'Parks And Recreation,' 'The Wire' And The Politics Of Pawnee
You might recall the 2008 presidential election as being particularly vitriolic and divisive. But what you may not know is that it's one of the main reasons "Parks and Recreation" exists.
"Parks and Recreation" begins its final season Tuesday, and when the acclaimed NBC comedy entered the home stretch, Michael Schur, who co-created the show and has been its showrunner since its 2009 debut, sat down to talk in depth about the overtly political roots of the Pawnee comedy.
It's not that Schur hasn't addressed the show's political nature in the past, but in an hourlong interview in his Los Angeles office late last summer, Schur talked about how he and co-creator Greg Daniels tried to be stealthy in how they characterized "Parks" when it first debuted. Initial marketing and NBC's descriptions positioned the show as a workplace comedy in the vein of "The Office" as well as a vehicle for "Saturday Night Live" star Amy Poehler. What wasn't promoted was that "Parks" sprang directly from the creators' frustration with the political process in America.
"We were very careful -- still are," Schur said. "I don't think we've ever mentioned the word Democrat or Republican [on the show]." If those labels have been used, Schur notes that those kinds of references have been rare. "Even when Leslie was running [for town council], we never said, 'She's running as a Democrat,'" Schur said.
The desire to employ a bit of spin is understandable -- after all, a show that said it was going examine the adversarial nature of the American political process would likely have been hammered by the punditocracy and held up for harsh scrutiny on cable news well before it debuted. But despite the initial caginess, it didn't take all that long for it to became apparent that the key relationship on the show was between Leslie Knope's energetic, can-do Democrat and Ron Swanson's self-sufficient, off-the-grid Libertarian. "Parks and Rec" was deliberately set up to allow both of those characters to air their views -- and to learn from each other, Schur said.
"To me, the point of it is -- people who would consider themselves very, very strongly Republican, every one of them has something about their world philosophy that you would classify as Democratic, and vice versa," Schur said. "Like, Dick Cheney. There are not many people more Republican than Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney's daughter is gay, and he has kind of come around on gay marriage a little bit. There's no one in the world whose philosophy is 100 percent one thing or the other, despite what he or she would tell you. Everybody, whether they know it or not, has some aspect of the way they look at the world that is on the other side of the aisle. That was the basis of the show."
Speaking of shows often set inside civic institutions, Schur is known to be a huge fan of "The Wire," but we also talked about how "Parks and Rec" is, on some level, a rebuttal to the great HBO drama.
Pawnee institutions are shown to be dysfunctional -- sometimes very dysfunctional indeed -- but in the previous six seasons, viewers have seen that if the people within those institutions keep plugging away, they're often able to make positive changes for their community. When "The Wire" ended, its version of Baltimore was not substantially different from the one McNulty and Bunk encountered in the show's pilot. But Pawnee and Eagleton -- and the people in those merged towns -- are in very different places as the NBC show's final season begins.
"I think that's the essence of the difference between a comedy show and a drama," Schur noted. "On some level, we have to present optimism. If the systems are really, really screwed up, which they very clearly are, it's like, we have to keep trying. We've got to keep trying, and you're going to fail a lot."
"The Wire" and "Parks and Recreation" have more than their focus on civic institutions in common. They're also ensemble stories full of distinctive characters who will be much missed when they're gone. In the interview, which has been edited and condensed here, Schur discussed what it was like to envision the endgame for "Parks and Recreation," the show's jump into the future and why his show is more of a fantasy than "Game of Thrones."
So you've built up this world and there are a lot of places you can go in the final season. Is it kind of daunting, dealing with that amount of stuff?
Yeah, I'm feeling a lot of internally generated pressure to wrap up every thing that I want to wrap up. We did a couple things at the beginning of the year that I thought were great ideas when we first got together with the writers that later I regretted. One of them was, "Let's make a list of every character who's ever been on the show and see who we want to bring back and wrap up."
The Oren wrap-up will be huge.
Oren is up there [on the list]. I thought, "OK, this will help me organize my brain -- which of these people are people we want to see one more time and have a little story with?" And there now have been 112 episodes.
So you built up this detailed world like "The Simpsons" -- but the jokes on you now that you have to wrap it up!
