‘New Girl’ creator looks back: ‘You win some, you lose some’

Senior Television Writer
09.09.14 46 Comments

FOX

I usually oppose the convention wisdom that says that bringing couples together ruins sitcoms, but even I couldn’t ignore a coupling’s devastating recent impact on one of my favorite sitcoms. Season 2 of “New Girl,” which was mostly devoted to the flirtation between Zooey Descanel’s Jess and Jake Johnson’s Nick, was at times the best comedy on television. Season 3 of “New Girl,” in which Jess and Nick were a firmly-established couple, was an absolute mess, until finally creator Liz Meriwether and her writers hit the eject button on the whole idea and had the relationship fall apart in the space of an episode.

Now, Jess and Nick being together – and fighting almost constantly over issues that weren’t a big deal when they were just roommates with the benefit of chemistry – wasn’t the only problem with season 3. There was also the decision to make Schmidt be pure evil, and the struggle to re-integrate Coach into the group more than two years after Damon Wayans Jr. had to go back to “Happy Endings” following the filming of the “New Girl” pilot. It was a season where far and away the most successful and consistent idea was the decision to make Lamorne Morris’ Winston into an absolute lunatic.

But the writers’ inability to write funny Jess/Nick storylines was easily the biggest problem, and a couple of months ago, Meriwether candidly tweeted:

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At FOX’s press tour party in July, I sat down with Meriwether for a few minutes to talk about the specific challenges she faced in writing for that couple – and why she doesn’t think the show is done with them yet – about the unlikely success of Crazy Winston, the unfortunate failure of Evil Schmidt, the return of Coach, and more.

Also, for what it’s worth: I’ve seen the fourth season premiere (which airs a week from tonight, Tuesday, September 16 at 9 p.m.), and it is both very strong and illustrative of what Meriwether talks about below regarding her desire to simplify the storytelling and simply let her funny characters be funny. I’m not ready to declare the show fixed just yet, but it’s a very promising first step.

At what point in the doing of season 3 did you realize that you weren’t necessarily happy with (Jess and Nick) together?

Liz Meriwether: It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy. We were just having a lot of trouble with story. What I love about Nick is what a fucking idiot he is. It’s hard when you have Jess, who is this lovable girl. It was fun when she was flirting with this fucking idiot she lived with, but when they were dating, suddenly everything got so much more real. It was like, “Maybe Jess is dating an alcoholic, and it’s not funny?” Early on, there was a lot of bad response to the episode where Jess went through Nick’s box of bills he hadn’t paid. I loved it, but that was when we realized that the conflict that we used to be able to do was so much harsher now that they were a couple, and not just roommates who were flirting. That was tricky. We couldn’t push the envelope as much as we wanted to. We were pulling our punches a little bit, trying to make it fun and believable that they were in love with each other, and not that they had serious issues. That was the hardest thing. I love going there with Nick, that he’s so flawed, and it was just more awkward that he’s dating Jess.

It’s an interesting shift in the evolution of the show. In the pilot, it’s “Why would this guy ever want to date this crazy woman?” And now it’s entirely reversed.

Liz Meriwether: I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but it’s definitely reversed. But it’s tricky having a couple on a show. It really limits what you can do with them as characters. It felt like we had to see them together in every episode, and that limited Nick from going off on his own and having stories. We put them together too much. They were in every story together, and there was fatigue of the two of them together. For me, the heart of the show has always been Nick and Jess, and it will always be Nick and Jess, and I don’t think this is the end for them. This season, we’re rebuilding the relationship. All my favorite movies, like “His Girl Friday,” have exes in them. It’s a fun relationship to explore, because you kind of hate the person and you’re kind of still in love with them, and you know too much information.

In terms of crazy people, you finally settled on a characterization for Winston this year, and it’s that he’s an insane person.

Liz Meriwether: It’s so funny, because my dad is the number one Winston fan. I get a Winston report after every episode from him. I’m like, “Dad, there are so many other characters!” And he says, “Here’s where I felt Winston was really great tonight.”

But I don’t think (Winston)’s a totally insane person. I think he’s both extremes. When he gives advice, it’s always the best advice. He’s the most reasonable in terms of having a perspective on whatever the other guys are doing, but then he’s a complete crazy person in other ways. And it was really really fun. Because comedically, we were struggling with the Nick and Jess relationship, a lot of our comedy energy in the writers room was going to Winston. It was like we could do anything with him, and so we did. That’s a good thing that came out of last season. I love his character, people are constantly pitching for him: “And he’s going to be a cop this year? Ridiculous!”

