'Parks and Rec': EP Michael Schur on the finale's shocking last scene
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[SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this story until you have watched “Moving Up,” the season 6 finale of Parks and Recreation, which aired tonight.]
Leslie journeyed all the way to San Francisco in the season finale of Parks and Recreation, but she left her heart in Pawnee. And so the city’s unofficial head cheerleader devised a way to snag her dream job running a regional branch of the National Parks Service but remain in her dream town by strong-arming and binder-ing her boss into moving the office from Chicago to Pawnee. In the boffo hourlong episode, Tom’s Bistro pulled off a successful early opening (well, the second time around), the Unity Concert was a crowd-pleaser, the rights to The Cones of Dunshire were rightfully returned to Ben, and… let’s see, was there anything else that happened… oh, just that IT’S THREE YEARS INTO THE FUTURE AND LESLIE JUST FIRED JON HAMM. The final scene of the episode was a mouth-agape game changer, as we saw future Leslie (Amy Poehler) running around on the third floor of City Hall, terminating Hamm’s incompetent National Parks employee (who had somehow in the last three years screwed up more than future Larry, a.k.a. Terry) and preparing to walk into some sort of high-level situation with husband Ben (Adam Scott). You have tons of questions. We have tons of… well, some answers. EW spoke with exec producer Michael Schur about the wild finale (which he directed), Parks in the future, and the future of Parks.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So… you really like to keep fans off-balance, don’t you?
MICHAEL SCHUR: Yes, 100 percent. I’m a broken record about this, but I think that’s the best weapon we have in our arsenal, and that’s doing things unexpected and throwing people off-balance. It’s the last potent weapon for a network television show. And by the way, Shonda Rhimes agrees with me. That’s why people love Scandal so much, because they never know what’s going to happen.
That would have been quite a way to end the show if this were the last season of Parks. How different was the plan for the finale if this was going to be the last season?
We got to a point where we had mapped out the last couple of episodes — Leslie’s pregnancy and the triplets and then the confluence of events in the finale, which was going to be Leslie taking the job, figuring out how to maneuver it so she could physically stay in Pawnee even though she took the job, Tom’s restaurant opening and then looking like it was about to collapse and then having him save the day by throwing a big party. We had a meeting with NBC to talk about the future of the show, and we were given really every assurance that we would have another season. So at that point we were like, “Well, we can either radically reconceive all of these big story moves that we’re doing to try to leave things more open-ended, or we can just figure out a way to take everything that we’ve got — that we like — and throw a crazy wrench into the works.” And then out of that brainstorming session came the idea that we would jump into the future — quite literally into the future — and I just thought that was more interesting. I liked the way that we were concluding all of the stories that played out, especially the second half of the year, but really all year. So it didn’t seem right to screw everything up. We could have had Tom’s restaurant fail, we could have had Leslie turn down the job, but I thought it was more interesting and juicy to take everything that we had done that seemed like, “Oh, wow, that’s a neat little bow on the end of the show,” and then all of sudden something crazy happens. Leslie says [to camera] as she’s hanging the picture on the wall: “I’m just going to take a deep breath and enjoy this as long as I can.” And it turns out that for the viewer, “as long as I can” is about one second until a whole new series of yet-undeveloped crazies.
And then we get the double time jump — a month and then three years.
That was my fun, little impish wink at the audience. “Oh, they jumped forward a month!” and you see what’s happening and “Oh my God, it’s three years!!!”
How did you settle on three years? Did you toy around with smaller time jumps or even more radical jumps?
We talked about a bunch of different scenarios. One of them was nine months, so she’d had the kids, and we sped through the entire pregnancy and birth and the first week at home and all of that stuff. And then it was like, “If you’re going to jump nine months or a year, do something that really suggests that a lot of stuff had happened.” There’s something about that period of time: The kids are walking around and they’re wearing kid clothes and they’re maybe in pre-school at this point. It seemed like the right amount of time. It was a gut-level thing. We talked about: Is it five years? Is it 10 years? It seemed like enough time to be for really radical change without everybody having gray hair.
I’m guessing the series finale will be like Six Feet Under and we’ll jump decades ahead and see everyone’s death? Can’t wait to see how Jerry dies!
When Garry dies, who’s now Terry, he’s going to die peacefully in his sleep at the age of 110, with Gayle, who is still alive.
And hot. And his three children and his 16 grandchildren and his 34 great-grandchildren, and they’re going to be peacefully singing his favorite song anshe clutches a picture of Li’l Sebastian and drifts peacefully into the afterlife. Somehow he’s going tooutlive them all and he’s going to be the happiest when he goes.
