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Inside the final season of 'Parks and Recreation'

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Parks And Recreation
JUSTIN STEPHENS for EW

So this is what the end of Pawnee looks like. Hugs upon hugs, each longer than the last. Announcement after announcement that another actor—Henry Winkler as Dr. Saperstein! Helen Slayton-Hughes as Ethel Beavers! Jon Glaser as Jeremy Jamm!—has just finished his or her last day of shooting, resulting in more hugs. Amy Poehler sweetly coaching her young sons to say into the camera, “That’s a wrap on Parks and Recreation!” Nick Offerman’s parents sitting stoically in director’s chairs. (“One last chance to see our clumsy magic,” explains the good son.) Aubrey Plaza in zombie makeup. Jim O’Heir sobbing through his final lines as the cast reads the finale script aloud. (Dammit, Jerry! We’re trying to hold it together here!)

And this is what one of the last-ever group scenes of NBC’s Parks and Rec looks like. It’s a November morning on the Studio City, Calif., soundstage containing Tom’s Bistro—an actually successful business venture by once-flailing entrepreneur Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari)—and the actors are in upbeat denial, riffing on everything from Black Friday to Fitbits to the sheer idiocy of Chris Pratt’s happy-go-dopey Andy Dwyer. “He may be mentally stupid, but he’s also emotionally stupid,” mock-defends Pratt. “IQ is just a number, and his is really low.”

As the cameras roll, Poehler’s pathologically cheery Parks leader Leslie Knope shares bittersweet job news before Mercedes-driving former office manager Donna Meagle (Retta) drops her own bomb. Can anyone lighten the mood? Ultra-literal anchor Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) appears on the TV hanging above: “Good evening. I come to you tonight with some good news…is not a sentence I will be saying right now. Because [SPOILER] has died.”

We can’t tell you which beloved Pawneean has passed away—though it’s not Bucky, impersonator of departed tiny horse Li’l Sebastian—but life will go on. As will the jokes. Pratt veers off-script as Andy and whispers to O’Heir, who plays gracious punching bag Jerry/Garry/Larry/Terry: “Did you kill him?” Declares Adam Scott, a.k.a. nerdy voice of reason Ben Wyatt: “You need to call the police.” Adds Poehler: “We need to dispose of his body.” “Can I cut it up into a million little pieces?” chimes in Plaza, a.k.a. scowling April Ludgate. “I have sharp blades,” responds Offerman as mustachioed survivalist Ron Swanson. Everyone breaks character to reference the cast’s running joke about a crazy-salacious version of this comedy: “Dark Parks!”

Things, of course, were about to get really dark on the set. A few weeks later, the lights on the soundstage were switched off and workers began to tear down Pawnee City Hall. It’s the ultimate government shutdown: After charming fans and critics for six seasons, this ragtag collection of civil service employees is calling it quits after season 7. No more three-ring binders brimming with plans, quadruple-bypass meat celebrations, world-saving by a windbreaker-wearing FBI superagent, or jokes involving de Tocqueville. Parks and Recreation‘s final 13 episodes begin airing Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 8 p.m., the show’s seventh time-slot move on NBC’s schedule. Treat yo’-self to saying goodbye while you can; the network is churning through (or “eventizing”) back-to-back episodes each week before Feb. 24’s two-part finale.

Among the 2015 class of departing shows, Parks won’t be the one that sparks countless essays on authenticity (Mad Men) or rings up big ratings (Two and a Half Men). But the tale of this Midwest-modest underdog-gone-good is still worth revisiting. An early version of its 2009 pilot tested weakly. It was dismissed as a knockoff of The Office. (The mockumentary series was created by two Office producers, Michael Schur and Greg Daniels, with Schur later assuming primary command.) And it never quite measured up in the Nielsens—last season’s episodes averaged 3.8 million viewers—often just a notch above cancellation.

But Parks dug itself out of that pit, found its own jaunty, homespun rhythm, and grew into one of the sharpest and warmest comedies in years. Laced with a savvy, topical wit with just right amount of bite, it has birthed two of TV’s most indelible characters, Poehler’s dare-to-dream liberal Knope and Offerman’s keep-your-dreams-between-you-and-your-pillow libertarian Swanson; their ideal-clashing friendship served as the show’s bread and butter—or, rather, steak and waffles. It has become a cultural reference point on college campuses and on social media. It has expanded Pawnee into a richly detailed folksy-weirdo universe almost as colorful as The Simpsons‘ Springfield. It has often challenged its characters (Leslie gets her dream job… only to get recalled) as well as the audience’s expectations (two surprise weddings in the middle of seasons instead of the end? The three-year time warp?). Perhaps most impressive, in an age of jaded, everything-in-quotes comedy, Parks chose optimism over irony, espoused unsexy virtues like community and hard work, and wasn’t afraid to double down on heart.

