[WARNING: This story contains major spoilers from Thursday's season finale of Parks and Recreation. Read at your own risk!]
Parks and Recreation has become very adept at surprise storytelling. Case in point: Thursday's season finale jumped ahead three years to find Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) working in the National Parks office, which had moved to Pawnee City Hall's vacant and refurbished third floor.
The final minute of the finale disoriented viewers — and not just because Leslie Knope had bangs. Our small-town bureaucrat had turned into a fast-paced boss dealing with some sort of media lockdown, canceling a trip to South Dakota and firing an employee named Ed (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) who was even more inept than Jerry Terry (Jim O'Heir). Leslie also had a group of people waiting for her downstairs in Ben's (Adam Scott) office to discuss something so important that the parents of three were willing to be late to Ben's big night — all mysteries which were set up for the upcoming seventh and likely final season of the NBC comedy.
What does this all mean for the show? TVGuide.com caught up with executive producer Mike Schur to get the scoop:
The season finale really felt like a series finale. Why did you guys decide to jump ahead three years?
Mike Schur: That's partly why. We didn't want to have an episode that felt like there were no questions left unanswered. We had this episode broken out and were careening headlong into a couple big things — Tom's restaurant opening, the Unity concert — and we had a meeting with NBC and were given some pretty significant insurances that this was not the end. So we had the choice of either quickly undoing everything that we had been working toward for the entire year, or figuring out a way to make it exciting heading into Season 7, and we went with the latter choice. We talked about Leslie actually moving to Chicago to take this job, we talked about a bunch of stuff, but the thing that seemed like the most fun and interesting and creatively exciting was to jump ahead in time.
How I Met Your Mother did a similar big change for the show's final season that ended up being pretty polarizing. Did that make you nervous when making this decision?
Schur: No, not at all. ... We try never to do anything or not do anything based on anything any other show has done. We just try to figure out what's good for us. As far as polarizing goes, so far it seems — from what I've heard, because I try to stay off the internet when the show airs — that people like it or at least think it's an interesting choice. We knew there would be people who don't like it and don't want it to happen. That's OK. Polarizing isn't always bad. It means that people care and as long as people care, then you're doing something right.
Speaking of polarizing: Leslie's bangs!
Schur: That was Poehler's decision, which I thought was really cool. That was Amy's pitch, that she would have a totally different hairstyle.
How different is Leslie in 2017 because she seemed very harried.
Schur: You know there's a thing about goldfish that they grow to meet the size of the bowl they're in? Part of the idea of seeing her in that capacity is that the little goldfish is in a bigger bowl now. She's a very capable person and she's very smart and she's on the ball. The idea was that if she's being put in a bigger bowl, she's not going to swim down and hide next to the color pebbles. She's going to expand to meet the size of the challenge. Obviously, she's being faced with bigger challenges. She's Leslie Knope, so without changing the essence and core of who she is as a person who's very empathetic and cares a great deal about her friends and people she works with, she's got a more important job and a bigger atmosphere.
It was important to us in that moment when she fires Jon Hamm — we had this idea that we would try to get someone like Jon and we actually ended up getting Jon — we thought it was a funny joke as a little wink to the time jump that part of what we just fast-forwarded through was three years of Jon Hamm being on the show. But he says, "Thank you for the literally hundreds of opportunities you've given me." It was important to us that he say something like that because you don't want to think that she's become some kind of callous, unfeeling person who just runs around firing people. She hired this guy, he was a total screw up, she gave him so many chances to improve himself and she finally hit her breaking point. It was important to us to know that she hadn't changed the essence of who she was.
Could we see flashbacks to the three years we missed and maybe see Jon Hamm again?
Schur: Yes, we are reserving the right to pop back through time that we missed to see certain things and how different characters got to where they are. If the stars align, I would certainly imagine that we would try to see another glimpse of Jon Hamm and his very unimpressive career in the National Parks service.
What about flash forwards?
Schur: Part of the fun of doing this is that we've established a new baseline for the reality of the show. I don't have any specific plans at this exact moment to do that, but it's nice to keep the audience guessing and keep them off balance and know that we could do that if we wanted to. There's been some amendments to the contract that we signed with our viewers and those amendments allow us a little more flexibility and freedom as to what we show and why.