I thought that you guys would have wanted to have fun with Leslie being pregnant, and that the birth of the triplets would be a big deal and it would be reported on by Perd Hapley. The time jump obviously skips all that stuff… unless you’re actually setting up the series finale with the time jump, and we begin next season by flashing ahead a shorter distance into the future and then we build up to that moment we saw in the finale, perhaps with occasional flashes of the future.
Ah, you’re imagining a sort of J.J. Abrams-style development…
Or is that not the case and when we resume, we will be three years into the future?
Here’s what I’ll say: First of all, we won’t start really planning the season for another month, so I don’t want to say anything definitively. But what we decided when we did this was: This is not a yank. We are not teasing something that we are not going to then pay off. The majority of the season is going to take place in that time period, and that is allowing for certainly the possibility of episodes that fill in certain gaps that go back in time a little bit. That, who knows, go forward in time. Now we’ve established this as a possibility. But we’re not going to see Leslie pregnant for the whole year, we’re not going to see her give birth. The whole season is not going to be about filling in those gaps — the main action of the season will take place in that slightly futurescape. We may go back and see a couple of things here and there of what happened in the interim, but we’re not faking you out. This is a real shift for the show in terms of when it takes place.
Is much of the action next season leading up to that three-years-from-now moment we saw? Or do we move past it early on?
Subject to change based on the discussion of the writers, I intend to go past that moment. I intend that to be one of the earlier things that you’d see.
NEXT: Will everybody be back next season?
We don’t see Ron (Nick Offerman) or Tom (Aziz Ansari) or Donna (Retta) in that scene. Is the full cast going to be back?
Yes, everybody’s back.
Did you shoot stuff with them that you didn’t use? Should we be reading anything into why certain people weren’t seen?
What you see is the entirety of what we shot, so it was a conscious decision on our part not to show the people we didn’t show and to show the people that we did.
How would you characterize the level of success of Tom’s Bistro in 2017?
When we were discussing who should be in that scene, Tom was pretty quickly ruled out, I’ll say that. For various reasons, we thought we should not see Tom in that scene.
What about Jon Hamm? That cameo — can we call it a Hammeo? — is a huge surprise. How did that come about? Was this an Adam Scott special?
When we conceived of this scene — this kind of crazy, chaotic 60-second coda to the year — I felt pretty strongly that one of the fun things would be to see someone really famous and to have them get fired immediately. I think Hamm may have actually improvised the line “It’s been a great three years.” He either improvised it or we worked it out on the floor. But it just made us laugh that you would say: “Oh my God, we just missed three years of Jon Hamm!” [Laughs] And he made the decision, which I thought was so funny, to play the entire thing with a smile on his face. It was not the way it was conceived at all, and it’s so much funnier that he’s just like, “Yup! Totally understand. Goodbye!” He and Amy are friends, he and Adam are friends, and I knew him a little bit from various things, so it was a series of furtive phone calls and emails and just like, “Can you be at the Radford lot for this hour of your day?” And it just all worked out.
What was his reaction to playing someone even more incompetent than Jerry, a.k.a. Larry, a.k.a. Terry?
What’s so great about him is that he just likes comedy. He loves comedy and he loves Amy and he loves Adam and he loves the cast. He was so happy just to show up and do a funny thing where he pops in for 25 seconds and gets three laughs and leaves, you know?… He’s such a great guy. We wanted him to do this little cameo thing and we wanted to keep it super secret. And he was like, “I’ll just show up and do it. Don’t even make me an offer. Don’t put it through the proper channels, I’ll just show up and deal with it later.” And it’s such a menschy thing to do. You might know this, but he’s a pretty in-demand actor these days, but we did talk about the possibilities of seeing how Ed was hired or something. Maybe if he’s free, he’ll drop by again and we can another tiny glimpse into the horrible three-year career of Ed, the National Parks Service worker.
So if you have your way, Jon Hamm will be back for one or two episodes next season?
If I have my way, every episode where you see events that take place before that moment — which, who knows how many that will be? — will include a shot of him doing something insanely incompetent. [Laughs]
Are any of the other people who were milling about in the office going to be new cast members?
No, that’s not the plan. I mean, some of them — who knows may end up being that.
In that scene, Leslie looked a little harder, more stressed, all business. Is this a different kind of Leslie we’re going to see next year? Is she not the same bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimist?
