“Parks and Recreation” just aired its fourth season premiere, and you can read my review of that here. I had initially planned to accompany that review with a pair of pieces about the creative process behind the making of this episode – one a fly-on-the-wall piece from an afternoon I spent in the show’s writers room back in June, the other an interview I did a couple of weeks ago with co-creator Mike Schur – but I’m going to put those off until next week and break out one long section of the Schur interview, in which we discuss what the premiere had to say about the Leslie and Ben relationship – and about the more general challenges of writing long-term relationship arcs on comedies. Spoilers and analysis coming up just as soon as we discuss my stance on Egyptian debt relief…
So when I was in the writers room back in June, the writers were still hotly debating whether to have Leslie break up with Ben because of the potential for scandal if she runs for office. It’s the kind of issue Schur and Greg Daniels dealt with a lot back on “The Office” with Jim and Pam, and also one that Schur is familiar with as one of the biggest “Cheers” fans on the planet. Ultimately, the decision was made to have them break up, and Schur and I talked at length about why.
We have to talk about Leslie and Ben and why you decided ultimately that they should break up.
There are several things going on here. There’s a meta discussion here, which I find interesting, which is that people now in this day and age are interested in articles like this one that peek behind the curtain, and want to know how TV shows are made and the decision-making. I think that’s great, and it’s something I’m interested in. But there’s some aspects where the answers to things can appear cynical or calculated. Certain people who really loved the Jim and Pam storyline in “The Office,” if they had been privy to the decision making process in the writers room, it would have made it a little less enjoyable. Because there’s not just what is right for the characters, but what is right for the show and other considerations going into it. It’s not just a perfect, delicate beautiful butterfly that’s slowly unfolding its wings over the course of an entire season of TV.
All that having been said, our approach to Leslie and Ben was that we were going to try as much as we could to let the characters dictate their actions. We didn’t want them to do anything that seemed too forced, or we were doing it because it was convenient to us. We just wanted to say, “Okay, this is Leslie Knope, and she’s presented with this specific opportunity and this dilemma and this guy,” and we spent 50% of our time in pre-production debating what would we do. We talked to Amy about it, we talked to Adam about it, we talked to NBC about it, I talked to my wife about it until I drove her crazy. And what I ultimately felt was that she would not turn down her dream, which we know was her dream since she was a little kid. She would not turn down her dream for a guy, even if he was a great guy. She and Ben had been only dating for a few weeks in the show’s timeline when she was approached. And even if it had been longer, I felt that this was Leslie’s dream, and she’s passionate about it, and if she had to make a choice between running for office or continuing to date a guy, she wouldn’t date the guy. Once I settled on that, I said we had to figure out how to make it clear to the audience that that was the dilemma. A lot of the work we did on the script was making it clear that there’s no secret loophole. There’s no surprise deus ex machina, “Don’t worry, you can have everything you want!” story move. We made clear that this was the case, that she doesn’t have the choice, and then we made it clear how much she wished it was a choice. She really likes this guy, and it really is a painful for her to make.
And then there was this whole other level, where I get frustrated from a storytelling point of view where I see stories about women characters where the question is always, “Can a woman have it all? Can she have her career and the guy?” You know, that corny sentiment, which I think is kind of hacky, we’re unfortunately stumbling very close to that issue. I wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t a question of whether a woman can have it all in the modern day. This is a situation where this very very specific dilemma Leslie finds herself in for very specific reasons and has to choose A or B. In ordinary circumstances, Leslie could have a wonderful relationship with a man and have a great career, and I don’t think it would be hard for her. She’s very energetic, sleeps three hours a night, but it’s that this specific guy being her boss, and that career move inviting closer scrutiny, made her have to choose. Like I said, the main factor for me was “What would she really do?” And I just couldn’t believe for one second she would say, “You know what? I’ll follow my dream anytime. For now, I’m going to go into month two with this guy that I’m seeing.” Even if it is Ben and she really does like him a lot and they seem like they may be soulmates and that they’re meant to be together, I just didn’t believe that she would pass up this opportunity that was presented to her. So that’s why we made the decision we did.
But getting back to what you said before about Jim and Pam, where sometimes decisions had to be made based on what was good for the show versus what was good for Jim and Pam…
I don’t know that we ever did. All I’m saying is that the discussion of those things were, “If we get them together halfway through the year, then what?” All I’m saying is that sometimes the discussions of the process can be very cynical on their face. It’s not just writers sitting around going, “These two characters need to circle each other beautifully and perfectly for this amount of time.” Anytime you have discussions about these kinds of things, there are practical considerations, and you try to minimize them as much as you possibly can. And I think we did that with Jim and Pam, and I think we’re doing that with Leslie and Ben as well.
But what I was going to say was, you’re doing this because you think this is what Leslie would do. But Leslie and Ben seemed to be working creatively, there are some people who get very hung up about characters breaking up on TV. Was there any discussion of, “Yes, this is what Leslie would do, but maybe it will hurt the show if we do that”?
No, because you just never know. It’s so hard to predict what people are going to like and not like. And what we did is to create a scenario where the characters are very true to who they are. The characters are very sincere and very earnest, and we can point a path to down the line where they may be able to find each other again. You’re never going to satisfy everybody all the time. The best chance you have to satisfy most of the people most of the time is to be true to the characters, make them consistent and then try to show people who were invested with something that you’re messing with that you understand that they are invested in it, and you are too, and you have a plan, and if someday they stick with the show, they’ll be happy. That’s the idea.
