think of the rest of the story — she's in an interesting situation, but she’s Leslie Knope and she’ll figure it out.
And we were brought back for season 4. And again we thought, “Well, this could be this last season,” and we did the same thing. We said that in episode 1 she decides to run for office and at the end of the year she’s going to win. And if that’s the last episode that ever happens, then great. She’s won; she’s achieved a great goal, but we also laid in certain things — like, let’s leave the audience to imagine Andy Dwyer becoming a police officer, and other things like that.
And then we’re doing it again this year. The way we operate every year is we that don't know what our future is. So we try to tell the juiciest, most interesting stories we can tell. And at the end of the year, we write a series finale. Something that, if this is it, we go out the way we want to go out. And we try not to close it off so completely that if the show comes back for another year, that we have nowhere to go.
It doesn’t end with them on a spaceship about to crash into the sun.
Mike Schur: Yeah, it’s like the “NewsRadio” thing where they're on the Titanic.
There was space station after the third season, Titanic after the fourth, and then the fifth (season finale) is they all moved to New Hampshire.
Mike Schur: Right. So we don’t do it quite that extreme. But we’re in a hurry to tell stories. And there’s a way in which it's helped the show a lot, because we don’t hold anything back. We don’t say, “This will be a good season 7 idea,” or something. The characters have had a lot of momentum in their lives because of this phenomenon.
So would, for instance, Andy and April have gotten married as quickly as they did?
Mike Schur: In that case, maybe, because that was borne of an entire day of just talking about them: “Now that they’re together, what do we do?” And that might have happened anyway. But I don't think that a lot of the other relationships would not have gone the way they went as quickly as they did. We wouldn’t have maybe spent as much time developing them as we have without that Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
Overall, how are you feeling? You’re now several NBC administrations past the one that had any investment in you, in terms of getting you on the air. And Bob (Greenblatt) and Jen (Salke) have talked repeatedly about wanting to broaden the network and specifically broaden the comedy approach.
Mike Schur: It’s been the same mentality since a previous administration’s decision to move us mid-season, which is the Bill Belichick approach. Bill Belichick’s motto is “Do your job,” and he tells everybody not to read the papers, don’t read reviews, don’t get distracted by the media hype. Just everyone has to do your job. And the linebackers have to play linebacker, and the kickers have to kick, and that became our motto unofficially in season 3. It was like, “We're making these episodes, we don't know when they're going to air. We can't control any this other stuff. If we just write well, and act well, and edit well, and produce well, and set design well, then we'll make something we're proud of.” So it’s like the only attitude that makes sense to me, frankly.
Bill Lawrence has had this attitude in the past where he tells his actors when the shows are on the bubble and it’s development season, “Go out for pilots; that way you’re covered if we don’t get picked up. And if we are picked up, you get to stay with us.” We're in development season right now; I don’t know if necessarily Amy is going to do another show, but say somebody wants to build a show around Pratt, are you going to tell Pratt to take it?
Mike Schur: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I've never, luckily, been confronted with that. We have to deal with movies a lot; we bend our schedule around a lot of different people’s movie schedules.
Well, yeah, he did kill Osama bin Laden.
Mike Schur: He did play part of Seal Team Six, yes. And Aziz did a movie, and Amy’s done movies, and Rob Lowe’s done movies. So that’s our problem. I’ve never been asked, so I don’t know what the answer would be. It would make me sad. I might say yes because our philosophy is that everybody should do everything they want to do, writers and actors both. But that would really bum me out if I imagined Chris Pratt on someone else’s stage. It would be like he’s cheating on me.
This isn’t the exact same thing, but you and Dan (Goor) have the Andy Samberg show in development at FOX now.
Mike Schur: Yes. So, I probably wouldn’t have a leg stand on if I said no.
Where do things stand with that right now? What phase are you at?
Mike Schur: We’re sort of in the phase that everyone’s in which is we have turned in a draft to the network and we’re sort of waiting to hear what they think. (Note: Since this interview, FOX ordered a pilot, which will co-star Andre Braugher, Terry Crews and former "Parks" writer Chelsea Peretti.) We’re sort of optimistic and it’s going to be tough because Dan is a huge part of the show and if this pilot goes forward, I’m not going anywhere; I’m staying here. But losing him, it would be hard to compensate for.
Yeah, I’ve been in this room and when you’re not there, he runs the room.
Mike Schur: He runs the room, yeah. But we also have had the luxury of having a lot of writers who have been here since the beginning, who I think are ready to step up and assume larger roles.
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