'Parks and Recreation' Mike Schur on the eventful season finale
"Parks and Recreation" just concluded its sixth season in memorable fashion (here's my review), with the Pawnee/Eagleton unity concert, a trip to San Francisco, big cameos and then a very crazy idea at the very end of the finale which could give us a very different show in season 7.
As usual when "Parks" wraps up a season, I emailed co-creator Mike Schur some questions about what went down, and why. It goes without saying that big big spoilers are coming, immediately.
When, how and why did you come up with the idea for this three-year time jump?
Mike Schur: We were breaking the final batch of episodes and had begun discussing the finale story. Some of it was sort of pre-destined, because we had the Unity Concert, which was going to put the merger storyline to rest, by showing that the town en masse would speak louder than the naysayers. And Leslie was going to accept the job, but figure out a way to stay in Pawnee (set up much earlier in the season by Ron's discovery of the third floor and his subsequent refurbishing of it). Then we had a conversation about the show's future with NBC, and got a very strong indication that we would be back for season seven, so we turned our minds toward doing something that would inject another season's worth of story into the finale. That either meant rebreaking the main action, in certain ways, to make it more forward-thinking, or doing something at the end that would shake everything up, and since we liked the stories we'd broken we went with the latter.
What percentage of the decision was made just to avoid showing Leslie and Ben dealing with baby triplets? And given the spotty track record of sitcom characters having kids, why did you decide to triple down on the experience? And was the triplet decision made before or after you knew you'd be skipping over colic and night feedings?
Mike Schur: The decision was made simply because we felt like Leslie is an overachiever, and it seemed funny and over achiever-y to have her and Ben create an insta-family. Triplets was one step beyond the traditional sitcom plot of "too much to handle," and seemed a little more fun and crazy-making, and when we researched it we found that the odds are about 1 in 8000 (the title of that episode) which didn't seem so nuts as to be implausible. But once we committed to that, we began imagining ways to avoid repeating what we had already seen with Ann -- pads and foot pain and sleepless nights and so forth. The jump forward allows us to avoid a lot of things that (I would imagine) fans were fearing about getting Leslie pregnant, in terms of the stories we tell going forward. That was a big reason I liked it.
Prior to the time jump, the rest of the finale feels very much like a conclusion to the series. Leslie takes this new job, Tom's restaurant is a big success, Ron is now comfortable enough in his own skin to appear in public as Duke Silver, Ben meets Kay Hanley, everybody sings the Lil Sebastian song one more time, etc. Is the idea that you had taken this iteration of the show and these characters as far as you could, and the only real way to keep things going is radical change?
Mike Schur: I don't think it's the only way. The cast is so good, and the world keeps expanding and moving forward, so I have no doubt that the creative team would've executed another batch of good stories and interesting dilemmas if we had stayed in real time. But this seemed more exciting and challenging. Plus, we have already seen a lot of what the finale up to that point would've suggested -- Leslie figuring out a new job, someone pregnant, etc. -- and now we get to see some new stuff.
How much have you figured out about the new set-up, both in terms of what kinds of stories you can tell now that most (all?) of the characters are working for National Parks, and what's happened to everybody in the last three years? Or did you just decide to put this out there, take a few weeks off and figure it out over the summer?
Mike Schur: We never make these moves unless we have at least discussed the basics, and have come up with a few plausible plans of attack for what is happening when we come back. That doesn't mean we know everything, or even most of it, but we at least discussed paths we can wander down with all of the characters. Amy and I had breakfast a week ago and I laid out the scenarios the room has discussed -- who is working where, how everyone is doing, and so on -- and we began what will now be a three month-long trial balloon process where we figure out which balloon flies highest. They're all working at a balloon factory, is what I'm getting at.
The conventional wisdom has been that season 7 will probably be your last. Is that what you're assuming? Do you feel like this new direction gives you multiple years of material, or is it simply something fun to do for a bonus year?
Mike Schur: The likelihood of season seven being our final one gave us an extra boost of confidence that we could make a big move like this. That was part of what we discussed with NBC a couple months ago.
Other shows have done time jumps before (“BSG,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost”), or done major revamps (“Laverne & Shirley” goes to California, Roseanne wins the lottery, “HIMYM” spends a year on a wedding weekend) very late in their runs. What do you see as the advantages and potential pitfalls of doing this? How different do you feel the show will actually be?