It took you two years to settle on an approach for Winston, and right when you did, Coach comes back.

Liz Meriwether: I think that actually helped. Initially, their characters were the same: both former basketball players. I think Jess’s birthday episode crystallized for me that Winston is the nerdy younger brother of Damon’s confident guy. That also really helped develop Winston for us as a nerd, in addition to a crazy guy. For too long, we tried to make him confident and cocky, and I love Lamorne, but it’s just not him. We really embraced him as this.

What was it like to have two years with the other characters to develop them past the pilot, and you have Coach, who in the pilot just shouts? And that’s funny, but it’s not necessarily a character at the level of the ones on the show he was returning to.

Liz Meriwether: There were definitely some days after we knew that Damon was coming back where we would say, “Well, what do we know about Coach?” And I’m like, “He shouts! Man, I don’t know.” It’s hard. We’re still trying to develop Coach’s character. It’s exciting, because Damon is so amazing and we were glad to have him back, but it’s hard when everyone else is so familiar to start a new character and develop him. He’s really, honestly, so funny that you can put him into any story with any character. He’s one of those actors who brings the best out of everybody he’s in a scene with. I loved him and Jess this year, they’re an odd couple: he’s so intense but can’t talk to women, and she’s really girly.

Certainly, you don’t want to turn down the chance to have Damon on your show. But it’s a show where you’re already juggling time for characters, and now you have to make room for one more.

Liz Meriwether: One of the big things we decided going into this year was to really simplify the storytelling. I feel like when we got into trouble last year, we were often biting off more than we could chew. And at 21 minutes, it was impossible to not slash and burn in editing: whole storylines would get cut. In my head, I was like, “Oh, ‘Modern Family’ has six characters and they do three different stories, so it’ll all work out.” But it’s a different show. So this year, we’re really focusing on telling simple stories and letting them improv, and having fun with the central story and not trying to service every character. And that’s turning out to be a lot more fun in the writers room. The problem was, in every episode, we were trying to service six people, and we’re not that kind of show. We like to do long riffs and tangents and things that make no sense. When you have to stay on story, it eliminates a lot of the comedy stuff.

Early in the season, Schmidt turned evil. Late in the season, Schmidt turned broke. What were you doing with Schmidt this year?

Liz Meriwether: You know, you win some, you lose some. (laughs) Obviously, Max (Greenfield) is the kind of actor where we literally gave him everything this past year, and he did such a great job with it. He kept that character going through a lot of weird things we were trying out. I think it was the third year, and we were like, “Let’s do something totally different!” But the thing you learn about sitcoms is that people don’t necessarily want something totally different. They want to see the character that they love. And the truth is, once we went there, we didn’t really know who he was either. So this year, the focus is really having him return to the Schmidt that we love, and keeping him grounded, and letting him be a douchebag and be confident. One of the things that I love about his character is that he always has a take on everything, and he always has a plan and an agenda. I want to go back to that. He’s confident, often for no reason, and I think that’s what we lost a little last year. We took a really big swing early in the year to have him dating both of the women, and there was a lot of negative feedback, and we tried to buy it back… I don’t know. You make some mistakes. That was definitely a mistake.

Was taking the money away just to get him back in the loft?

Liz Meriwether: Yes. Obviously, it’s a show about roommates. For a while, they should all be in the same loft. In the future, it makes sense if a couple of them move out, but it’s fun if they’re in this confined space together. The fun thing this year – at least I think it’ll be fun for a while – is Nick and Schmidt live in the same bedroom together, which I think is really funny. They’re going to have to deal with that stuff.

Getting back to the notion of couples, Schmidt and Cece is something you’ve gone back and forth with. Usually it ends, and it ends ugly.

Liz Meriwether: I think this is going to be a big year for them. For me, I love Nick and Jess, but I really loved Schmidt and Cece. I think they’re just sexy together. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s a big focus for us this year to get them back together.

Well, you’ve talked about the difficulty in writing Nick and Jess as a couple. Is it different if it’s both supporting characters and these two extremes being put together, as opposed to slightly more grounded characters?

Liz Meriwether: I think it has been easier in the past when we’ve had them together. They have such a contentious relationship anyway, so there’s already conflict baked in. They’re also both so beautiful, it’s just really fun to watch them. I really like them together, and I think they bring out the best in each other.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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