As a viewer of TV shows, I always like shows more when I just feel like the people in charge have a plan. You can just tell sometimes, “Oh, there’s a plan there. They have an idea for how this is going to unfold.” It’s why, to me, “The Shield” Was such an amazing show. The amount of detail and consistency and plan-making just seemed so incredible to me, the way things unfolded and came back around, the way characters did things that came back again years later. You always felt like you were in good hands with “The Shield.” It always makes me feel secure and happy when I feel like there’s a plan at work.
So you did that great thing with Vulture about your love of “Cheers,” which I share. That’s a show where they brought them together at the end of the first season, which few shows today would have the guts to do, they broke them up, got them back together, and there were 17 different iterations of Sam and Diane over the five seasons Shelley Long was on that show. What, if anything – either in this show or doing Jim and Pam – did you take away from what the “Cheers” writers did?
Very often, I sometimes jump to conclusions and take the wrong lessons from things. The danger for me would be to look at “Cheers” over those five years and take the wrong lesson from that relationship, which is you can break em up, get em back together, have him chase her, have her chase him, and it’ll be okay if you have two very charismatic actors, which they did and which I believe we do. I think that would be the wrong lesson, for the simple reason that those characters began as polar opposites. The whole point of that relationship is that these two people had zero in common on the surface, and that allowed that tempestuous, crazy roller coaster thing to evolve and be so fun. Every stage of that relationship was exciting and fun, which is because they were so crazily mismatched.
In our case, part of the DNA of this relationship is that these are two very similar people. They have similar interests, similar passions for government, similar backgrounds. Leslie knew who Ben was. They’re starting from a very similar place. So if we tried to do something Sam and Diane with Ben and Leslie, it would just be crazy. They like each other and are good together, so how is it that there would this many iterations of that relationship? It just wouldn’t make any sense. I think that, as much as we love that show, that would be the wrong lesson to take for these two characters. It might be the right lesson for, I don’t know, April and Andy or two to be determined characters. There’s no playbook you can run for every single set of characters. There’s the Sam and Diane playbook, Ross and Rachel, Jim and Pam – those were all unique. Nobody was running anyone else’s playbook.
Well, “Ed” was an interesting example of that, because that show had two characters who were perfectly matched, and there was no reason for them not to get together except outside circumstance. So for nearly three years out of the four-year run of the show, there kept being new circumstances all the time.
That’s the deux ex machina problem, both in a positive way and a negative way. I didn’t see “Ed” and can’t speak to that specifically, but when it’s just two people, and they’re about to make out with each other, and then the doorbell rings and there’s a telegram and one of them just inherited 50 million from a rich uncle and they have to go collect the will and that keeps them apart for 2 years… it has nothing to do with who the characters are. It’s less effective to me than when things are emerging out of deeper circumstances or out of the characters themselves.
So was the purpose of the election story specifically to generate conflict between Leslie and Ben, or was it more you decided you wanted to have Leslie run for an election and you realized, “Hey, wait a minute, she might have to break up with him then”?
That was it. We worked backwards from there. We wanted to end the year with a hint that Leslie would run for office. And then we said, “Oh, what would happen?” And at first we thought they would just sneak around more, but the stakes are higher. But I thought, “Leslie won’t do that. She won’t go into a campaign with this thing hanging over her that could ruin her campaign and cause a massive scandal and maker her this famous local campaign disaster.” And once we realized that, we thought, “Oh, this might be a way to at least press pause on a relationship that had a lot of momentum and juice to it.” we weren’t sitting around thinking, “How could we get them to break up?”
But just hypothetically speaking, if these issues in local government about dating your co-workers didn’t exist, and you just wanted to do a story about her running for office, and there wouldn’t be that conflict with her and Ben, would it be okay for the series to just continue with him as her boyfriend, and the relationship is going fine? Or do you think that would just get dull after a while?
No, I don’t think that would get dull. He ran for office and was the mayor of his town and it ended spectacularly in disaster. At the very least you would have a kind of weird tension where his girlfriend is running for office and he has bad memories, and there might be some jealousy. There’s a million issues. It’s kind of a rich vein of the feelings it would dredge up. Is he rooting for her to win and move ahead of him, or not win? It’s a very complicated emotional trap for him, elections in general. I think had this rule not existed and had we not used the rule to cast a shadow on the relationship already, I’m sure we could have found something else to lead to conflict between them.
So you were never just trying to break them up.
No. Greg’s thing on “The Office,” which I give him total credit for, was once Jim and Pam got together, he was like, “Why would they ever break up? It doesn’t make sense. They’re soulmates.” What are you gonna do, have another woman come in? You’ve just watched Jim pine for Pam for years, and Pam’s had this sudden realization that she’s loved Jim forever, and it would be crazy to have Jim’s ex from high school turn up, and suddenly Pam’s jealous. It made the show kind of hard for a while, because a lot of the show was based on that relationship, and you have to replace that with other things. And I think they replaced it with Michael and Holly, and Andy and Erin, and other relationships. It happened on our show, too. We married off Andy and April, which was our will-they-or-won’t-they couple for a while, and the only reason I felt comfortable with that because we were replacing them with Leslie and Ben. You need those kinds of long-term relationships to give people something to root for, as they say. And in no way, shape or form was I thinking, “Oh, now we have to break up Leslie and Ben,” because I’ve seen happy relationships work very well on lots of other shows. But in this case, a logical place for them to run into a bit of trouble was this storyline we wanted to do, so we took advantage of it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org