Already contending with the temporary absence of Chris Pratt, who stars as lovably oafish Andy Dwyer, who took on a role in a Marvel film, the show will endure more permanent truancies. Rashida Jones, who plays Leslie's BFF Ann Perkins, and Rob Lowe, who joined the series in the second season as excessively optimistic Chris Traeger, will depart in the middle of the season.
"Storytelling-wise it was sort of a perfect storm of a lot of things coming to a head," says Lowe, who was originally tapped to do eight episodes. His deal was up, and Jones was looking to focus on other projects. "This show did something really special for me. I mean, the amount of people who come up to me on the street and say 'Pooping my pants' or point to me and say 'Ann Perkins' is insane."
Their departure, centered on their decision to conceive a baby, is a slow-burn story line this season — the episode The Times sat in on saw Leslie struggling with the news by making abandonment jabs aimed at Ann. "Ann and Leslie are handling it all as well as Rashida and Amy are handling it," Jones says. "Leslie is in denial, she's angry. She's in the stages of grief. I like that the writers are letting the audience and the actors go through this together."
Its crossroads don't stop there. The show is no longer a spring chicken. This season it will celebrate its 100th episode. It's a sensitive time when a series typically shows its age. The numbers have demonstrated that little by little, season after season. The series, a favorite among young viewers attracted to the meta comedy style, drew just a 1.2 rating among the 18-34 demographic last season, according to Nielsen.
It's maturing pains make it all the more trying that Schur and fellow "Parks" executive producer Dan Goor have a new comedy out this fall — "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" on another network (Fox).
Focus hasn't slipped, the producers assure. Goor is more heavily involved with the day-to-day running of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Schur splits his time between the two. It helps that both shows are just a golf cart ride away from each other on the Radford lot.
"They've set up such a crazy factory here that if Mike is spending a lot of time away, I haven't noticed," says Ansari.
Plus Poehler is always there. Rather than chase after a movie career post-"Saturday Night Live," she sought sturdier ground in TV much in the way Tina Fey found an afterlife in "30 Rock." The 42-year-old comedian's passion and focus on the show are palpable. Midway through scenes and after, Poehler, who serves as a producer, firmly suggests which jokes should be cut or what cadence to take on a particular line.
Poehler received her fourth Emmy nomination in the lead actress in a comedy series category for "Parks and Recreation," with no win under her belt. This year she's up against Lena Dunham ("Girls"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Veep"), Tina Fey ("30 Rock"), Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie") and Laura Dern ("Enlightened").
She'll write that speech before she'll comment on how her "little weird child" is now the last one standing on Thursday nights. She instead bears in mind the journey of getting here.
"I remember that anxiety of being at the bottom of show mountain," she recalls, sitting near the craft service table. "When we just had two or three episodes down, I was going crazy. I could hear the knives sharpening and everyone ready to give a very quick opinion of a show — recaps and Twitter have made it terrifying to be out there. But that's part of the demented reason we're all in this business. We like to sweat."
Maybe some recreation is finally in order.