Now all that these local government employees have left to do is secure their comedy legacy. And Poehler knows just the right small-town Indiana analogy to invoke as the clock runs down: “We’re like Hoosiers, in that we stuck to our fundamentals, we put our head down and played our game. We didn’t get distracted by the noise. We had a team filled with clutch players that everybody underestimated…. And Michael Schur is the Gene Hackman of television. At least that’s how he introduced himself to me when we first met.”

All right, coach, what’s the plan for the last play?

“We decided, ‘Well, screw it—go big or go home,’ ” says Schur. “And we’re going home, so go big anyway.”

••••

Home for Schur is a third-floor office tucked above the City Hall set, just a few feet away from a series of corkboards that are covered with story ideas we can’t reveal here and others that never came to fruition (Larry falls into a well and becomes baby Jessica, Tom has a “tuxt”—a tuxedo that can text). It stayed bare the first four seasons, because, as the affable, unflappable 39-year-old showrunner notes: “I felt like as soon as I hung a photo on the wall, the show was going to get canceled.” Finally he relented, and now it looks almost like a Pawn(ee) shop. There is a framed sequence of photos of Ron Swanson with microscopically different expressionless expressions. Game jerseys from Indiana pro athletes-cum-guest stars Roy Hibbert and Reggie Wayne. A Ya Heard with Perd mug. A fan carving of Ron Swanson and Mose Schrute, Dwight’s weird neck-bearded cousin that Schur played in many Office episodes. A gushing letter from Aaron Sorkin after Schur asked permission to liberally reference The West Wing in an episode. (“Getting an email from Aaron Sorkin that Aaron Sorkin liked our show was pretty awesome,” says Schur.) A Hillary Clinton chia head, which Poehler gave as gifts to all the writers. Stacks of academic files and books about local government and society, such as Robert Putnam’s The Collapse and Revival of American Community. “I would flip through it when I was looking for inspiration to strike,” he says.

Schur, who also serves as co-creator/executive producer of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, consulted no text to divine the right time to pack it all in; rather, it was simply a conversation he had with Poehler early last season. They decided that Season 7 seemed like a logical point to wrap up Leslie’s curveball-heavy story, and the actors’ contracts were set to expire then as well. “Leslie [was taking] a job in the season 6 finale working at the National Park Service, and it felt like ‘How many more jobs can she have? How many changes can there be in her life?'” he explains, adding, “Our only hesitation was ‘But we won’t get to hang out all the time!’ That was the beginning and end of the argument not to end the show at season 7.” But in case NBC wanted to wrap it up sooner, Schur did something he’d done four (four!) times before: map out a season finale that doubled as the series finale. (Cancellation fears prompted the writers and him to script one in season 3, another in season 4, and two more in season 5, for the 14th and 22nd episodes.) Fortunately, plan B wasn’t necessary; when Schur & Co. pitched a season 7 sign-off to NBC, the network was on board. “It was a 30-second conversation,” he recalls. “We felt very lucky.”

Instead of scrapping the season 6 finale, the writers removed the closure from it and goosed it with a time-warping cliff-hanger. (They debated jumping ahead anywhere from eight months to ten years before settling on three, which felt appropriately distant but wouldn’t require an entire season of everyone in age make-up. Plus, 2017 happened to mark the bicentennial anniversary of Pawnee’s founding.) In the season’s final moments, audiences saw Leslie as a harried mother-of-triplets running a National Parks regional office that has been relocated to Pawnee City Hall and firing bumbling employee Ed, played by surprise guest Jon Hamm. “It not only allowed us to skip common tropes in late-season sitcoms like new babies or new jobs,” says Schur, “everywhere we looked, it gave us possibilities to drop in interesting things for the characters.” The time skip wowed Plaza (“It’s a baller move”), reinvigorated Ansari (“We need that B12 shot in the butt”), intimidated Poehler (“I was kinda scared at first”), and pleased Scott (“Battlestar Galactica had done something similar and I love Battlestar Galactica, so I was all for it”).

The time jump also energized the writers, perhaps a bit too much at first. “When we did the first week of [story] pitching, it felt a little bit like one of those things where a power line is knocked down and it’s just flopping around and sparking in every direction,” says Schur with a chuckle. “It was very exciting, but it was also very unfocused and so the challenge became constantly reminding everyone—myself included—that it’s the same people in the same building… There were so many thousands and thousands of pitches of jokes about what life is like three years in the future. We had to really reign it in.”