Absolutely, the joke's on us. It's so daunting. There are certain people -- and this doesn't mean these people will or won't be seen -- but Ron's ex-wives [including] Tammy II. She has been a very important part of the show on a number of occasions. We should really work hard to get her back in the fold at some point this year. But there have been other people who maybe haven't been as big of a deal on the show but who we just have an affection for. With only 13 episodes, it's very precious real estate, and it's hard to justify doling it out sometimes to people who maybe the writers have more of a love for than maybe the audience would, because they've only been on the show once or twice. I'm glad we did [the list], because it was a good exercise when we were trying to plan out the year, but it also makes you feel very scared that you're going to not leave everything on the field.
What is most important to you -- is it concluding the emotional arcs and career arcs of the main characters? Is that Job 1?
Yeah, that's absolutely Job 1 -- that [by the end,] it feels like they've come to some kind of conclusions in their stories. Everything else is secondary. Some of that work has been done. Leslie Knope has undergone a pretty great career transformation, and the point of that flash-forward scene at the very end of last year was to say, three more years have gone by and she's a big deal now, comparatively speaking. She's gone at Knope speed. That sort of laid the groundwork for the endgame, but also there are things that need to be wrapped up. Seeing Leslie and Ben's lives as parents in some way. And as the years went on, there was a way in which the story of this show almost seemed like April's story.
Yeah. I think the meaning of the show is in the characters finding their potential, often through each other. That's my college thesis on "Parks and Rec" -- sorry, that's really on the nose. But you know, April became responsible, Andy became more Andy-ish, Leslie moved on. It wasn't just that they reached goals and moved forward, they did it with each other's help, and through that they built a community that had meaning for them.
Absolutely. April and Andy are, in some ways, the prime examples. The story of April was that she took an internship for college credit and she got to the office late, and the only thing left was the parks and recreation department. And she did it because it was what she had to do, and her life has taken this turn, and her career has taken this turn that she never would have otherwise pursued because of Leslie driving her forward.
The traditional story of a pilot is someone's first day at work, and the person whose first day it was April's. That has been a big topic of discussion for us this year [i.e., finishing out the characters' arcs]. What we're trying to do is see the entire story of the show from everyone's perspective and say, "If this character were the main character, what would be a satisfying conclusion for his or her life?" That's a big question for April, that's a big question for Andy, who was living in a hole in the ground.
Also, Ben is a big one -- he didn't come in until the end of Season 2. He has this kind of tragic, Thomas Hardy background. If this were his story, what would be a satisfying conclusion to it? That's been the been the main work of the writers' room so far, to say, "If this person were the main character of the show, how would you land that character's run?" Our most important job is to make people who have been watching the show from the beginning feel like they get satisfying answers to the questions for every character. It's very scary.
But everyone gets hoverboards.
Of course, hoverboards and jetpacks.
This is the most important thing to me. Because it's the future.
It is the future. When we made the decision to leap forward, that was the number one rule.
There had to be jetpacks?
No, the opposite of that. No jetpacks.
That's it, I'm leaving!
[laughs] It's catnip to comedy writers, and the first scripts are coming in now. It's just so fun to write jokes about, like, [projected future] celebrity couples. "Miley Cyrus married John Stamos? How did that happen?" But we're trying to be very sparing with that stuff. The reality is that the world is going to be very different in many ways. Things change very quickly. Websites come and go, social media sites come and go. You don't want to date yourself, and you want to have fun with the premise that you've created without seeming like [you're going too far]. Starting in 2017, it won't be science fiction to watch this show, so we don't want to do something so ridiculous that it makes it seem like we were bad at predicting the future.
We introduced this company over the course of the last [season] called Gryzzl, it's a tech company. Gryzzl is going to play a role in the future. We're trying to approach it from the point of view that tech companies are a huge part of our daily lives. We don't want to ignore that, and we're trying to extrapolate based on what's happening now. We're trying to do a legitimate, honest extrapolation about what tech companies will be doing in three years instead of writing, "Everybody has a hoverboard!" [And there won't be too many flashbacks or references to the time jump]. I think the fun of skipping three years in the future is to live in the future and not have it feel like we're hedging our bet by constantly flashing back.
Is there a big overarching theme to the season, a big driver of some kind? In the past, you've had the Harvest Festival, the election, things like that.