Mike Schur: The “BSG” move was my personal inspiration, right down to the way we shot it, which is the “Parks and Rec” version of Gaius Baltar putting his head down on his desk and picking it up one year later. I found that creatively thrilling, as a fan, so that was our template. For a while we discussed the Laverne and Shirley version, where everyone moves to Chicago, but as we discussed it, it didn't make sense that anyone would move with them (which is why part two of the finale is Leslie excitedly asking for takers and getting none). The advantages are obvious -- it's a jolt of creative energy, and if you don't jolt your show with a bolt of electricity every so often it can get stale. The pitfalls are that it's a risk to shake up a world that fans have been invested in, in a certain way, for a long time. But we felt like it wasn't so massive so as to violate the contract we've made with our viewers, as long we're still telling stories with the same characters. Except that next season four of them are Cylons.
Is this the only time we'll ever see Jon Hamm as Ed? Will we get flashbacks to this three year gap, or just stray references explaining things like how Garry Gergich is now called Terry?
Mike Schur: Don't want to say definitively. We wanted to keep his cameo as secret as possible, and Jon is such a mensch that he agreed to shoot it based on just Amy and me inviting him, without going through the normal channels of guest star appearances. He just loves doing stuff like this, so he does it. We discussed possible ways to go back and fill in the gaps of Ed the Incompetent Goof and his great three-year run at National Parks, but we have no idea if we'll be able to get him back.
Speaking of which, do you feel there's any difference between "Jerry" (an honest mistake made years ago that Garry was too sheepish to correct) and "Larry" (the group actively ignoring what they know — or think — is his real name)? Is there a point you cannot push his suffering past?
Mike Schur: I have gathered that you, personally, are maybe not such a huge fan of his name changes. Which I understand, how someone might feel that is too cruel. (On the other hand, he did print expensive menus for Tom's Bistro with pictures of his dog's butt instead of the dishes being offered, so maybe it's karma.) I will only add that Garry/Larry/Jerry/Terry still has the best life of anyone on the show, in many ways, and I would bet that when the show sails off into the sunset, his ending will be a happy one.
I know you're not reading much, or any, online reaction to the show anymore, so I don't know if you're aware that Craig has been a polarizing character. Does that surprise you? Does it bother you at all? Is there anything you can or will do to modulate the character, or do you just like what Billy Eichner is doing and figure people will either like him or not? Given how much more human all the other regulars have become over the years (other than maybe Andy), how do you work in a bigger and broader personality like this? And is Craig working in the new office?
Mike Schur: It would surprise me far more if Craig were not polarizing. I find Billy Eichner to be hilarious, though I also imagine that for many, a little goes a long way. (In one of his Billy on the Street interviews, that was actually a question he asked strangers: "For a dollar: does a little of me go a long way?") I would far rather add a character who generates strong feelings than someone who just kind of floats along, generating medium-warmth smiles of gentle affirmation. Billy provides a kind of comedy the show did not have -- an insane person screaming at everyone, and our job going forward, as it is with all of our characters, is to develop him and make him more three dimensional.
How do you feel the show changed without Ann and Chris for most of the second half of the season? Was it easier because you had fewer characters to service? Harder because you couldn't rely on Rashida or Rob to do the things you were used to having them do? Do you intend to add anybody of note to the cast for next season, or will the time jump bring enough change that it's not necessary?
Mike Schur: Things certainly changed, and there were many times when we wished those two were still around. But this cast is so deep, there are always people to turn to for story moves. And we had more room to develop some other characters who hadn't been explored enough. 21:30 is not a lot of time to showcase the number of talented performers (and guest performers) on our show every week. It just isn't. (Or even 43:00 -- there is a whole mini-plot in the finale wherein Ron and Diane concoct a way to get Jamm and Tammy, two of the most loathsome people ever showcased on television, to make out with each other, and we had to lose it for time.) So the silver lining to losing Ann's level-headed pragmatism and friendship and Chris's boundless enthusiasm and manic love of the mundane was that, for example, Donna got a boyfriend. And we got Keegan-Michael Key on the show, and Sam Elliott, and Blake Anderson, and The Decemberists, and so on.
There were a lot of stories this year about how terrible the people of Pawnee can be, and Leslie took a lot of abuse from the citizens, from Jamm, etc. Is that material largely out the window now that she's working on a national scale? Or will the stupidity and fatness of the town still be an integral part of the show?
Mike Schur: I'm not sure, but I think we're more inclined to have Pawnee recede into the background a little. Leslie has always wanted to fix the town and make it perfect, and part of her maturation was learning that it's impossible -- there is no perfect utopian town, 100% full of learned, thoughtful citizens who actively contemplate the interests of society. She came to terms with that slowly over six seasons, left the town better than she'd found it (as per classic camping ground rules), and made the decision to focus her energies on bigger projects. The decision to leave her physically in Pawnee, though, means that she can still dip her toes into that water, if we are so inclined.
