10:00am PT by Lesley Goldberg
'Parks,' 'Parenthood,' 'Men' Bosses Open Up About the Art of Crafting a Series Finale
NBC on Tuesday becomes the latest network to bid farewell to one of its long-running series when it says farewell to cult comedy Parks and Recreation with an hourlong episode that was co-written by showrunner Mike Schur and star Amy Poehler.
The 2014-15 broadcast season has been punctuated by a number of series to close up shops as broadcast favorites including Two and a Half Men, The Mentalist, Parenthood and Glee were among cable counterparts Boardwalk Empire, Justified and Mad Men to get the benefit of a final curtain call.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunners Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men), Schur (Parks and Rec), Jason Katims (Parenthood) and Bruno Heller (The Mentalist) to discuss the varying challenges that come with crafting a satisfying series finale.
Honoring the ensemble
With a large ensemble, Parenthood's Katims says the biggest challenge was making sure everyone in NBC's family drama had a fitting moment to wrap up its six-season run.
"It's tough when you have that many people to try to make sure everybody has their moment," Katims (Friday Night Lights) says."You want them to have that — it's the last episode both for the actors and for the audience. It's network television, it all has to fit into 42 minutes. That was the most challenging thing. In terms of the actual stories and what the stories were going to be, we were so clearly leading up to it that the roadmap that I had when I started writing that episode was so clear. It wasn't, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?'"
Adds exec producer Watson of the final season, which explored mortality with Braverman patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson): "We knew what we were leading up to but the actual last image, we knew several weeks into breaking the season. When we figured that out, I was just like, 'Drop the mic; nailed it.' " The final scene featured a flash forward to update viewers on where many of the Bravermans were and included a happy ending for Amber as well as Camille making her way to France for the trip her late husband had wanted to take her on. "This is the ending that the show deserves. It felt right and it clicked right into place and I knew we were on a good path," Watson said of the process.
To kill or not to kill?
For The Mentalist's Heller, meanwhile, ending CBS' veteran procedural discussed killing off series star Simon Baker's Patrick Jane but opted to go with a happier ending: a wedding and baby. "Simon said, 'Oh, we should kill him or something like that' because that was always the secret to the character — the lightness overcoming the darkness and sometimes the dark overpowering the light," Heller said of capping the show's seven-season run. "But ultimately, it's really a thank you and last dance for the audience. You so rarely get a chance on network TV to know that when you know this is the last episode. We'd come to the end of the story so to be able to end it with a bow as opposed to a hurried off-stage bump …"
Read more 'The Mentalist' Series Finale Postmortem
Like Schur did with Poehler, Heller worked at great length with Baker and the rest of the writing staff on the two-hour series finale that ultimately couldn't just focus on the wedding but had to have its procedural element.
"You can't have no crime; it can't be just our characters saying goodbye. It's a crime procedural and there's a mystery and there's a crime to be solved but at the same time, it needs to have the lightness of a happy farewell," Heller noted. "Combining the two things so the dark side of the story wasn't too dark and the light side wasn't too Pollyannaish was the challenge. The end made me tear up a little — and I don't cry at my own shows."
The trick, Heller said, was to not overshadow the happy ending. "When you're saying goodbye to someone, you want to feel the emotion of saying goodbye to them, not how clever they were; or that's not what I expected," he said. "You don't want someone to say goodbye and then kick you in the pants as they go."
Is it good enough?
For Schur, the process of crafting a satisfying series finale included a lot of second-guessing. The veteran showrunner had become well-versed in crafting season finales that could have doubled as series enders after the NBC comedy spent the bulk of its seven-season run on the bubble.
"All the biggest challenges were internally generated," he said. "When Amy and I were writing it, my feeling was always is this good enough? Is this the right last line for Ron (Nick Offerman); is this the best possible way to go for Donna's (Rhetta) story?"
The series finale also comes after a season that took place in the year 2017 as Parks ended its sixth season with a three-year time jump in an episode that was so satisfying it really could have been its final episode.
"I love these characters and I really hope I am doing them justice. It's a big episode and we are taking a big swing," Schur teased. "It's very appropriate for the show but it's not just like a normal episode. We are taking a swing but that doesn't worry me if people don't like the swing we take that's OK with me. I was only worried about playing proper a mission to the characters; that's the only thing I cared about."
Servicing two shows in one
For Lorre, the end of CBS' Two and a Half Men ultimately became about servicing two vastly different shows — one with Ashton Kutcher and the other, with embattled star Charlie Sheen — as well as the off-screen headlines that the series became known for late in its run.
"The show has been many things over 12 years; it's really two shows if you think about it. There were eight years with Charlie Sheen and four years with Ashton Kutcher. They're very different — a different energy and dynamic," Lorre previously told THR. The show, for better or worse, has a great deal of scandal attached to it. There's no getting away from it. It's part of the DNA of the show. I wanted the finale to take it all in and not ignore any of those elements."
And it did: Even though he was never seen on-screen — save for an animated incarnation — Sheen's presence loomed large over the Men finale as his character, Charlie Harper, was revealed to have been alive the whole time. The episode included scores of wink and a nod moments and dialogue that eluded to Sheen as well as Angus T. Jones' off-screen headlines and concluded its journey with a "winning" exit: finally killing Charlie Harper with a falling piano, and Lorre himself suffering the same fate in the final frame of the comedy.
The Parks series finale airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC. Stay tuned to THR's The Live Feed for a postmortem with Schur.
Amber Dowling contributed to this report.