Interview: ‘Parks and Recreation’ co-creator Mike Schur post-mortems season 4

Senior Television Writer
05.10.12 14 Comments


“Parks and Recreation” just wrapped up its fourth season. I reviewed the season finale here, and I also did an email interview with the show’s co-creator Mike Schur about the campaign results and season 4 as a whole (plus some “Friday Night Lights” plot points, for those of you behind on your DVDs), coming up just as soon as I get my milk delivered by horse…
At this point, I think you guys are a pretty good bet to come back, but how much of the decision to have her win was born out of a concern that this might be the final episode, and that the Panthers have to win State, just in case of cancellation?
First of all, it’s appropriate that you cite the Panthers, because this whole season came from “FNL” season 4 — I watched Coach switch teams, saw the ragtag bunch of misfits get destroyed in their first game, and I said to myself, okay, well, East Dillon is going to suck, slowly get better, pull together as a team, and on the last day of the season, they’re going to play Dillon and they’re going to win. And that’s what happened, and it was awesome, and the fact that I knew it was going to happen didn’t make it 1% less awesome when they won. That’s the feeling I wanted. Except I didn’t want anyone to know, really, hence all the razor-thin margin talk.

But yes, I approached it like a series finale. I have kind of approached both season 3 and season 4 as potential series finales, because, as we’ve talked about, we might get canceled at any moment. And although we came up with cool ideas for how she could lose and still have it be satisfying, I kind of felt like: if this is it, I want her to win.

If NBC had told you months ago that you were coming back, would Leslie still have won? Or would it have been too big a downer even with our knowledge that the show was continuing? Would Rudd have been amenable to the occasional cameo if you’d gone that way, or did you exhaust all the available room in his schedule?

We tried to break the story we wanted to tell without regard to our future, Paul’s future availability, or any other external factor. The “FNL” season was really an inspiration, because the satisfaction I got from that season, when East Dillon beat Dillon, was significant, and ultimately our decision was based on just wanting a good ending. After spending the entire year, more or less, on one main story for our main character, I just wanted to stick the landing, however best it could be stuck.

Once we decided to have her win — and there was a tremendous amount of debate about it, for months, with writers split 50/50 I’d say — then our goal became to craft an endgame arc where the audience really didn’t know which way we were going to break. (Which is where we and “FNL” S4 differ, I’d say.) And to create obstacles that organically arise, which can cause conflict in the future — like Ben doing such a great job on the campaign he catches Jennifer’s eye and ends up moving away for a while.

This is all a long-winded way of saying, yes, I believe she would’ve won regardless, simply because that seemed like the best and most satisfying ending to the season.

How detailed was the alternate ending you shot to maintain the secret? Did it have an explanation, for instance, of how Chris was going to keep his job? Was it just everyone moping for the last 10 minutes?

It was mostly just shooting the concession speech. That would’ve been the end, and we would’ve cut the scenes that didn’t fit, and dealt with the character outcomes in the future. (We had somewhat concrete ideas for all of the other characters whose lives would be affected by the loss — notably Leslie, Chris, and Ben — and what would happen to them, but I’ll hold off explaining them because we may revisit them in the future.) Frankly, I was 99% sure we were going to have her win by the time we shot the finale, so it seemed counterproductive to shoot too many new scenes.

You made a point of reminding us a few times that the city council is a part-time job, and that Leslie would be continuing in the Parks Department. How much do you see the new position changing the show? Will we be splitting time between the two gigs, or will the focus still be on parks, with the occasional storyline here or there about something involving the council? The cast is very big already; would you be adding anyone on the city council side of things, or would they just be recurring characters like Perd and Sewage Joe?

This is the most exciting, and scariest, aspect of the win/loss decision, to me. I don’t 100% know. I know she’ll be splitting her time — we’ll do some Parks Department episodes, and some City Council episodes, and some that cross over. But as for the specifics — that’ll be the biggest thing for us to tackle in the writers’ room. It was a big factor to me in having her win — there will be new settings, and maybe new characters, and new conflicts, without it being a new show. That’s exciting, to me.

Similarly, have you figured out yet how you’re going to work the Leslie/Ben long-distance relationship? Do we return very close to the end of that campaign? Will Adam be appearing via Skype a lot? And did you know when you guys wrote the premiere that Ben’s gesture to Leslie (putting her dreams ahead of their relationship) would be bookended with her doing the same for him?

We did not know that at the beginning of the year, but when we were breaking the finale, it seemed like such a natural conclusion. (And it’s certainly well within Leslie’s character that she would’ve kept the box Ben put the Knope 2012 pin in, and that she would re-present it to him.) As for the long-distance relationship, we have some idea of how it will work. We like to move characters around in the world, like Tom at Entertainment 720, for chunks of episodes at a time. Our plan as of now is to have Ben in Washington through the actual calendar date of the Congressional elections, which is November, obviously, but that could change.

