Parks and Rec, The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place – creator Mike Schur has become a titan of the television sitcom. Jordan Hamel explains exactly how he did it.
Mike Schur is a name you may not know, but you almost certainly know his work. His shows are the family-sized pepperoni pizza of network television, the pinnacle of comfort television, except you don’t feel as sweaty and greasy after them. He’s the creator of some of the most successful sitcoms this side of Friends, including The Office (US), Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn 99 and The Good Place. He’s the man behind many pillars of 21st century network comedy and also many hungover TV binges.
Recently Schur turned his back on potential offers from Netflix and other streaming giants to sign a $25 million deal with Universal Television. For a comedy showrunner, that’s some serious fuck you money. That’s some ‘make whatever show you want with whoever you want just don’t leave us because we need you’ kind of money.
So why did Universal decide to give this guy a Scrooge McDuck style pool of money to swim around in? Because he’s found the secret recipe for creating widely accessible, rewatchable shows that continue to be seen and loved – and make money – long after the series ends.
Rewatchability is an abstract and subjective concept, but however you slice it, there must be some overarching common thread that keeps us going back to the same shows instead of trying out that new sci-fi anthology your friend Ben is always going on about. After years of ‘research’ watching Schur’s shows, I’ve developed a few thoughts about what make them so successful.
He discovers new talent
Sitcoms are often launch pads for acting careers, but Schur’s shows have collectively unearthed a ridiculous number of today’s stars. Chris Pratt went from the lovable, doughy Andy in Parks & Rec to a washboard-ab Adonis responsible for carrying two major Hollywood franchises, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Chelsea Peretti became one of the biggest names in comedy off the back of her role in Brooklyn 99 as Gina, who is as much a mood as she is character.
Jameela Jamil went from UK TV-presenter obscurity (that’s her in the video above) to playing Tahani, the epitome of privilege (and Princess Diana’s goddaughter) in The Good Place. Now Jamil is a global star with a sideline in roasting Twitter users who promote bullshit nutrition trends and toxic body image messages.
Whatever show he’s in, Jason Mantzoukas essentially plays the same character: a loud, lovable, unhinged wildcard. In The Good Place, he’s Derek, a nonhuman being with a set of wind chimes where his genitals should be. Despite the fact he only appears sporadically, I love Derek and would burn down Universal Studios if anything happened to him, his relentless positivity or windchime cock.
Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero as Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago are the heart of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Playing two diametrically opposite characters, their hilarious and nuanced performances highlight the severe lack of latinx representation in mainstream television and film. These two deserve to be in every major movie franchise for the next 50 years.
Schur’s ability to to identify new talent and put them in positions to flourish in front of global audiences is impressive as hell. If the acting talent doesn’t shine, the shows don’t shine.
He uses old talent in new ways
Schur’s also been pretty good at nailing his leading roles. Amy Poehler was born to play eternally optimistic and do-good Leslie Knope, just as Andy Samberg was born to play man-child with daddy issues Jake Peralta. But a show’s quality and legacy goes beyond the leads; it’s about the entire roster (sports reference!).
Schur’s shows always have a deep bench (sports reference again!) filled with gems of inspired casting. Old man Ted Danson as an eternal demon? Yes please. Danson gets to have so much fun with his Good Place character, wildly swaying from malicious, to incompetent, to empathetic, often all in the same episode. This was the role post-Cheers Danson was born to play.
What about weirdly youthful, weirdly sexy Rob Lowe as neurotic bureaucrat Chris Traeger in Parks and Rec? His introduction alongside Adam Scott (Ben Wyatt) in the latter seasons ramped the show up to new levels of sustainable absurdity. Traeger’s increasingly co-dependent and obsessive relationship with therapy remains one of the show’s most bleakly relatable tropes.
Then there’s character actor Andre Braugher as a gruff, robotic, openly gay police captain on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Whack the cuffs on me and lock me up daddy, I’ve never wanted the approval of a fictional character more desperately than Captain Raymond Holt’s. His gradual embrace of the father figure role is so goddamn endearing and makes for some of the show’s more sentimental moments.
It says a lot that these actors could reignite or repurpose their careers on the back of sitcom roles, when they’re finally given the chance to flex in a way they hadn’t previously.
And speaking of flexing…
His characters have depth
Mike Schur’s shows make a concerted effort to give the cast space to develop distinct identities for their characters and then explore the more unexpected aspects of them. The character arcs in Schur’s show fluctuate in a more human, real way than in most American sitcoms, in which every experience seems to be an opportunity for ‘learning’ and ‘growth’.
Schur’s expert ability to suppress and accentuate character flaws and quirks throughout a series (and not in a Big Bang Theory ‘hey look, nerds!’ kind of way) gives his shows a special kind of fluidity. Having such a deep bench of complex, interesting characters means the possibilities are near-endless when it comes to new character combinations and unexpected storylines.
He plays with genre
While Schur’s premises aren’t exactly groundbreaking – workplace comedy, local government workplace comedy, police station workplace comedy – his shows manage to slowly alter viewers’ expectations. They subvert common tropes, leaning into the grounded elements of these constructed universes rather than keeping them in a vacuum.
Here’s an example. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a comedy about a American police force, a potentially problematic setting for a TV show in 2019. However, while the show is by no means at the vanguard of addressing societal issues on screen, it doesn’t shy away from the serious real-world issues confronting police forces, both in the US and worldwide. Systemic racism, sexism and homophobia are addressed by the show’s PoC and LGBTQIA+ characters and while it’s not for me to say whether Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s representation is enough or appropriate, it does try.
Likewise, Lesley Knope’s sisyphean struggle against systemic mediocrity and bureaucracy in Parks and Rec is somehow both depressing and uplifting. It might be a heightened setting, but her experiences have the ring of truth. Having grown up in a small town where mob mentality and resistance to change were common, and worked as a cog in the poorly-oiled engine that is the New Zealand public service, Parks and Rec hits me right in my soul every time.
They’re just fun shows, okay?
At the end of the day, Schur’s shows just seem to hit a collective sweet spot. You can choose to engage with these shows on the level you want, an ideal situation considering how many people use television as background noise, or watch with one eye while they scroll Instagram to make sure their exes haven’t gotten hotter.
Schur’s shows are both optimistic and relatable, often tempered with a cynicism that feels more and more relevant (the common theme of season three of The Good Place is that there’s no ethical consumption under late stage capitalism and I am here for it, Comrade Schur). They find a way to give viewers that flood of endorphins we all crave in our more delicate times while still treating us as sentient adults who are capable of deep thoughts and strong opinions.
The television landscape is changing as streaming services increasingly compete with Netflix for world domination. As these companies grow more and more thirsty, the demand for showrunners who can consistently create quality original content is at an all time high. The likes of Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Sam Esmail have all recently received enormous deals, as media companies bet on their ability to become their flagship TV voices.
Universal Television has made that bet with Mike Schur: he’s the rock upon which the production company’s comedy content will continue to be built for years to come. He already has two new shows under the deal, the first of which, Abby’s, is on Lightbox now. I for one will be watching, with a prosecco hangover, an order from Uber Eats and two litres of chocolate milk, excited to see what comes next in the extended Schurniverse.