the dope on knope

Parks and Rec Showrunner Michael Schur Deconstructs Season Four

PARKS AND RECREATION -- Season: 3 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer, Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Retta as Donna, Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate, Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins, Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt, Jim O'Heir as Jerry, Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford -- Photo by: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/? NBC Universal, Inc.

Because we’d been scared into believing that Leslie Knope might actually lose the election to Bobby Newport — two possible endings were filmed — our cathartic tears flowed freely during Thursday’s Parks and Recreation season finale. First, when an emotionally overwhelmed Leslie cast her ballot, then when she told Ben to chase his own D.C. dreams, and again when she gave that heartfelt victory speech, thanking the friends who had devoted themselves so fully to her campaign. Series boss Mike Schur, who both wrote and directed the finale, talked to Vulture late Thursday night about how Bobby could have won, what he thinks about your Ann complaints, and the future of the Low-Cal Calzone Zone.

You said you were 99 percent committed to this outcome several weeks before shooting the finale — but you still filmed an alternate ending with Leslie giving a concession speech. At what point did you decide, “Of course! She wins!”
We debated it pretty consistently from the beginning of the year through probably three weeks before we shot the finale. It was a very heated debate. I would say the writing staff was split like 50-50. My gut instinct at the beginning was, if she runs she has to win. It made sense to me. It’s the tone of the show, it’s the nature of the character. There were a lot of people who said she shouldn’t win because it would be too scary, because we’d open up a new world — and the show is called Parks and Recreation.

We had a phone conversation with a guy who was on the election commission for the state of Indiana and he explained to us that a person in Leslie’s position could be a city counselor and keep her job in the parks department. So once we knew that was true, and that we wouldn’t have to completely change the show if she won, then her winning became a lot easier to imagine from a practical standpoint. Eventually, we came to the same conclusion: It will just be too big a bummer if we do that! But we still shot the alternate ending because we wanted the right to change our minds at the last possible second.   

What did a loss look like for Leslie and the rest of the parks department?
The way the episode was going to go if she had lost was basically very much the same all the way through. The other plots were going to play out the same way; her story line with Ben was going to end the same way, he was going to take the job with Jen Barclay [guest star Kathryn Hahn] and go to Washington D.C. What would have changed is her getting the news that she had lost. She was going to be very sad, but then she was going to pick herself up and dust herself off and march out there and give a concession speech and the show was going to end there. It was very interesting to shoot it because even though I was, again, relatively sure we weren’t going to use that version, Amy really did an awesome job nailing the concession speech to the point where I thought, Gosh, she’s really good, maybe we should use it! It was a very good acting job.

And it was very interesting, too, because we were in a room with 300 extras, and we shot the victory speech first and everyone was super happy and in a really great mood. And then we cleared all the balloons away and shot the concession and everyone was super bummed and really sad. Watching those kinds of reactions, the crowd became a reminder that if we went this route, no matter what, it would be really sad.

The other thing we would have had to do — I cut a bunch of scenes. Ron wouldn’t have turned down the job because Chris would have been out of his, and obviously the tag where everyone was celebrating drunk wouldn’t have worked. The tag would’ve been probably Jean Ralphio doing something silly.  

If this is the midpoint of Leslie’s story, have you given any thought to what the end would be several seasons from now?
Well, I’m not 100 percent sure. The big question we have to answer now is: What is her experience like as an elected official? I think elected politics in America are incredibly seedy and discouraging for a lot of people. We try to hint in the episode with Bradley Whitford that the actual job wasn’t going to be all wine and roses. Now we have to show what happens to Leslie when she’s presented with the harsh realities of being an elected official and making tough decisions, making compromises and sacrifices in a way she’s never had to do before.

It’s possible we would tell a story where she just really eats it up and devours it and loves it and loves problem-solving at this level. It’s also possible that she would think maybe this isn’t for her and she’d go in a different direction. Now that she’s achieved this goal, this first rung on the ladder, the question is whether she considers it to be a ladder worth climbing.

As a city council member, how will she split her time between city council and the parks department?
We’ll see how they collide and interact. A big selling point for us, and I think it will be really fun, is having her simultaneously being Ron’s boss and Ron’s employee. How will it work when she helps to pass city ordinances that Ron completely disapproves of and then goes back to her old job in the parks department and Ron refuses to enact them? It’s a new world for us, a very exciting, scary new world.

Ben’s going to D.C. Will the show pick up while he’s still there? Will we be treated to Leslie and Ben “doing it all over Washington”?
[Laughs.] I don’t think we’ll actually see them doing it all over Washington, but yeah, that’s the idea. This is something we learned from The Office: When you make a decision like this to end a character some place, you have to commit to it. We did it in season three of The Office when Jim was hired in Stamford … That’s important because I don’t think audiences like it, or at least I don’t like it, when a big change is hinted at or committed to and then one second later everything’s fine and goes back to the way it was before. So as of now, the plan is to do a number of episodes where Ben and Leslie are having to navigate long-distance waters, which is something many people are familiar with. He’ll go on his own journey in Washington and see how he likes it and how it affects his relationship.

