'Parks and Recreation': Michael Schur on the decision to end the show
The final few minutes of last month’s season finale of Parks of Recreation catapulted its characters all the way into 2017, leaving viewers with binders and binders of questions about what happens next. And while they might be wondering about the future on the show, they no longer are speculating about the future of the show: NBC announced last week that the upcoming seventh season of the much-loved, smart-and-sweet local government comedy would be its very last, with the final 13 episodes getting a midseason debut. Why is Parks coming to an end now? What can you expect from the final season? Is there any chance of a spin-off? EW sought answers to these questions and more from series co-creator/executive producer Michael Schur.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, was this your decision, NBC’s or a little bit of both?
MICHAEL SCHUR: At the beginning of season 6, Amy [Poehler] and I started talking, like, “What’s our endgame here?” We both felt like all we really cared about was that we wanted to be the people who ended the show when we wanted to end it, ideally, if that were possible, and it felt like the time to do that would be at the end of season 7. And that was for a number of different reasons. We knew the basic plot of the season and we hadn’t come up with the idea of the flash-forward yet, but for whatever reason, our gut was saying: One more season. And then, as we talked about it more and more, we felt like the thing that 30 Rock did was the way to go — a shorter season, a manageable season where we can just try to land the plane and stick the landing. So we had a meeting with NBC right before the [Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in January] where we laid out our plan. We were like, “We know it’s not up to us entirely because you guys own the show, but in our perfect world, here’s how it would go,” and we laid out the whole plan, and they were like, “Sounds great!” [Laughs] It kind of dovetailed very nicely with what they were imagining the future of the show was. I mean, we were preparing for an hourlong discussion and it was like three minutes. … It was just this wonderful thing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that lucky again, that the creative team got together over the course of many months, picked a plan for how to end the show, and then the network was just like: Thumbs up. … It’s such a happy network-TV story. [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt and [NBC Entertainment president] Jen Salke are very supportive of the show. They don’t have to be — they’re, like, the fourth regime or something since the show started — but they’re really supportive and great.
How did the other cast members feel about this news when you told them? Did some of them want to do more seasons? Were there tears? Did Nick Offerman’s face change expressions? Has the mustache moved?
You know, the one thing that can get Nick Offerman’s mustache to quiver is the thought of Parks and Rec ending, so I will say yes. As far as I can tell, everybody feels exactly the same way. Which is, contemplating the end of this job that we’ve loved so much and we’ve poured our hearts and souls into is incredibly sad. But everybody is like, “Yeah, this feels right.” I think if it had ended any sooner, people would have been sad and felt like we didn’t quite get what we wanted. I think everyone feels like, “We don’t want to overstay our welcome. We want to go out on a high note.” We did this big creative leap at the end of last year and now we get to pursue that in a fun way for half the year and then we’ll wave goodbye and exit stage left.
Did you feel like you were running out of stories to tell, or was it more that Leslie’s journey just felt almost complete?
That’s really more of it. And not just her journey — a lot of their journeys. Leslie’s journey obviously is the central one and the most important one, and it did feel, especially after we moved her into this big-time job, like the show was bursting at the seams a little bit and it was going to get harder and harder to do the show that we had laid out. The show is called Parks and Recreation, and next year she’ll be working in a much bigger Parks and Recreation department than the one that she started in, so it felt like we had told most of the story. And I think that’s true of a lot of people. Obviously the extreme example is Ann (Rashida Jones) and Chris (Rob Lowe), who we wrote off the show in the middle of six seasons, and then Ben (Adam Scott) has come to a great point — his backstory of being a failed mayor and now he’s the city manager of a town and running it very effectively. It just felt like it was the right time. That’s really the main thing that Amy and I talked about — just that gut feeling like we had made most of our argument and now we wanted to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and make our final statements and shuffle off to Buffalo.
Was there ever any talk of one of the characters getting a spin-off? What about, say, Craig, April, and Xander attending sommelier school? Or behind the scenes at a local news station with Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo? Or a prequel with Ingrid de Forest about the gloriously snobby rise of Eagleton before it went bankrupt?
No spin-off was ever discussed in any meaningful way. But I would happily write the pilot for any of those you suggested…. I’ve joked before that I wanted to write a show called The Sapersteins about Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa with Henry Winkler as the dad.
Obviously, the show has long struggled in the ratings. How many times have you thought that whatever season you were in at the time was the last?
We had just shot 24 episodes for season 2 and then another six because Amy was pregnant — we had banked six of them [for season 3] — and then we were moved to midseason. And I remember meeting with the writers to break the last 10 and then saying, “Look, this might be the last 10 episodes we ever do so we’re going to leave it out on the court and we’re not going to hold anything back.” And that’s where Andy (Chris Pratt) and April’s (Aubrey Plaza) surprise wedding came from. It’s why Leslie and Ben got together maybe a little sooner than we were originally planning. It was like, “This might be it. We’ve got to make the juiciest, best episodes we can make.” So when we were moved to midseason, I thought that season 3 might be the end. And then I thought that season 4 might be the end. I thought that halfway through season 5 might be the end when we got Leslie and Ben married. Community had only been ordered for 13 and 30 Rock was only ordered for 13 in their final year, and so I had this feeling like, “Look, the writing is on the wall for the old Thursday night comedy block. It’s possible we only get to do 13, so we’re going to make that wedding episode 13 just in case.” And then, of course, I thought maybe the end of season 5 was going to be the last year. So at least four times I’ve written what I thought might be a series finale.
Did you say to NBC: “Just one more request for next season: Can we air in a different time slot?”