So, who’s still with the parks department? Who’s moved on? Who’s working with whom? Audiences will spend the premiere adjusting to the flurry of changes. “The first episode of the year is almost like a pilot,” says Schur, seen with Poehler below. “[Characters] have to explain what is happening to them, what job they have.” The action picks up exactly where we left off, with Ben and Leslie heading to a high-stakes meeting in City Hall that will inform a decent chunk of the season. “Her argument has always been that public space has real value and that it’s very important to preserve land for public use, not for private use,” hints Schur. “When she sees a large opportunity like that, she’s going to really sink her teeth into it.” Adds Poehler: “There’s an opportunity for Leslie to make a big impact in Pawnee, and she has to fight to get it, and everybody comes in and helps her in various ways. It’s local-government Avengers. It’s like the Avengers if the Avengers did more walking than running.”

That three-year leap generates drama on the personal front, too: “One of Leslie’s old friends is no longer a friend,” says Schur, “and in fact, she would consider [that person] to be an enemy.”

Life in Pawnee looks different as well. Gryzzl—the super-chill technology company run by Mike Bean (Blake Anderson), whom Ben persuaded to give Pawnee free WiFi—is using the city to beta test its drones, phones, and tablets. “Our special-effects budget has gone up 15,000 percent, from $1 to $15,000,” notes Schur. Upcoming episodes address people’s obsession—and privacy concerns—with technology, as evidenced by events like Apple’s free U2 album download debacle. “We all oscillate between being like, ‘What an amazing incredible world we live in,’ and then going, ‘Wait a second, the people who make Candy Crush know where I’m standing right now,'” says Schur. “That became the central tension and dynamic of the way we use Gryzzl.”

The future brings other revelations: The Bourne franchise has been rebooted with a highly unlikely person, and Morgan Freeman is feuding with Shailene Woodley.

Prepare to see a few new faces—such as Leslie’s weary nanny Roz (Rachel Dratch) and Gryzzl’s vice president of cool new shizz (the Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone)—but far more familiar ones, like Craig (Billy Eichner), who learns a new rage-control technique, hella douchey hanger-on Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) plus sister Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate) and father Dr. Saperstein (Winkler), man-child Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), porn star Brandi Maxxxx (Maria Marini), Ed (Hamm, in another cameo), and even animal rights activist Manrico Della Rossa (Gary Carlos) and the doomsday cult Reasonablists. Don’t worry: Former Pawneeans-turned-Ann Arbor residents Chris (Rob Lowe) and Ann (Rashida Jones) also pop in. “When they show up,” says Schur, “it’s one of about 50 huge surprises that happen in that episode.”

Actually, a number of surprises are scattered throughout the season, including several “form-breaking, brand-new-idea episodes,” says Schur. Hints Pratt of one such installment: “It’s like a Twilight Zone episode of Parks and Rec… It’s super-meta. It’s going to f— people’s brains out.” Another episode will bring Leslie, Ben, and April to D.C., while a different one sends Tom and Andy to Chicago, where Tom tracks down ex-girlfriend Lucy, played by Natalie Morales. (“He hits a point in his life where he’s like, ‘Okay, I’m doing well career-wise and I have friends, but there’s a missing piece,'” says Ansari.)

He’s not the only member of the Pawnee doing some soul searching. Ron faces a “personal crisis with what to do with himself,” according to Offerman, while April melts down when she faces down a younger version of herself at work. “She’s for the first time dealing with feeling old because she’s always been the cool young kid,” says Plaza, “so her reaction to having an intern that’s exactly like her five years ago or whatever is pretty hilarious.”

In other news, Ben will be drawn into the Gryzzl story as their presence in town causes complications, unveil his geeky fantasy board game sequel to Cones of Dunshire, and after over-imbibing at a formal event, “he loosens up maybe a little much in front of a large group of people and shows what he can do on the dance floor,” says Scott. Andy’s persona as children’s entertainer Johnny Karate has landed him his own kick-ass public-access program called Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show. You’ll also meet another deadly serious Andy character, Johnny Karate’s brother—named… Jonathan Karate. “He wears a black karate gi, so it’s different,” explains Pratt. “When he wants to teach a kid a lesson about not talking to strangers or not holding in farts, that’s Jonathan Karate. He’s the true sensei. He’s a total Miyagi.”

Speaking of a man who goes by a lot of different names, Jerry, aka Garry, aka Larry, will reveal in the premiere why he’s now called Terry in 2017, and later he will eagerly become a notary. (“It’s something he’s always dreamt of,” gushes O’Heir, “and of course they’re just like, ‘That is the worst thing we’ve ever heard in our lives.’ But he doesn’t care because he’s sooo proud.”) Meanwhile, single and-proud-of-it Donna sees her relationship with Joe (Keegan-Michael Key) heat up. (“Does she keep it together?” asks Retta rhetorically. “Does that player gene rear its ugly head?”)

The design of the final season is to give each of these characters a final story with Leslie—and hopefully to wind down their arcs with satisfactory closure. But they won’t be going gently into the Indiana night. “By the time the series finale is over, the characters will have gone through as much upheaval and change in one season as in the previous six seasons,” says Schur. “Everyone’s lives are up in the air.”

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