Are Ben and Leslie in it for the long haul?
I think they’re in it for the long haul. That’s my instinct now. I think they’re pretty well-matched as a couple. When Greg Daniels and I were designing the show originally, we thought instead of putting Leslie in one significant relationship, we were going to have her date a lot of different people and learn different things from different types of guys. It’s why we introduced Louis CK’s character and Justin Theroux’s character. We wanted her to date guys who were different shapes of wrong for her and learn slowly what kind of man was right for her. And then Adam Scott was cast and we put them on-camera together and we thought, well, we’re not going to beat this. Part of the point of moving him to Washington certainly is to introduce a new challenge to their relationship. It may not all be perfectly smooth and easy-going, but I do feel like they’re in it for the long haul.

How do you respond to criticisms that Ann is not as quirky and well-defined as everyone else?
I take issue with it, frankly, for a number reasons. The mechanics of a TV show cast are very complex and intricate, and I think the job Rashida Jones does on our show is very unrewarded by many people, which is basically being a very grounded, very real person. If you have a show of nothing but crazy people, it can go off the rails very quickly. The whole design of the yin and yang of Leslie and Ann as best friends is that Ann is going to keep Leslie from spinning off into crazy town and Leslie is going to push Ann to be a more interesting person. You need that at the center of the show to keep things both grounded and funny at the same time.

You know, we went through this with John Krasinski on The Office. He was never nominated for an Emmy, for example, because the job he was serving on the show wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t huge, it wasn’t massively comedic. But he was the real glue of that show in many ways. I think that’s sort of what Rashida is, because that character needs to exist. I think without her in the middle of the show, it could get very silly. To each his own in terms of personal taste, and I think our job as writers is to make everybody funnier and better every year, but I don’t agree with that assessment of her, personally. She has a bit of a thankless role because she’s surrounded by comedy characters who are purely funny. When you judge the character purely based on comedy, that’s when people come to that conclusion, but I think it’s half the story.

Bert Macklin rising! So, Andy’s going to train to be a cop — should we be nervous or excited for Pawnee?
It’s a good question. Maybe both. We had the idea of him becoming a police officer a while ago and we dropped it into the finale. Andy’s on this long-term arc. We had a joke in our writers’ room very early on that when he was living in the pit that he would go from that to someday being mayor of the town. He’s so likable as a human being and even though he’s not the smartest guy, he has a lot of qualities that make him appealing. One of them is that he is very interested in self-improvement. He took college classes, he found a woman he loved and got married, he was homeless and then a shoeshine guy and loved it, and then he was Ron’s assistant and Leslie’s assistant. He’s sort of on a long-term Horatio Alger trajectory. This is the latest chapter and the plan next year is he’s going to train to become a police officer and hopefully join the Pawnee PD. It’s a natural outcropping of his actual interests. That’s why we had him solve the mystery of the pie. He doesn’t actually prevent the crime from taking place, but he does crack the case!

Also, if given the choice: Winterfell or New Caprica?
Winterfell! They’re both pretty depressing, I mean, New Caprica was no picnic. You’d be a slave on New Caprica, enslaved by the Cylons. At least in Winterfell you could die with a sword in your hand, as they say in the book.

We’re in this weird time in TV history that you know if you do something like that, if you write down a list of places Andy and April would live on a board, even if it’s onscreen for just one frame, people are going to pause it and write everything down. So I said to Chris Pratt, hey, we have to write real responses. People are going to care about where April and Andy would want to live. And we really thought about it! Winterfell was my idea because I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan, and Chris came up with listing all of the places in the song “Kokomo” — and he wrote them all down from memory really quickly. We spent a long time brainstorming that list. Once of them is “South Africa (DMB),” which stands for Dave Matthews Band. Andy doesn’t know where South Africa is, but just the fact that Dave Matthews is from there means that he might want to live there someday. 

Do you have plans to keep your “Ron and Tammy” franchise going?
I like that those characters are in the world. We’ve now done three of these episodes, and Megan Mullally has appeared in more than those. I don’t want to do it again unless we have a really great idea. I don’t want to do it just because we always do it — that’s the rational side of my brain. The emotional side of me is saying if you can get Patricia Clarkson and Megan Mullally back for any episode of your show, you should do it because they’re awesome.  

Adam Scott tweeted hours before the finale that the Low-Cal Calzone Zone would be opening November 3. Can you confirm that for Vulture?
[Laughs. A lot.] I will say this: There is an idea that has been floated for the future, which I don’t want to get too into detail about because it may never come to fruition, but there is definitely an idea for a possible future story line that would involve the reemergence of the Low-Cal Calzone Zone. The idea of Ben getting excited about opening a homemade calzone restaurant made us laugh in the writers’ room for many, many months. And we did come up with a theoretical way that it could come back. 

Parks and Rec’s Showrunner Talks Season Four