There will be one thing like that. We're roughly breaking the season in half. The first chunk will be an arc that is sort of like those previous arcs, like the Harvest Festival. I haven't fully decided if the second half will be its own arc or whether it will just be [a series of conclusions]. They did a thing on "The West Wing" that I really loved. Instead of having a big crisis, once the election ended and Jimmy Smits' character was made president, there was a [sequence] -- "Here's what happens to all the characters." They really took their time and showed what happened to all these characters that you'd been following for such a long time. Part of me wants to do something like that, something that isn't about a big project that's work-based. It's about, here's where the characters have gotten to, six episodes from the end, then spend a little time with them and see where they end up.
I think the goal of any show where you're really invested in the characters is that you can project forward, if you want to as an audience member. You don't need to know exactly what happens. The end of the show is not going to be Leslie, her hand raised, in front of the Supreme Court Chief Justice [being sworn in as president]. You want to aim her in a certain direction and you want to be able to project forward and fill in the blanks. And that's true of everyone -- I want that for Ron and Andy and Ben and Jerry/Terry/Gary/Larry and Donna and everyone. I want you to be able to make an educated guess about what their future is.
I wanted to throw an idea at you, which is this: More than "Game of Thrones," more than "Battlestar Galactica," your show is fantasy and science fiction, because you're showing people with deeply rooted, sometimes opposite social/political/cultural beliefs finding ways to work together.
Yes, it's completely outlandish, isn't it?
It's very fantastical. "Game of Thrones" looks like a documentary by comparison.
Yeah, I think you're right. That was part of the original DNA of the show -- the show was sort of forged in the pre-Obama, '08 election, because that's when [co-creator] Greg [Daniels] and I were writing the pilot. The rhetoric was already ratcheted up to Level 11. The Tea Party hadn't happened yet, but the nation's divide was getting worse every day, and part of that was the financial crisis and the different ways that people reacted to [that], and then the way in which the government fell down hard in dealing with the financial crisis.
There was a certain amount of liberal fantasy in "The West Wing." It was like, this was what you'd hope your president would be like, and this is what you'd hope the president's staff would be like, if you were a Democrat. The point of view of ["Parks and Rec"] was more of an American fantasy, which was like, "Wouldn't it be nice if the most hardcore, 19th Century Libertarian who lives in a cabin in the woods and only buys gold and likes to hunt and eat meat and drink whiskey and that's it, and has no interest in social collectives in any way, could be in many ways be very close friends but at least have a very deep and abiding respect and admiration for a person who is 100 percent in favor of the government's active role in people's lives?"
That was it. It was like, we're going to create people with completely polar opposite viewpoints and show that they can disagree strenuously on every single aspect of the way the world should function and still like each other, speak to each other in a respectful manner, collaborate on certain issues, teach each other certain things about the other's point of view that are actually real and logical and make sense and are practical and function. Really, that was it. It was, can we function as a country when we're heading toward these opposite ends of the spectrum?
Could you really be overt when you were pitching that to, say, the media? Would [that overt political premise] have made the show too charged out of the gate?
Yes. 100 percent. We were very careful -- still are. I don't think we've ever mentioned the word Democrat or Republican.
You have in interviews.
I guess I've [used the words Democrat and Libertarian in interviews], but I don't know if the characters have. They might have. But even when Leslie was running, we never said, "She's running as a Democrat" or something.
To me, the point of it is -- people who would consider themselves very, very strongly Republican, every one of them has something about their world philosophy that you would classify as Democratic, and vice versa. Like, Dick Cheney. There are not many people more Republican than Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney's daughter is gay and he has kind of come around on gay marriage a little bit. There's no one in the world, there really isn't, whose philosophy is 100 percent one thing or the other, despite what he or she would tell you. Everybody, whether they know it or not, has some aspect of the way they look at the world that is on the other side of the aisle. That was the basis of the show.
Leslie, who tends to lean left, is going to have moments in episodes where she realizes that it's really important that there's a functional and thriving business economy and that sacrifices sometimes need to be made to support businesses. And Ron, who wants to be completely left alone and hide out in the woods and go hunting and eat steak, is going to realize that there are important government institutions. When we wanted to have him get married, it was important that the woman he married have kids, because when you have kids, it changes the way you look at the world.
You can't be off the grid.