I wouldn’t say that. I would say that now she’s running the Midwest branch of the National Parks Service, which has hundreds of administrative employees and thousands of local people working in parks. Her job is a lot bigger and grander and has far greater scope, so she’s barking out orders and her time is way more in demand than it was before. It was Poehler’s choice to give herself bangs for the future, which I thought was really funny. Of all the things that disorient you — and obviously that was the real goal of the scene, which was just to disorient people — I find her bangs one of the most disorienting aspects of it. It’s a very effective way to show that she’s different, that time has gone by and that she has a different look to her.
Any hints about why they are in a media lockdown? What can you say about that?
I can’t say anything about that yet. We have a few ideas of what the crisis is she’s dealing with, but that all will be decided next year.
And what was in South Dakota? Is Mount Rushmore okay???
I don’t know! You’ll have to tune in to find out!
Ben is in a tux, and we’re obviously wondering what his “big night” is. And he said “everybody down in my office,” so can we assume that he’s still working for the city?
I wouldn’t assume that, no. I think it suggests two things: One is that there was some kind of formal event he was supposed to attend. Leslie says, “This is your big night,” and he says, “This is more important.” And that he makes reference, like you said, to everybody down in his office. But the National Parks Service is also now housed in City Hall, and who knows what the future holds for other businesses and organizations being housed in City Hall.
Is this Cones of Dunshire gaming headquarters possibly there and his big night is related to that? Or is this is a black-tie political event?
I think the only assumption you can make — and again, this is subject to change — is that the event that’s causing the crisis with Leslie and the event for which he is dressed up for are different events.
Let’s talk about Andy (Chris Pratt) being in a sling. How did he get hurt?
Two years ago, Pratt sent me an email that simply said, “It’s time for Andy to get hurt again.” That was the entire text of the email. (Laughs)Because in the beginning, he had broken legs in the pilot. He fell into the pit again, he crashed his motorcycle, he was constantly injuring himself. He was a very accident-prone dude and it had just been awhile. So when we were jumping into the future, he brought it up again — I believe it was Pratt’s idea. It was like, you just make some little reference to the fact that he’s not immune to his old ways, that somehow or another he suffered some kind of additional injury.” But Pratt is so strong now — it’s great that his left arm is in a sling and he picks that little kid up with one hand very easily, if you noticed.
NEXT: What does the future hold for the cast?
Did you and the writers sit down and plot out exactly where everyone is in 2017? Do you have a plan for every character, or has some of that not been worked out yet?
Our operating principle about any big story move like this is we don’t do it unless we first discuss possibilities. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to stick to them, and it doesn’t mean that we’ve decided one way or the other, but I need to know that we have paths that seem workable and exciting and interesting for what the big event suggests. So we had a very lengthy discussion — a series of discussions — about: “Okay, let’s say we jump ahead in time, three years. What are some things that could have happened to these characters that would be interesting?” And we went right down the line — everybody from Leslie all the way to Craig (Billy Eichner) and thought, “Okay, it could be this. It could be this. It could be this… ” And we came up with a forking path — two scenarios for each person that seemed like if we want to go success, it’s this path, and if we want to go failure, it’s this path. Once we had at least a general idea of how we could show off everybody’s future, then at that point, we fully committed to the idea of jumping forward.
Is the door open for Michelle Obama to return? And is she working on getting you her husband and the kids?
Our door is permanently opened to Michelle Obama to come back any time she would like. Really, anyone in the Obama family! If they’re around and they’re looking to make SAG minimum for a day’s work, they’re more than welcome…. Aziz did an event with the President a while ago and he told him that the family liked the show. Who knows what that actually means? We have heard from reliable sources that Sasha and Malia are fans of the show, and fans of Amy in particular, which, if you were a young woman, why would you not be a fan of Amy Poehler? Or really, if you’re just a human being on Earth, why wouldn’t you? The First Lady was really effusive and kind when we shot that scene in telling Amy how much her daughters liked the show, and that sent a very happy shiver up our spines when we just imagined that Sasha and Malia Obama were watching the program.
You got Joe Biden, and you got Michelle. So it does feel like he’s the get.
Yeah, and what a nice position to be in where the only person on Earth who would seem like a real get is the president of the United States. We’re on the case — we’re working on it.
There’s obviously this big move in the finale where you think Leslie will have to choose between taking the National Parks job and moving to Chicago or turning it down to stay in Pawnee. In the end, she has her cake and eats it. In trying to plan that out in the writers’ room, were you worried that having the NPS move their regional office from Chicago to Pawnee would seem implausible?