Getting back to the idea of having provided so much closure in the finale, what do you do with Ron Swanson from here? He's happily-married, enjoys being a father, does all sorts of things he would have been horrified to consider back in season 2 or 3, and can even resist Tammy 2. Nick Offerman is still Nick Offerman, but is Ron still Ron Effing Swanson? And if not, what role do you see him serving on the show now?
Mike Schur: Ron will always eat bacon, drink whiskey, build things, hunt, rail against the government, fight for individualism and self-reliance, hide his gold, and reluctantly provide wisdom in succinct word chunks. But now he has three kids in a blended family, and a wife he loves (and who loves him for who he is), and if that didn't nudge him in a new direction the tiniest bit (and he really has changed very little, all things considered), I'd personally find it sad. Of all of the characters whose futures are undecided, Ron's has been on my mind the most, I think. I have an idea of his story for season seven, and I solemnly vow that he is not going to become Eagleton Ron, in any way shape or form.
Since you bring up Eagleton Ron, was his appearance in "Flu Season 2" deliberately written to evoke Rust Cohle on "True Detective," or is it just that any loner philosopher character on TV is going to evoke that guy for a while?
Mike Schur: There was no intentional nod there -- I want to say that that script was written before True Detective even aired. Eagleton Ron is more of an Eastern thinker than Rust.
Who created The Cones of Dunshire, and how thoroughly have the actual rules been mapped out? Could the writing staff play an actual game right now with the props that have been built, or is it like True American on “New Girl,” where you're not worried about the rules beyond an excuse for characters to say silly things?
Mike Schur: It's a true team effort, though Dave King (active gamer and Settlers of Catan enthusiast) has been a driving force. When we decided to bring it back as a key plot point, and have Ben and others actually play it, all I cared about is that I wanted like 50 new gameplay terms, because I want it to seem like the most complicated and impenetrable board game ever invented. The actual rules and terms are modified chunks of a bunch of different existing games. We worked directly with Mayfair Games, who actually designed the pieces for us, and there has been talk of releasing an actual version, though at this point based on what we've seen I have no idea how you'd create an actual functioning set of rules that includes all of the nonsense we've written.
Looping back to Leslie and Ben's kids, how much are you expecting them to be a part of the show next season? You've jumped past the real sleepless period of it, but how much have you thought about how having these three will affect Leslie's superhuman energy levels?
Mike Schur: We have thought about it a lot, and our operating principle is that we do not want it to disrupt the show as it stands -- this will not become a show about their home life and the raising of their children. It's another part of their life and there are questions to be answered about how they balance their time, whether they have help, and how they manage. But it's a workplace show and will remain so.
Your characters went through a lot of jobs this season. Ben worked for Sweetums, worked for the accountants, became city manager, and may or may not have a new job when we see him in the tux at the end of the finale. Tom created a new job for himself at City Hall, and sold one business and started another, April and Donna were splitting time between the parks department and the animal control stuff, Leslie was a councilwoman and then back in the parks department and now runs a National Parks office, etc. What was motivating all of that, and will things next season have to be more stable once we find out what everybody is doing in 2017?
Mike Schur: A million years ago, when doing research about the world of municipal government, one thing that struck me is how often people's job titles changed -- from one department to another, from the public to the private sector and back again. People move around a lot, everyone has her eye on some other, slightly better situation in some other corner of city hall. Plus governments are constantly shuffling and reorganizing and shuttering or condensing departments -- they are often byzantine hodge-podges of fractured org charts lying atop a bed of shifting sand. I also think in general, these days, people don't do one thing. People like Tom Haverford (nevermind his striver nature and big dreams) simply don't go to work at Mutual of Omaha, stay for 35 years and retire with a gold watch. Professional mobility has been part of the show's DNA for a while and I don't think that will change.
Also, how much, if at all, are you planning to deal with the 2017 of it? Will everyone be wearing Google Glass and shiny jumpsuits?
Mike Schur: Rule number one for the writers when we committed to the jump was: no hoverboards. No one is allowed to pitch that everyone is on hoverboards. It's going to be very very gently sci-fi.
Are you going to have to be vaguer about references to politics and pop culture next season, as a result of the jump? And, if so, will it be harder to write for Tom as a result?
Mike Schur: Yes, we will have to be vaguer, obviously, though it also seems fun to do some David Foster Wallace-style projecting into the near future. That's what I mean by "gently sci-fi" -- there will be the opportunity, should we be so inclined, to make jokes and references to what we imagine the cultural and political landscape to be in 2017.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org