For fans of the NBC sitcom "Parks & Recreation," the wait is finally over. New episodes of the Greg Daniels/Michael Schur-created series haven't aired since last May but that all changes tonight with NBC's new all-comedy Thursday night line-up. Much of the action in the first set of episodes focuses on the gung-ho Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) taking it upon herself to make a big commitment that could either keep the Parks and Rec department running for years to come or could end its existence and knock everyone out of their jobs. To find out more about what the new season has in store - including cast additions Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, the return of guest-star Megan Mullally and the state of the various office romances - our Jim Halterman chatted with cast and crew at a recent TCA Winter Press Tour set visit held in Studio City at the CBS Radford Studios.
Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson, the head of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department, was happy to share his elation at finally getting back on the air after a fall break from the NBC schedule. "The thing we've never stopped doing is producing these fantastic episodes so it was confusing. In every other way we were being rewarded by the critics and the audience for this great show we're producing and then to be off in the fall had a real sense of 'Come on! You're not going to believe what we're taping here!' We're really excited for the audience to see these episodes."
While "Parks and Recreation" already has a decent sized cast, actors Rob Lowe and Adam Scott were brought into the fold at the end of season two as auditors Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt, respectively. In terms of Lowe, who just came off a busy few years on the drama "Brothers and Sisters," it was his departure from the ABC series that made Schur think about casting him as Traeger. Schur explained, "I'm a huge 'West Wing' fan and I'd always been a fan of his and I knew he could be funny. I talked to Rob and said we had come up with this character for him and he got it instantly. Actually in the meeting, he started improvising as Chris Traeger and he was hilarious." Despite having done some comedy work in his career, was Lowe able to shift gears from drama and handle sitcom silliness? "We hoped we knew what we were getting with Rob and we got more than we'd hoped," admitted Schur. "Rob's comedy chops are going to be a big revelation to people, even people who know he can be funny from Wayne's World... even those people are going to be surprised by how funny he is."
If there were any qualms about Adam Scott gelling with the cast, Executive Story Editor Alan Yang expressed his joy at how well Scott blended in. "I've been watching some cuts and to me Adam is Magic Johnson," Yang said, excitedly. "He just makes everyone else in the scene funnier and he's making these already terrific actors like Aziz (Ansari), Chris (Pratt), Amy and Nick even funnier; it's a real talent to be able to do that." There's also more than a little spark in the works between Scott's Ben Wyatt and Poehler's Leslie, Schur teased. "You learn pretty quickly in the first couple new episodes that Ben certainly is interested and asking questions of 'what's her story?' However, Leslie's arc is that she's so wrapped up in this Harvest Festival project that she is not as receptive to it. As the season goes on, though, she becomes more aware of it and there are certainly advancements made in their relationship in a significant way."
Aside from how the new cast additions have been incorporated into the fabric of the show, an over-the-top recurring character like Ron's ex-wife Tammy (who is played by Offerman's real-life spouse, Megan Mullally and pops up again in an upcoming episode) may work better with the occasional appearance. According to Schur, Mullally's Tammy "is basically the most diabolical and evil human being alive so it might be hard to parse that out every week. I can certainly imagine doing an extended arc with her character if we could find a good story for her to be involved in more than one episode." The fact that Mullally and Offerman share a close relationship off-screen definitely benefits their on-screen antics. "Megan is perfect," said Schur, "because she draws something out of Ron Swanson - and Nick Offerman, frankly - that no one else in the world of our show can draw out of him. It's really great to have this crazy, secret weapon that we can drop in there a couple times a year. You drop that little droplet of crazy into the show and watch what happens with everybody else." Offerman added that while he and Mullally are definitely not Ron and Tammy, the acting pair clearly gets something out of playing the oil-and-water characters. "I think we play out a lot of our subconscious desires," he said. "It feels like really good therapy making Ron and Tammy episodes."
Will audiences get to meet the first Mrs. Ron Swanson, who also happens to be named Tammy and has yet to be seen on the show? "There's been a lot of pitches for it but we haven't come close to making a decision," Schur explained. "The craziest pitch was that we just get Nick Offerman to shave his moustache and put on a wig and play his own ex-wife. I don't think we'll go in that direction but we have had some suggestions that run the gamut." That said, Ron's first wife might be closer to showing up in Pawnee than we think. "There are a couple references this season made to the first Tammy Swanson and she is lingering out there this season. I don't want to spoil anything but there is a moment in the season when you kind of get the sense that she's about to show up."
As for the romantic storylines on the series, one pairing that hit a snag at the end of last season was that of Andy (Chris Pratt) and April (Aubrey Plaza). "Andy's story for the first [part of this season] is that he is trying to prove to April that he is worthy of her because Ann, his ex-girlfriend (played by Rashida Jones), kissed him in the season finale last year," recounted Schur. "He has dug a huge hole for himself and the first chunk of episodes is about him trying to dig himself out. Eventually, it's safe to say he does dig himself out in a romantic kind of knight-errant way... for them, there's a season-long arc about them and their romantic life."
Plaza, as the less-than-motivated college intern, April, said of the Andy-April coupling, "I was glad when that happened because it gave me a little bit of a motivation to be in the office and want to be there." Though tight-lipped, she did say that in terms of where the romance is going this year fans are "going to cry and laugh at the same time. I can't give away too much but I think they're going to like it."
One thing Schur and his fellow writers are certain about as the series moves forward is that mixing things up on a weekly basis is a must. "I think one of the really important things that comedy shows can do," Schur offered, "is present their audience with a lot of different kinds of episodes. You want to do small, bottle episodes that are very character-based and are just about relationships and then you want to do bigger, juicier episodes like our Harvest Festival episode (which airs March 3) and this massive production and I think you want to do some dry comedy with physical comedy, satire and romance. I hope that this show is totally consistent but giving you a different flavor of comedy each week."
"Parks & Recreation" airs Thursday nights at 9:30/8:30c on NBC.