Did you give any serious thought to Ron taking the job with Chris, which would have put Ron and Leslie more at odds professionally, while bumping April, Tom, etc. all up in responsibility?

We did. A lot of thought. In fact, I think we made the decision on Leslie winning before we made the decision on Ron — we were sold on Ron becoming Assistant City Manager for most of the year, and it was only toward the end that we changed our minds. Partly because we liked the character decision — “I like where I am” is very Ron-y — and partly because with Leslie splitting her time at a new job, and Ben in Washington, and some big plans we have for various other characters, we felt like we wanted people to know that no matter what, next season, Ron Swanson will be happily sitting in his office, doing no work and getting nothing done, like always.

How did you come up with the idea for Ann and Tom? How do you feel it worked out creatively?

Ann and Tom was pitched as: let’s get two characters together for fun, purely for fun, and see how it plays out. I’ve said this before, but the trick was explaining why Ann would do it, and April’s line in the Valentine’s episode rang true to us — it’s a small town, with a lot of weirdos, and the reality is that two age-appropriate people who generally get along and make each other laugh would probably float a trial balloon to see if there’s anything there. It was never intended as a big soul-matey move. I know anecdotally that certain people felt like it never “went anywhere,” but that was kind of the point. Not every storyline has to “go somewhere,” in my opinion — most things that crop up in people’s lives don’t “go anywhere,” but hopefully serve to teach the people involved something about themselves.

We just got them together for comedy, and on that score I think it turned out great. They probably spent a grand total of about 45 minutes on screen together for the full year in that storyline, and I enjoyed those 45 minutes. Plus, there are like 19 other storylines in the show that have massive stakes and huge plot twists and big finishes, so we felt like there was room for a goofy comedy relationship that we just kind of casually checked in on every once in a while.

You spent a lot of time this season showing April becoming an adult, but it was a very slow, gradual build. Did you plan that as a character arc, or did it sneak up on you the way it did some of us? And if April grows and matures while Andy’s the same juvenile idiot as before, what, if anything, does that do to their marriage?

Greg and I had this idea early on — like, “shooting the pilot” early on — that one day April would turn into Marlene (Leslie’s mom). But around the middle of season two, I started to feel like maybe April will someday become Leslie. Not entirely, of course, and not nearly as enthusiastically, but that her growth would be in that direction — less ironic, more grown-up, more open, more enthusiastic about things she cared about. This season pushed her in that direction. As far as her marriage goes, Andy probably needs to grow up a little as well, to keep up, which we’ll get into next year.

On the subject of Andy’s growth and what April realizes about his dreams, is part of the thinking behind having Andy pursue a career in law-enforcement that it would be an excuse to bring Louis CK back again? Or just a logical extension of the Burt Macklin fantasy?

More the “logical extension.” Andy is on a kind of Horatio Alger-type life arc, starting jobless and living in a pit and slowly making his way up through legitimate society. We want him to keep striving for better things. Without getting any smarter or less funny.

(I will say that the potential continued appearance of Louis is an added bonus, though.)

How did you land on the idea of Chris experiencing so much despair post-Milly? Was it just that you’d done more than a year of relentless positivity and wanted to let Rob play the opposite end of the spectrum?

That’s pretty much exactly it. Chris was constructed as a guy who is upbeat and positive 99% of the time, and a terrible spiraler 1% of the time, so we decided to end the year on a spiral. It’s just not fun to watch a perfect person be perfect forever. We tried to throw a few disappointment curveballs at him, in ways that’d be realistic (Leslie and Ben’s revelation of their secret relationship…younger lady breaks up with him…his siding with Leslie causing professional problems, etc.), to give him a slightly tougher year than he’s used to. And I thought Rob played it perfectly.

You’ve done arcs before, but never for nearly this long. Leslie got the pit filled in pretty early in season 2, and the budget crisis/harvest festival arc spanned about 9 episodes of seasons 2 & 3 before you shifted into smaller stories for the rest of that year. The campaign, on the other hand, ran for this entire season. Having now done small arcs, big arcs and standalone episodes, do you feel like one kind suits the show more than the others? In what ways did having the campaign as the spine for a whole season make your job easier, and how was it tougher? And having done such a big story, do you want to do one again next season, or go back to simpler ones that take advantage of Leslie’s new professional status?
We thought of this year as two arcs under one big umbrella arc — the early campaign with the pros running her, and then the Bad News Bears arc with her friends running her. I think you have to do new things all the time in order to surprise people (if surprising people is a goal of your show), so all we want to do is find new fun stories to tell, whether they’re one episode long or fifty. (Which I can totally do, if NBC wants to pick us up for fifty more episodes.) I think in general what works for us is having some kind of long-term story that we can drift in and out of — it’s really good for character growth, I think, and I like the feeling of ending every year with people in a different place from where they started, whether emotionally or professionally. Stagnation is boring, and these long-term arcs help stave it off.
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