Parks and Recreation is known for letting its big moments happen organically. Whether it’s the surprise wedding of lovable lug Andy Dwyer and stoic slacker April Ludgate or Ben Wyatt’s proposal to Leslie Knope, the NBC comedy has a way of introducing big character moments when viewers are conditioned to least expect them.
“I like the proposal the most out of the things that have actually aired because I’m of the belief that the most powerful weapon we have in TV these days after 60 years of sitcoms is surprise,” Parks and Recreation creator, writer and executive producer Michael Schur said during a recent call with reporters. “That’s been our goal with every relationship, really, and even every non-romantic story we’ve told on the show, we just try to be surprising to the audience. That was the idea. We’re not going to have the proposal come in a season premiere or in November sweeps or Christmas or whatever. We’re going to do it at a time that feels natural and right and take people by surprise.”
Star Amy Poehler also enjoys the pacing of the series, especially when it comes to big moments like the proposal.
“What I love about Parks is that if you care about this couple, you’ve got to see over the past couple of years so much change happen with them, and it’s really satisfying,” she said. “The show hasn’t killed us with slow expectation and will they/won’t they, which I love. I love that Parks continues to let characters change and actually have things happen. Life goes on in the world. That part is satisfying because I know Mike and the writers actually just write and then try to figure out what’s going to happen later.”
Another organic, but major, surprise took place in last week’s episode, “Emergency Response,” where Leslie (Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) decided to move their wedding up three months — to two hours after the events of the episode. They’ll get married in the first of two episodes that air tonight.
“They basically have two hours to throw it together, so everybody has their role to play,” Schur said. “Tom Haverford becomes the officiant and has to get ordained online in an hour, and Donna plays a role in that we’re, for the first time, going to feature her beautiful and professionally trained singing voice on the show.”
“It’s very beautiful,” Scott added. “We let her pick which aria she wanted to perform. That was fun. What’s really nice about it is that, basically, in the opening moments of the episode in order to pull this thing off, in classic Parks & Rec fashion, everyone has to chip in. There’s a part for everybody to play.”
Schur said that aspect was a lot of fun to write.”Every character is so strong that they kind of suggest a certain task or role that they could play,” he said. “There’s a moment early on when they’re dividing up tasks, Ben says they need rings and Chris Traeger says, ‘Oh, let me be on rings, I love what they symbolize’ with his nice Chris Traeger-y mind, and then just watching everybody rush around the town. We go to a lot of locations and everyone is rushing in and out of doors, which lends this episode this fun momentum and urgency. It was very fun to conceive of that and watch it play out. No one questions it for one second. That’s another thing that I love. They say that they’re doing this and everyone’s like, ‘OK, how do we help?’ which is a nice aspect of the show.”
While Leslie and Ben’s romance has built over the past few seasons, Schur notes the show has no intent of slowing down just because they’re finally tying the knot.
“I would say that part of the joy of the two characters and their relationship is that they have very three-dimensional lives,” he said. “They’re both very committed, not only to each other, but to their careers, but to each other and just living a full life. I think that maybe if there’s a trap you can fall into, it’s that you have to tell the story repeatedly about their relationship. That can get kind of boring, but we don’t have that problem. In fact, in the second episode [airing tonight], the cold open is Leslie and Ben coming back from their honeymoon and just talking about how much fun they had on their honeymoon. But the episode is just a regular episode of Parks & Rec. Leslie and Ben aren’t even in the same story: Ben is starting a new job, and it’s his first day at work. He’s sort of thrown into this challenge of his new job, and Leslie has an event that she’s planning for. It’s a correspondent’s dinner kind of event where the politicians roast each other and stuff. I think you’ll see right away that there’s a blueprint going forward where, yeah, they’re married now, but they also have other aspects of their lives that are very important to them. I hope and very much feel like that’s the thing that will feel like ‘the magic is gone.’ Their lives have never been about each other. That’s a huge part of their lives and they love each other and have a wonderful relationship and hopefully great marriage going forward, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on.”
Schur said the development of Ben and Leslie’s relationship goes back before Scott was even cast on Parks and Recreation, to the layout of what romantic life would be for Leslie.
“Our initial idea for Leslie is that she was going to have a series of relationships with different kinds of men in the course of the show and that she would learn something different from each of them,” he said. “She learned a little something from Mark Brendanawicz, she learned something from Louis C.K.’s character, she learned something from Justin Theroux and we thought, ‘Oh, Adam Scott. That’s good. She’ll date him for a while, and she’ll learn something about herself from him.’ It was certainly the plan to have him be the love interest.”
That plan changed with Scott’s first appearance as Ben Wyatt in the Season 2 episode “The Master Plan,” in which Scott’s interaction with Poehler as Leslie Knope was the perfect signal this would likely be the last romantic relationship the character would have.
“The idea was that he’s kind of got her number,” Schur said of Ben’s first episode. “He just kind of gets her and understands her, who she is and what her goals are. In the second episode, which was the finale that year, they have a conversation and Leslie smiles at him and walks off. There’s a shot of Adam looking after Leslie with a smile on his face. As soon as I saw that, I realized that not only were they going to get together, they were never going to break up. It became clear in that moment that this was it. It was that indescribable thing you can’t put your finger on, but when you see two actors in roles and interacting with each other it just makes sense.”
