The American sitcom genre is one that has loaned itself to names behind the scenes that are synonymous with quality and popularity; Norman Lear, Bill Lawrence, Marta Kaufman, David Crane, Greg Daniels and, in recent years, Michael Schur.
From his beginnings as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Schur has went on to become one of American network television comedy’s most prolific and popular writers and creators, crafting work that has much to say on modern life, characters truly worth rooting for and a warm heart at their centres, even when the humour, as recently shown in The Good Place, is bitingly observational, not to mention deep.
Developing a keen interest in comedy at a young age, Schur became president of the Harvard Lampoon while attending Harvard University, the beginning of a road that took him to the hollowed offices of Saturday Night Live, where he wound up producing the famed Weekend Update segment, as well as contributing to well over a hundred episodes.
Before he joined The Office, where the wheels would eventually be put in motion for Parks and Recreation, Schur was a writer and producer on the Lisa Kudrow/HBO comedy series The Comeback, critically acclaimed but low rated and eventually cancelled after one season. The stature of the series would grow over the years and remarkably be revived for a second season nine years after its cancellation.
Not afraid to appear in front of the camera as well, a guest appearance on The OC followed, as well as a contribution to the one season wonder Miss Guided, before making his mark on The Office.
A remake of the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant BBC comedy of the same name which lasted for two seasons, the American version would last for nine seasons, lasting well beyond its Gervais equivalent. As well as writing for the series, Schur would also appear in several episodes as Mose, the cousin of Dwight (Rainn Wilson).
It was during the production of the series that talk of a spin-off began, with showrunner Greg Daniels and Schur collaborating on it. Titled Parks and Recreation, the series would in the end not be a spin-off of The Office, but would retain certain aesthetic elements, such as the documentary style format and direct to camera dialogue, but would, in the end, be an even better and stronger series than The Office.
It would know when to finish, first of all, concluding after seven seasons with an episode that must surely rank as one of the most satisfying series finales to any television series in recent memory, while giving audiences some of the best casting in any American television comedy series.
Like The Office, the series would have a shor, first season which would be critically slammed, but would vastly improve upon its second, with Schur himself admitting that the first season was made to figure out what the series shouldn’t be about. The lead character of Leslie Knope, a superb portrayal from Amy Poehler, became less of a joke and more sympathetic, while the weakest character of the ensemble, Mark Brendanowitz (Paul Schneider) would be replaced by Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. From season three onwards the series flowed brilliantly and wonderfully, making stars of much of its cast; Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, while, literally, giving Rob Lowe one of his greatest ever performances.
While Daniels co-created the series, Parks and Recreation was very much a Schur series, mixing big laughs, a good warm heart, wonderful characters, as well as an exploration of politics through a small town, some of which would become, and remain incredibly relevant in more recent times, while Schur would also direct several episodes, on top of writing them, while also having early contributions in the writersroom from Dan Goor and Chelsea Perettti.
Without a doubt one of the best comedy series of recent times, the series continued a creative fascination that has seen American television comedy embrace the single camera set up, which has seen the genre become more feature film-esque, a style of filming that Schur has continued to work with.
After Parks, Schur would, along with Dan Goor, co-create Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The series took some of the fundamental elements of Parks and applied it to a police precinct setting (a witty ensemble, low and high brow humour, good-hearted character development) and amazingly, over the course of five seasons, has carved out a niche as its own separate entity, subverting character expectations while it’s doing so; the lead character of Jake Peralta, played by Andy Samberg, looks as if he’s going to be a typical white male, immature lead but turns out to have a heart of gold, while Captain Holt, who is stern and openly gay, is never made fun of for his sexuality, and instead is utilised for humour through Andre Braugher’s amazing dead pan delivery.
One of the most consistent comedy series on television, it’s criminally underrated and should be seen by a larger audience, while it’s mixture of a brilliant cast and warm-hearted plotting and character development, makes it, like Parks, an incredibly enjoyable and fun watch. Along with Samberg and Braugher, the series has another fantastic cast, this time with Chelsea Peretti in front of the camera, along with Joe Lo Truglio, Stephanie Beatriz and Terry Crews, who nearly threatens to steal every episode along with Braugher.
For his next project, Schur would go it alone, and with it would come his most ambitious series yet. The Good Place would debut in 2017 and star Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, telling the story of Eleanor (Bell) who dies and finds herself in the good place, a heavenly after life. Due to a clerical error, Eleanor has been mistaken with someone with the same name, and given the bad things she did in life, Eleanor knows she doesn’t belong in the heavenly home she has found herself in.
Ambitious, thematically deep and mixing big comedy beats with a philosophical undercurrent, it’s basically Parks and Recreation meets Lost, as written by Samuel Beckett.
Coupled with a major end of season cliffhanger and a game changing twist at the end of its first season, the series has become one of the most unpredictable comedy series in recent memory, and what starts of as if it’s going to be another Office, or Parks, or even Brooklyn Nine-Nine set in the after life, soon becomes a comedy version of a Lost or Walking Dead, mixing cliffhangers, twists and turns and unexpected character development with ease.
It is without a doubt Schur’s most ambitious series to date and has become of the best shows currently on television.
Best of all, it retains the warm-hearted feeling of his other series. It never sacrifices heart and soul, and feels like an extension of Schur’s other projects, mixing a great cast playing great characters, engaging plots, brilliant set pieces, only this time with an abundance of imagination and gasp inducing moments.
In an era where anything goes in comedies, Schur has crafted a body of work that looks modern, but which almost harkens back to an older generation of comedy, with characters who looks after each other and care greatly. That he does it a modern way, and a manner that takes stock of modern themes such as sexuality, gender and racial equality is simply to be applauded and makes his output as creator some of the best comedy series in recent memory.
They are, literally, great shows.