2020 was marked by stress, boredom and uncertainty, and a constant search for an at-home remedy to alleviate the anxieties that follow a global pandemic, civil unrest, and all the other gems that came with the year. We baked bread, we cut our own hair, and we binge-watched a lot of TV. When revisiting old favorites to seek comfort, few shows succeed in being as satisfying as those that come from the mind of Michael Schur.
Mike Schur has had his hands in some of the most iconic sitcoms of the past 15 years. Schur was a co-creator of Parks and Recreation,and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and creator of The Good Place. He also produced and wrote for The Office, even making a few on-screen appearances as Dwight’s cousin Mose. Within all these widely-loved shows, we can see common denominators: great jokes, a lot of heart, and an underlying thesis that people always have the potential to grow to be better, and that change comes from the relationships that define us.
While the American The Office comes from the mind of Greg Daniels, who would later co-create Parks and Rec with Schur, the episodes that Schur wrote early in the show’s run offer insight to certain common tropes that run across his work. “Office Olympics” is memorably an example of the gleeful antics that make workplace comedies so damn fun to watch, and it’s not hard to imagine it as a precedent to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jimmy Jab Games. “Office Olympics” doesn’t just act as a one-note break from regular office proceedings—it serves an important role in hinting at Jim’s potential to move from the sarcastic office joker to someone with ambition and drive. What’s more, it develops Jim and Pam’s relationship by narrating this realization through Pam’s eyes as she says in a confessional that “The thing about Jim is when he’s excited about something, like the Office Olympics, he gets really into it and he does a really great job. But the problem with Jim is that he works here, so that hardly ever happens.”
Schur has another great contribution to the Jim and Pam lore in “Christmas Party.” The episode is full of the true-to-Office form cringe comedy that’s notably missing from most of the writer’s other work, but it introduces the teapot and famous card that doesn’t appear again until the series’ penultimate episode. Schur’s work is full of some of the best-developed TV romances in recent memory: Andy and April, Leslie and Ben, Jake and Amy, and—of course—Jason and all-knowing humanoid database Janet.
Parks and Recreation was originally pitched as a spin-off of The Office, but ultimately became its own comedy powerhouse. While the show is full of countless gem episodes throughout its seven-season run, it truly hit its stride in season three with the addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as Chris and Ben. “Flu Season” is one of those episodes that serves as a catalogue of everything that makes Parks and Rec great, with stellar comedic performances by Lowe and Amy Poehler as their characters are delirious with the flu. Some important relationship foundations are also built over the course of this episode: April and Andy have to get past their rocky start as the show leaves the Anne/Andy storyline in the past, and Ben continues to let some of his uptight sensibilities go as his admiration for Leslie grows.
At the heart of this episode is the show’s absurd levels of optimism about government work and life in general. When its characters, in spite of their differences, work hard together towards a common goal, they will unwaveringly succeed. While at times this can be a bit too predictable, it’s what makes the show so satisfying. It’s easy to put cynicism away when experiencing the catharsis of an episode like “Harvest Festival,” not to mention its addition of the show’s best and cutest running gag, Li’l Sebastian.
If Parks and Rec felt too steadfastly positive, Schur’s next move with Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems to take a step towards reality—that is, as far into reality as a show with Andy Samberg as the lead could allow. Co-created by Schur and Dan Goor, one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s most memorable episodes is season four’s “Moo Moo,” when Terry is racially profiled by another officer while out of uniform. The episode still finds room for humor in Jake and Amy’s floundering to answer hard-hitting questions from Terry’s daughters, but even as the show tackles the difficult realities of institutionalized racism it serves to progress the emotional maturation of its characters. Holt is originally reluctant to allow Terry to file a report against the officer for fear of retaliation, but when challenged by Terry realizes that he has risen through the ranks to help solve issues happening in the present. Even while making heartfelt commentary about changing the system from within, Holt continues to move away from season one’s cold and rigid boss afraid of blowing his promotion. By this time, Holt is transformed into a father figure whose primary goal is supporting those around him. The family dynamic of the Nine-Nine is always in its best form when supporting one of its own, whether that be in the form of life-threatening situations, Halloween heists, or putting together a last-minute wedding.
A step away from the workplace comedy, The Good Place takes the underlying current of what makes Schur’s previous shows work and throws them front and center. The Good Place is incredibly bold to focus on philosophical questions of right and wrong in the context of a sitcom: What makes a person good or bad? Are we born that way, or is it possible to become a better person? The answer has been building throughout Schur’s entire body of work—yes, of course we can become better, and we achieve that by helping each other be better. Some of Schur’s best work was the season one finale “Michael’s Gambit,” when Eleanor reveals the big twist of the show’s first season: the characters have been in the Bad Place all along. She comes to this conclusion by realizing that herself, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are “four people perfectly suited to making each other miserable.” Yet throughout the show’s four-season run, the characters transform from apathetic (or, in the case of Chidi, arrestingly sympathetic) narcissists to thoughtful and selfless people who go above and beyond to fix the afterlife’s institution to save humanity. They even manage to turn actual demon Michael into a leading force of good and humanize Janet while becoming an undividable family.
Ultimately a standout of Schur’s work is that it’s just as fun to finish a Michael Schur series as it is to start it. Among his finished creations, there isn’t a single series whose finale doesn’t stand as one of the best episodes in the show’s run. They consistently allow us to look back and admire how much our favorite characters have grown, they let us feel good about the state of our favorite relationships, and assure us that everything within the universe of the show will be alright. While not everyone likes their endings wrapped up with a little bow, there is always comfort in revisiting a series that relentlessly insists that everything will work out okay. In a time like the one we find ourselves in today, that message can’t come often enough.