I believe that we’ve aired in every half-hour on Thursday — at 8, 8:30, 9, 9:30, 10, and 10:30. And I think we debuted on Tuesdays at some point. Yeah, it’s been a number of time slots but I have to say this: The fact that the show has aired or will have aired 125 times feels like a complete miracle, so I’m far from going to be a person who complains. … [NBC] has a very interesting strategy this year and obviously we don’t know when we’ll be airing, but they’re shifting Blacklist to Thursday at 9. They’re holding a lot of stuff for midseason, and I have to say, the one other year that we were midseason was season 3, and creatively it was fantastic. It was a real huge boon, because we had so much time to craft and edit everything. And then by the time the show came on the air, the crowded fall had settled a little bit and we started in January and people were like, “Oh, okay, the dust has settled.” It was really good for the show overall. So I’m hoping that we follow that same pattern.
NEXT: Schur on the time jump: “It’s a move that you don’t make in season 3 of your show.”
How much of the decision to deploy the future twist was tied to the fact that you knew you’d be entering your final season?
When we had that meeting and laid out the plan and it was agreed to almost instantly in the room, that definitely changed the calculus of how we handled the finale. The finale at that point was extremely close-ended, because we thought it might be the end. So we still had maybe five more [episodes] to shoot, and it was all careening headlong toward this giant finale, and we felt like, “All right, we can totally change everything that we’ve laid out and make it more of a cliffhanger. Maybe we can make Leslie turn the job down.” But nothing that we’d thought of really made that much sense, so what we did is we conceived of a way to throw everything into total chaos at the end of the year. And we were very much emboldened by the fact that we knew not only that A) we were coming back, but B) it was going to be 13 episodes or a shorter season, because it made us feel like we can do something this dramatic and world-changing without feeling like we might have to sustain this for six more seasons. [Laughs] Whatever this is, we can handle it for 13 episodes. We know that we don’t have 50 more episodes. It’s a move that you don’t make in season 3 of your show. It’s a move that you make when you’re like, “We’re going into the coda season and we’re going to have this fun, weird new world to play with for 13 episodes.”
The show has been known to take big risks with its stories. Does the fact that we’re three years into the future and this is now the last season mean that you might be taking even more risks than usual? Please tell me you’re not going to kill Jerry/Larry/Terry.
No, I don’t think we’re going to kill Jerry/Larry/Terry. When we talked about what it meant to jump into the future, the biggest thing to me was: Whatever we do, it has to feel like the show. We can’t be writing a science-fiction program. At this point, you think of it as a contract that you’ve signed with the viewers of the show, and if you break that contract and start presenting them something as unrecognizable or in some way isn’t what they’ve come to love about the show over, so far, 112 episodes, then what are you doing? You’re just screwing up. So we feel a little bit liberated creatively because of the leap, and I think there might be some more fun experimental stuff that we do. But it’s not going to be dream sequences and crazy flights of fancy. It’s not going to be like the Sopranos episode where Tony was in the plaza and had the dream about the talking fish. By the way, which was the best ever — I’m not saying that because I didn’t like that episode of the greatest drama of all time, but we’re a little bit liberated in terms of how we show events occurring on the show. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be 13 stories about the same characters in the same world, because I just think doing anything else would be suicide.
What excites you about the final season, storywise, knowing that it’ll take place in 2017?
I think the biggest thing is — and this is something that the writers have already started emailing about — we have the chance to put anybody anywhere we want. If we want to say that Donna (Retta) bought a 5 percent stake in the Seattle Sounders major league soccer team and is now working in their front office, we can do that. You don’t have to lay in stories where you lead up to that. You’ve jumped ahead of a lot of exposition. So we have that opportunity to blow things up a little and to put people in different places and to come up with fun ways that their lives have changed in the three years we missed. And furthermore, if we want to to go back and look at how they got there in flashbacks or in some other way — we can go backward and fill in blanks. So it’s just a kind of storytelling we’ve never done before because we’ve been following the traditional mockumentary format, and then we just gave that traditional mockumentary format a big middle finger [Laughs] and decided to do something else for the final season. We just have to make sure to use it in very measured doses and not go crazy and let things get out of control.
What odd request has Aubrey made knowing that it is the final season?
She’s been desperate to be pregnant on the show. And part of the reason I didn’t ever want to make her pregnant was because I liked that she and Andy represent the young people on the show. But now we’re jumping three years in the future, so that’s certainly a possibility. But I’m sure she’ll start pitching that she’s a zombie — that’s my guess. If I had to guess, it’ll be that she starts pitching soon that she’s an undead person walking the Earth.
How have the negotiations been going to bring back Jon Hamm for more episodes?
He’s been very busy promoting his movie Million Dollar Arm, so there’s been no contact. But I’m sure that an e-mail or a phone call will be made sometime in June or July to suss it out. He’s a great dude who loves comedy and loves Adam Scott and Amy Poehler and Aziz and Aubrey and everybody on the cast, so I’m only optimistic, because I think it’s the kind of thing that he enjoys doing. I think if he’s available and if we have something good worked out for him, he’s probably inclined to come do it. But obviously we’re very far away from having anything conceived of or written.
You told us a little about what to expect next season a few weeks ago. But is there one extra clue that you can give fans to obsess over during the long hiatus?
It’s so hard to say anything because it’s so early and we certainly haven’t committed to anything. The main thing that excites me is that we’re going to get to tell one more big, juicy story about Leslie and all of her co-workers, whom she loves so much, doing something together. It’s why the Unity Concert and the Harvest Festival and the campaign and all of these gigantic group projects where everybody is part of this big goofy team are so fun. And that’s something that [30 Rock executive producer] Rob Carlock and I have talked about: You can really do one big, juicy arced story in 13 episodes in a way that you can’t with 22. That’s what’s really exciting to me. It’s knowing that there’s going to be one more big thing — whatever it is that they’re doing, they’re going to do it together. It’s just so exciting that we have this opportunity to round up the gang one last time, you know?