You can't be off the grid and you have different responsibilities, and your kids are being educated, often by people who work for the government. It doesn't mean that Ron isn't still a Libertarian -- he certainly is. All of the characters should be continuously being exposed to new things and to other people's opinions. That's really the fantasy aspect of the show, to me, because now, we're in this echo chamber where both sides of the political debate read and listen only to people who are re-affirming their opinions.
I believe that if there were just more discussion, if senators would eat dinner with each other the way they used to, if congressmen would stop yelling and stop being scared about primary challenges from people who are more conservative or more liberal than they are, the government would function better. That's the American fantasy of the show -- that people who are strongly on either side of the aisle would be open and respectful of other people's opinions.
What you could say about the show is that it's not a fantasy of what you wish would happen, but perhaps an idealized depiction of what often does happen and what we need to be reminded of -- that the level of divisiveness and vitriol on the national stage -- you can't live that way. For most people, we don't have the option of not dealing with other people.
Right. I think that's the difference between politics at the local level and politics at the national level. At the local level, it seems more plausible that people who live in the same town and have breakfast together and see each other at the same stores and whose kids go to the same schools would [have to deal with each other]. It's just about mingling and having contact with other people who have different opinions. When it's really abstract and there's so much power and money at stake -- the risk for a Republican senator right now to agree with a single thing the president does or that a Democratic senator does is too great. Then you get Eric Cantor and you're booted out of office.
I think many politicians on both sides in the last four or six years eight years have campaigned with promises and with opinions that they don't actually have -- they just have to [say those things]. I think John McCain, for example, said and did a lot of stuff that he doesn't actually believe when he was running for president because he felt like had to play to shore up his base. That's not a new thing but it's now intense now than I think it's ever been.
Do you ever worry about actual politicians you've had on your show -- you've had Michelle Obama, Joe Biden. Was McCain on the show?
McCain was on the show. [Ed. note: And he will return this season.]
Do you ever worry that the show will be seen as too liberal or too tilted to one side?
I do, yeah. That's why we assiduously chased Republicans as well as Democrats when we went to Washington. That's why Olympia Snowe, who's a Republican, was on the show; that's why McCain was on the show. Newt Gingrich was on the show. That was a big deal. And that comes directly from my time writing Weekend Update [on "Saturday Night Live"]. Lorne Michaels has this very, very smart philosophy for Weekend Update, which is, you attack the people who are in power. The show's position, which was forged in the post-Watergate '70s, is, "We are irreverent and we attack and we don't trust anyone." Whoever is running the show is in trouble from us and takes heat. His opinion is, and I think he's right, if the show seems like it's leaning one way or the other, then it loses its credibility as a satirical entity.
Without Ron, Leslie spirals off into crazy town. Without Leslie, Ron is a weird hermit. It's about the balance of the two of them -- that's the core of the show and always has been.
But ultimately, I would argue that Ron is more co-opted by Leslie's beliefs than she by his.
I think that's probably true, yes. I think that on balance, she's won more arguments than he has. But we did an episode in which the video store closed down. It was about the fact that when the government meddles too much in private enterprise, things can go haywire. That's always been Ron's point and in that case, he was absolutely right. She did something that she thought was a public service, but when the government gets involved too closely with specific businesses and tries to direct them, bad things can happen.
We've also tried to do episodes like that, where we've shown the other side. I personally am more on Leslie's side than I'm on Ron's side, but there's a lot of what Ron says and does that really appeals to me. His attitude is admirable, and that's partly because he can really back it up. Ron is one of the only people who can live the way he says people should live.
I find that, in my personal life, when I've met people who have Ron's point of view, who have a purely Libertarian point of view, many of them -- I'm like, "That person would be fine." Many of the Libertarians I know are extremely intelligent and extremely successful and extremely high-functioning people. And I totally get that they have the opinion that they do. They are people who don't need the kinds of social services they are railing against.
My personal opinion is that if you are an Ivy League-educated, extremely successful business person, and you want to live that way, that's fine. But most people aren't that, and most people don't have that luxury. But it's a very big country and it's important for us to show all of the different points of view that are out there.
I think it's about people making each other think. People can choose to live in a bubble where they don't think, or they can talk to or listen to (via social media and all that) people who challenge their points of view. I'm not one of the people who thinks there's too much outrage online. If the things people are saying get under your skin, maybe you should think about why that is.