Well, we did a little research about it. The actual Midwest regional office of the National Parks Service is in Omaha, which is referenced in the episode. He says, “Four of your staff will be coming up from Omaha.” And Omaha, I’m sure is a lovely city, but it’s not so much more spectacular than Pawnee, Indiana.
(Laughs) I just means it’s not like we’re opening a Wall Street training firm in Pawnee. One of the things we talked about with the merger storyline of the season was that one benefit would be that Pawnee would be on the map a little bit more. There was a line that we actually cut out of the finale when Ben is trying to sell Gryzzl on free WiFi [for] Pawnee and he says, “You know, we have over a hundred thousand people now. We merged with Eagleton.” They are a little bit of a bigger deal than they were before, so in talking to various people from the National Parks Service and from the administrative world of that wing of the Department of the Interior, when we laid out scenarios for what we were inventing, the reaction we got was that these are not at all implausible things. These offices are often, especially in a region like the Midwest, they’re in places like Omaha — it’s not in Chicago, it’s not in St. Louis. Some of it is about location — you want to be central in the region, which is why Tom says Pawnee is actually closer to a lot of the parks that Leslie would be covering.
Are there any other easter eggs that you planted in the future scene that people should be looking for?
I don’t want to tell people how to watch TV. (Laughs) We started planning this in many ways a long time ago, because the episode where John Middle Name Redacted Swanson is born, Ron wanders up to the third floor and discovers it’s a broken-down wasteland and begins to refurbish it. And when we conceived that storyline, that was when we were like, “Oh, this is how Leslie stays in Pawnee. Ron makes this entire third floor of this vast City Hall an inhabitable space, and Leslie will get the idea in the finale that she can maybe move the offices up there.” So the fact of the time jump is probably enough of a world-disrupting thing to focus on. Obviously there are details that are interesting — Andy’s arm is in a sling, and she’s got three kids now and she mentions a trip to South Dakota and there’s some group of people waiting for her and Ben’s in a tuxedo and she’s got bangs — we put a lot of that stuff in to just throw a bunch of questions up into the air that we will answer at the beginning of next season.
Can you give us one cryptic clue about the future that we’ll be seeing? Is it mildly dystopic? Is Jamm ruling the city like an evil overlord?
One thing I think you could assume is that the politics in the town as we’ve come to know them are not going to be essential to the show as they were in the first six seasons — especially in the Leslie era of City Council. The intention at least, at this point, is to move beyond the town a little bit. Obviously Leslie is still living there, but she’s playing on a much bigger stage now and it wouldn’t feel that logical if she were still battling it out with Jamm every week.
Did the Unity Concert turn out to be an even bigger deal than you initially planned with all those bands signing on?
Well, the actual execution of it was. When we got the bands to sign on, when Yo La Tengo amazingly agreed to do what amounts to a single joke, and learn how to play “Sister Christian” on the keyboards , and then when the Decemberists signed on and when Jeff Tweedy got involved, and Ginuwine and Letters to Cleo, at that point we internally upped the scale of what we were planning. The stage got a little bigger and the banners got a little bigger, and the number of extras we hired got a little bigger. It was a really insane shoot — we had five cameras going — one of them was on a crane, we put a sixth GoPro camera on a remote-control helicopter, which is that final shot you see when “5000 Candles in the Wind” ends and there’s that giant overhead pullback shot of the entire crowd. It was an enormous, enormous undertaking for the production team. So once those bands signed on and we knew it was like a real thing, then we were like, “All right, we’ve got to do this now. This has to be like a real rock concert.” And what was cool was that a lot of the bands said that it completely reminded them of actual events that they had played — college Spring Fling weekend-y kind of things where there’s just a random hodgepodge of different kinds of musicians and you’re playing in a giant open quad or a field for thousands of people in the middle of the day. Hearing [The Decemberists lead singer] Colin Meloy say that it felt a lot like events that they had played before made us feel like we were on the right track. … The coordination of it was massive — just flying in the bands and their instruments and getting them in and out and having them play — they each played the song they performed twice through and we shot it. We had five cameras and we shot it from probably 40 different angles.
Do you have enough footage to release a concert DVD?