“It’s chemistry, baby,” Poehler added. “You can’t fight it!”
Scott noted he had gone back and watched “The Master Plan” fairly recently, which featured both his first appearance and that of Rob Lowe as Chris Traeger.
“Looking at Leslie and Ben in our first couple of scenes together, it really speaks to the quality of writing in the show that there’s a lot of foreshadowing of their relationship in the sense that these are two three-dimensional characters that fit together and see things in each other that no one else really sees and hit these buttons with each other right off the bat,” Scott said. “I think from the very start there was more to it than a simple will-they or won’t-they device. Married now just fits in naturally. There’s nothing to be lost by them joining together permanently.”
Looking back over the relationship of the two characters, Poehler’s favorite moment was the proposal that took audiences by surprise.
“I think the proposal was so beautifully written,” she said. “I remember us walking into Joe Biden’s office and Schur talking about how he was going back to his hotel room to write the proposal, so I remember knowing when he was writing it and getting it and nobody changed a word. I remember that day feeling very special because it was the three of us on set and Dean Holland our director. It felt like a long time coming, which was really nice. I think everyone was really happy for the characters and it was a great example of Mike’s writing, which is always a combination of really sweet and heartfelt and it felt very earned, but also just very funny. There’s a lot of that in the wedding episode.
“There’s a moment in the wedding episode that’s, to me, the perfect example of a really beautiful and sweet moment with just hard laughs,” the actress continued. “Those sharp turns are so hard to do and I think Mike does them so well.”
There are still a number of episodes to come after tonight’s double-header, and there are a number of special guest-stars in the queue, including Patton Oswalt and Saturday Night Live alum Jenny Slate, who plays Jean-Ralphio’s twin sister.
“We meet Jean-Ralphio’s twin sister pretty soon, whose name is Mona Lisa Saperstein, played by Jenny Slate,” Schur said. “I have to say that one of my favorite things to do in the world is take one of those awful people — Jean-Ralphio or Dennis Feinstein or Mona Lisa — and just put Adam Scott in scenes with them and have them act so horrifying and have Adam basically be the conscience of the show and be just absolutely blown away by how horrifying their behavior is. It’s really enjoyable to me to watch Adam in scenes with Ben Schwartz or Jenny or any of those people. It’s really delightful.”
Meanwhile, the audience and Chris Traeger found out at the end of last week’s episode that Andy’s long-running quest to become a police officer may finally have come to an end, with him failing his entry exam.
“That news is going to land on Andy on Thursday. Then, it’s the question of where does he go from here,” Schur said. “We answer that question fairly quickly. It’s a nice move for him because it taps into something deep inside him that he never would have thought to explore, but which makes perfect sense when you understand it. It’s something he has a knack for because of his big, goofy heart and his love of helping people. When we were trying to figure out what he was going to do next, we went back and looked at all the episodes from the past that have had stories with him and one of the scenes of those stories emerged, which is that he’s a big-hearted guy. We used that to dictate his next move.”
From Poehler’s perspective, there’s still so much material to be explored with the characters that she doesn’t see any dearth of stories occurring should the show get picked up for a sixth season.
“There’s so much rich stuff that we like to do and see and because Leslie’s finishing her first term as City Councilor, they’re newly married — her and Ben — and Ann is trying to have a baby, April and Andy are at that point in their lives as a young couple, ‘Well, who do we want to be and what do we want to do?'” Poehler said. “The Parks department is constantly being faced with the threat of being cut or being exterminated or being mismanaged. Ron has a new person in his life and Tom has a new business, so there’s a lot of really good stuff that the writers have done an amazing job of laying out that we have thoughts and dreams for season six. Even saying Season 6 is exciting.”
Poehler and Schur are currently writing the season finale, and Schur mentioned it was a balancing act of bringing long-running arcs to a close while laying the foundation for stories that will propel the series into the next season.
“That’s very much a part of the outline, is to tell the story of the end of this year, her first year as city councilor, wrap it up in a certain way and then also suggest a lot of interesting and fun things that would happen next year in an enticing way,” Schur said. “It’s sort of like running a football team or something. You’re developing the guys around your team, you’re drafting people for the future, it’s about both the now and the future at all times, especially on this show where there are so many storyline and so many character that warrant getting served with good stories. It’s a big, complicated, messy calculus that we’re constantly engaging in. There’s nothing more fun than coming up with ideas for these characters. I would do it forever if I could.”
Poehler, who followed her impressive run on SNL with the starring role in Parks and Recreation, said she couldn’t be happier about how the show has developed and progressed over the past five years.
“It’s surpassed my wildest expectation of how good it could be,” she said. “Honestly. Every minute, it just keeps getting better and a richer experience, certainly for me as an actor, to do. You spend a lot of time when you’re doing a single camera TV show, you spend a lot of time with the people you’re working with. It’s like your second family. I can’t imagine working on a show where you didn’t love the people you worked with that you spent so much time with — honestly, this show in many ways saved my life, enriched my life in many ways. It’s truly like a job that I’ll never have again. I’m grateful for it every minute; the fact that I get to be on something with the best cast in television and film.”
Parks and Recreation airs tonight at 8:30 ET/PT on NBC in a special one-hour event.