I agree. All of this stuff is an opt-in system. If you get outraged about things on Twitter, stop reading Twitter. Nobody's forcing you to do that. To me, Twitter's just a radio station that's playing people's opinions 24-7. There's a lot of ways to use Twitter and the way I use it is, I try to follow people I think may be presenting certain opinions, and sometimes I don't look at it for a week. Sometimes I look at it for breaking news. But it's all opt-in. I don't have to look.
I'm still trying to process the fact that you got a show about politics on the air. It's [a premise] that people could have been screaming about on cable TV…
Honestly, a lot of that is due to [co-creator] Greg Daniels, because Greg was the one who was asked to do a new show and he asked me to do it with him. It was a moment in time when "The Office" was such a big deal that it was like, "Whatever you want to do." That doesn't happen very often, especially in network TV, so much of that credit goes to him -- us being able to do a show about what is, by network TV standards, a pretty eccentric idea.
The credit to it staying on the air mostly goes to the cast. Every time the debate [about canceling the show] came up internally, I would bet a big part of the debate was, "We've got Amy Poehler under contract. Are you insane?" Then I would imagine it spread to, "We have Nick Offerman. We have Aziz Ansari. We have Chris Pratt." The cast was so strong and the work they were doing was so good. We sort of hung on by the skin of our teeth for a long time. But Amy had to be as good as she was for as long as she was for that to happen.
I think last time we talked, we talked about "The Wire." I know how much you love "The Wire," but it seems like your show is kind of a direct countering of that narrative. I don't think "The Wire" ever said that individuals can't make a difference, but it kind of said that institutions and societies are inherently unable to get their acts together and make positive change on a larger basis. Your show is making a counterargument. Do you think that's fair?
Yeah, absolutely. "The Wire" was about calcified systems that were impenetrable from any angle and any time any one teacher or cop or anybody tried to break through, it was like, no, you just keep hitting walls everywhere you go. There's nothing you can do. The really bold, revolutionary plans, like Hamsterdam -- "Oh, look at how nice all these corners are, and little old ladies are out sweeping their stoops and there are flowers growing in pots and stuff!" Then you cut immediately to hell on Earth.
There's a certain amount of bad stuff in every system, and you can collect it all in one place, or you can spread it out all over the city evenly, but it's always there. This is the comedy-show equivalent of that, which is to say, those systems are screwed up and calcified and they beat you down, but the comedy version of that is, if you just keep plugging away and you work hard and you are tireless and you sleep three hours a night, [a difference can be made].
One of first character details we locked down for Leslie was that she slept four hours a night. Some of that came from just writing the stories we were writing -- how would she have time to do all these things? She sleeps four hours a night -- from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. But yeah, it's a slight fantasy, that one person can effect change at the level that she does.
You've changed the characters and the town and people's careers. If you look back, Season 1 is a very different scenario -- there have been big leaps.
Yes, and the towns merged [Eagleton and Pawnee]. I think that's the essence of the difference between a comedy show and a drama. On some level, we have to present optimism. If the systems are really, really screwed up, which they very clearly are, it's like, we have to keep trying. We've got to keep trying, and you're going to fail a lot.
We put a detail in, at the end of Season 5, I think, that the town was the fourth most obese town in America, and we dropped in that it went from fourth to ninth. That's not amazing, but it's better, and it's because everyone was trying really hard. That's the engine of the show, or the underlying message of the show -- it's better to try than to not try at all. The people who are kind of heroes in the show, and who I think are heroes in society, are the people who are like, "Yeah, it's pretty bleak. Got to keep trying."
It's interesting -- if you talk to David Simon, I think he takes that position as well.
Yeah. Jimmy McNulty kept trying to solve crimes. He kept trying to take down the bad guys. The worst moment in Jimmy McNulty's life in the show was in Season 3 when -- spoiler alert -- he was standing over Stringer's body. He said, "I had him, I had him. He never knew I had him."
What he wanted was the satisfaction of seeing on the bad guy's face that he didn't get away with it. Stringer being dead gave him no pleasure or joy at all. Showing up at a bad guy's house and saying, "I got you and here's the proof" and saying, "I win, the good guys win" -- [Simon] totally takes that position, I would argue.
"Parks and Recreation" airs two episodes 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on NBC.
An expanded version of the interview with Schur is available on the Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.