It might just be on the Parks and Rec YouTube page, but we have full performances of all of the songs that were played. It’s a comedy show so we couldn’t linger too long in any one of the songs, but there is a full performance of Ginuwine singing “My Pony” with four backup dancers in front of a screaming crowd of 3,000 people — in front of, by the way, two gigantic little Sebastian banners. There’s a full performance of the giant finale, where everyone is singing “5000 Candles in the Wind.” My favorite part of the episode is in the verse of “5000 Candles in the Wind” where you just pop around and there’s Yo La Tengo, there’s Kay Hanley and Ginuwine, there’s Jeff Tweedy, there’s Colin Meloy, there’s the rest of the Decemberists. It’s like: What is this event? It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen!
Having Ginuwine perform “Pony” was incredibly funny. Was he familiar with Li’l Sebastian? And what was his reaction when you pitched the idea?
Since he was mentioned on the show three years ago, he has gotten to know the show a lot. He knew all the characters on the show and had seen a bunch of episodes. When we pitched him his participation in the finale, we explained what Li’l Sebastian was to him and he immediately thought it was funny and was totally into the idea of it. To me the funniest part of that is the actual subject matter of the song is not a miniature horse, but it’s funny to imagine a revisionist history where the reason he wrote it was because of his love for Li’l Sebastian.
Looking back at the season, what episode or storyline are you most proud of?
I think the episode that I’m most proud of overall — I’m very proud of the finale, because it was a massive, humungous undertaking — I’m very proud of the episode “Flu Season 2,” when Leslie found out she was pregnant. That to me is sort of like a platonic ideal of a Parks and Rec episode, because it had these huge, amazing comedic performances from Amy and Pratt and Adam Scott and Nick (Offerman) and Aubrey (Plaza), and everybody was in the mix. Everybody seemed to be present and had a good storyline and had funny jokes. And then we also had Sam Elliott and Jeff Tweedy and all these cool, interesting guest stars. And it was an episode where a very significant thing happened to one of our main characters, and those episodes always feel the most satisfying to me — when you really cash in those big chips, where people get married or find out they’re pregnant — I find those to be very satisfying. But really, I find the show to be most satisfying creatively when it just feels like everybody’s involved, and that was what the first “Flu Season” was. That was the stated aim of doing another episode called “Flu Season.” Part of what made that episode so enjoyable was that it had just great contributions from everybody in the cast and that cast is so good and so multi-talented that when you get a chance to create an episode where Ben is a drunken mess and Ron squares off against Sam Elliott and Aubrey is drunkenly making a point that I personally feel very much about the wine industry — that all wine tastes the same and if it costs more than five dollars, you’re a moron — those kinds of big-group ensemble episodes are always my favorite.
On the flip side, what’s the one episode or storyline that you wish you could take back — or take another crack at?
It’s a writer’s lot in life to wish you could have everything back. Lorne Michaels used to say about SNL that the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 11:30. His point was, if you had more time to tinker, you’re just going to keep tinkering, and even if you tinker forever, when it airs, you’ll wish you could keep tinkering. So I wish I could go back and take every single episode we’ve ever done and comb through all of the footage and spend another week editing them and reshooting stuff and changing everything and improving everything that I now find disagreeable, but I really don’t regret anything from this season. It’s sort of counterproductive at some level to look back and ruminate on what you thought were writing mistakes or editing mistakes. Plus, the cast is so good they can pretty much paper over any problem we create for them.
You’ve said before that it would be natural if next season were the show’s last. Is this now very likely? Was the future scene the beginning of the end game?
It’s fairly likely that next year will be the last. The natural rhythm of the show and the big creative jump we take at the end of this season certainly suggests that we’re moving in that direction.
How much of the ending of this show have you already figured out at this point? Do you know what the final image or scene is?
Chunks of it are mapped out. We have signposts and stuff, but other parts are wide-open and are very much up in the air. I’m sure that some of the chunks that we felt are mapped out are going to change. We just have a general idea of what is going on in the world, and we have some general ideas for what happens to those people over the course of this future season, but until we really get back in the room, I’d really prefer not to try to commit to anything too soon. It just sort of like shuts up creativity. … I have an idea for the final image, the final scene and the final image of the show, and I have no idea whether that’ll be the final image or not.
And finally, when will you be making The Cones of Dunshire available for purchase?
Well, I’ll tell you this: Mayfair Games, which is like the biggest gaming company — they make The Settlers of Catan — they were basically consultants on every aspect of Cones of Dunshire for us, and they actually manufactured the game that you see in the finale. We have certainly had discussions with them about further ways to explore the completely impenetrably dense game Cones of Dunshire, and it remains to be seen if it will all come to fruition. But I just couldn’t be happier with how byzantine and dense that game is. It really delights me, so hopefully there will be more Cones of Dunshire in the future somewhere.