How will you guys play with the fact that it is 2017 on the show? Could Hillary Clinton be in office as President?
Schur: There's a lot of decisions that we have to make about that. Do we get into that stuff? How much do we know about the world we're in? That's obviously a huge question going past the 2016 elections and Leslie having a job at the Department of the Interior. We have a lot of questions that we have to answer about what the political landscape is, the social landscape and the cultural landscape. Tom frequently references very, very recent hip-hop songs and artists. That will be less directly possible when we're in the future. The first rule that I laid down to the writing staff was if we do this, no hoverboards or jetpacks! No one is allowed to pitch a storyline about how everyone flies around on jetpacks. It's not going to be a weird, dystopian Blade Runner universe or anything like that. It's very gently science fiction.
How much longer can you feasibly keep Leslie Knope in Pawnee with her level of ambition?
Schur: Obviously that was the big question. She was lucky and she found a loophole. Thanks to Ron's craftsmanship and refurbishing the third floor, he gave her the idea that there was actually a way. This newly merged town with a larger tax space and a fun, new larger size gave her the idea. This is a town that is on the way up now. It would be good for the National Parks Service to move its office here. ... She's bursting at the seams, and she's been bursting for a while now in terms of who she is, what she wants to accomplish in her life and where she lives. That will certainly continue to be a question going forward.
There were a few major hints in the final moment, including the meeting downstairs, the media lockdown, Andy's broken arm and South Dakota. How much of these things will you actually address next season or were they just devices to disorient the viewers?
Schur: A big part of it was taking these neat and tidy papers that we've organized over the years and throw them up in the air and scatter them. Those questions need to be answered. What's happening? Who are these people waiting for her? Why is Ben in a tuxedo? Why did Larry change his name again? I don't know that all of them will be answered, but the big ones certainly have to be and will be when we come back.
Was Jamm (Jon Glaser) trying to throw a succession rally something you will touch upon again?
Schur: No, the point of that was that he was trying to throw his own version of what Leslie and her team had put together. The best he could do was that he maybe had the bass player for a Warrant cover band. The strong implication there was that he was not able to pull off what Leslie and the team had pulled off with voting in the other direction, so that's probably over for Jamm.
Is it safe to assume that Ben being dressed up has to do with the board game Cones of Dunshire?
Schur: There [are] certainly hints about the Cones of Dunshire being a thing that matters in his life, but Ben's also an ambitious guy. He has a lot of mobility in his life. He has dreams and hopes, so I don't think it's going to necessarily definitely be that or anything involving Cones of Dunshire, but he does own the copyright to it and it does seem to be taking off in a small part of Silicon Valley when the first part of the show ends, so that's at least out there as a possibility.
With everything being on a national level, how much will greater Pawnee still play a role in Leslie's stories?
Schur: She still lives there and we still have our set. That's the simplest way to put it. There's going to be some overlap and some dealings with the Parks Department, but at the same time, that's not her job anymore. We really wanted to show her in that talking head at the end of the episode when she's cleaning up her office to show the fact that she has moved on. That's not her office anymore. It's never going to be her office again. She's never going back to work in the Parks Department in Pawnee, Indiana.
What role will Ben and Leslie's kids play on the show?
Schur: They're a part of their life and obviously there's no way to never reference the main character of three kids, but at the same time, this isn't a family show. It's a workplace show and the show is always going to focus on Leslie's professional life. It just now has the added layer that waiting for her at home are three toddlers. We're not going to just pretend they don't exist.
Are you looking at next season as the show's last?
Schur: I don't know definitively at this exact moment. We're all looking at it that we can see the finish line somewhere in the distance. The fact that we're going into the seventh season, which is an incredible fact that I still can't really believe, the end is in a future that we can see at this point. Part of the reason that we could feel like we could make a creative jump like this is because the show isn't going to be on for five more years. This is certainly part of the end game.
With that in mind, will the original park come into play?
Schur: Yeah, it will have been 10 years essentially since Leslie first walked around that pit and decided to turn it into a park. All of the canon and the history of the show is going to be up for grabs in terms of what we show and what we don't. Because that was the instigating incident for the entire show, I would be personally surprised if we didn't in some way deal with that next year.
What did you think of the Parks and Recreation finale?