‘New Girl’ creator Liz Meriwether on Nick and Jess, Schmidt’s choice, and the fun of season 2

“New Girl” was one of my favorite comedies on TV in 2012 (as I’ve said, if I had to make my top 10 list even a week later, it would’ve made the cut). It was actually even better in 2013, as a romance that I once was dreading when the show began hinting at it instead became the magnetic center of a series that had been satisfying but often uneven. I reviewed the season finale here, and I spoke with “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether about how the show really found itself thanks to the Jess/Nick relationship, whether she feels they’ve solved Winston yet, what she’d like to do in season 3, and more, all coming up just as soon as the plan is to drop a badger on a priest…

It certainly seemed for a lot of the finale, you were ramping up to Nick and Jess deciding that this wasn’t going to work. Instead, they uncall it, they kiss, they ride off into the sunset together. Why did you decide to go that way, and how much debate was there with the other writers about which way to go at the end of the season?

Liz Meriwether: Just endless debate. I think we were talking about every aspect of it, up until the last second. It’s something that we’ve been talking about a lot. There’s a lot of debate about different versions of it. We had the whole thing broken, and then the network gave us an extra episode. So we had to rebreak everything after we got the extra episode, doing 25 this season instead of 24 definitely threw a wrench into what we’d been planning. The big point of contention was should we end the season on them sleeping together for the first time, which is what happens at the end of “Virgins”: just the 30 second shot of the two of them in bed after the fact. Or do we keep going past that? Obviously, we decided to keep going past it. The conversation was that ending it on having sex for the first time and the morning after felt a little more familiar, and we wanted to see if we could push past it and get to some deeper problems that they have; not just the shock value of them having slept together. I’m hoping that the end of the finale, as an audience member, you’re walking away not necessarily feeling like they’re riding off into the sunset, but jumping into something that is potentially ill-advised. That they haven’t really dealt with all of their issues, but they’re kind of making this leap because they feel really strongly about each other, but there are still a lot of conflicts there. I think that’s what we felt about the last moment. But, yes, it’s definitely happier than if they’d called it. We really wanted to leave it open, because we feel, in a good way, like anything can happen between them. So we wanted to go into season 3 with as many options as we could come up with.

There’s this belief among some of your counterparts at other shows that putting together the couple that has unresolved sexual tension is creative death for the show. There’s other people who insist that’s ridiculous, “Cheers” put Sam and Diane together at the end of the first season, etc. At any point over the course of the season, since the entire season was building up to this, was there any concern from you, from the network, from anybody, that “Oh God, if we do this, it’s going to kill the show”?

Liz Meriwether: Yeah. I think I was the most worried of anybody, actually. I just care so much about those characters and their relationship so much, and obviously care about the show. I was very worried. I was just constantly pulling out my hair and talking it over with anybody who would listen. I feel like holding back on them having sex together: as soon as they kissed in episode 15, we’d end at episode 25, it felt slightly insane and also not truthful to have them not sleep together in that amount of time, especially because the kiss was so intense and hot. It felt like, they live together; why aren’t they sleeping together? I do think that bringing people together in that way doesn’t end story; it begins story a lot of the time. I just feel like everything between them has been deepened this season. I don’t think that goes away next season. It keeps getting deeper, and if they let each other down, then they let each other down that much more, because they’ve had that experience together. I don’t have a crystal ball, but going into next season, I feel they’re really about to get into it with each other one way or the other. There’s an intensity of emotion that we haven’t really explored between them. I think there’s also definitely some funny stuff about how mismatched they are that we haven’t really explored. The two of them trying to be a couple; I can’t imagine that necessarily going very well.

The funny thing is, I was really not in favor of them getting together, not because I believe it kills shows, but because for a long time I just didn’t see the sparks between them. And then they kissed at the end of “Cooler,” and I said, ‘Oh boy, that was really good,’ and then you rolled off this string of episodes where you were doing such a good job of writing the interactions with them that I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to shut up and trust them that they know what they’re doing here.’With that run of episodes from “Cooler” on, what were you doing that made it as good as it was?

Liz Meriwether: I think after “Cooler,” I checked in with the show, and all the writers did. The first half of the season we were searching for a center for the show. I think it felt a little at sea, and having them kiss, everybody just clicked in. Everyone knew what we were doing, and there was more focus, and every episode had this added weight to it and this added subtext. And it made funny ideas funnier and emotional ideas more emotional just added this spark to everything. That’s the kind of stuff I love to write, and sometimes when I try on other hats, like the “I Love Lucy” hat or whatever that is, I think I falter as a writer. It was kind of a good reminder for me about what I can do. I just love writing about relationships, and so it brought a lot of joy back into the show for me. I think we were also just trying to be honest to these characters. Anytime that we felt like we were playing with the audience or doing something for “TV reasons,” we tried to stop ourselves from doing that.

The other big romantic development from the finale is Cece’s wedding falling apart and Schmidt having to choose between Cece and Elizabeth. You went into this episode where both Schmidt and Cece both had partners you’d gone to some lengths to establish as sympathetic. How did you try to attack that going in so we wouldn’t necessarily come out of the finale hating either one of them because of what wound up happening?

Liz Meriwether: I think everybody, myself included, was feeling that obviously Schmidt is in love with Cece. That’s what we had been thinking. That was our only plan. And then somebody in the writer’s room had this idea that he starts dating an ex-girlfriend. At first, I was very skeptical. It felt late in the season to introduce that kind of thing, and I also didn’t believe that we could ever create a character who would genuinely compete with Cece for Schmidt’s affection. It’s like Schmidt says: If he’s a squirrel, Cece’s his nut. He’s just never going to stop trying for her. I was very skeptical. And then this character of Elizabeth developed. I completely started buying it and just loved what it did for Schmidt; it opened up this whole other aspect of his character. To me, it suddenly became very believable that there’s somebody else claiming his heart. I was surprised that it worked out. Obviously, there’s definitely something between Cece and Schmidt that hasn’t been resolved. I genuinely have no idea what we’re going to do in season 3. Something’s gonna happen!

Once you saw what Merritt Wever was doing with that character, was there any part of you that worried that maybe he shouldn’t be busting up the wedding now, because people are going to like Elizabeth and hate him for doing it?

Liz Meriwether: Yeah, but I like that. To me, that’s real conflict. He’s still Schmidt; he’s still going to want to mess up her wedding. but as an audience member, you’re not seeing the ending. You’re not just watching a character do something that you thought he was going to do from the second he heard Cece was getting married. There’s a genuine conundrum there for him. Merritt brought so much to that character. She’s so filled with heart and so funny. You just believe that she can stand up to him and doesn’t take any of his crap. I think she’s a fantastic actress. If we’d had anybody else in that part, I don’t know if it would’ve worked.

Showtime hasn’t technically renewed “Nurse Jackie” yet. Do you have any idea what her availability might be if you wanted to keep using her for a while next year?

Liz Meriwether: I would love to keep using her. I have no idea about her schedule. I think we all would love to keep using her for sure.

In this second season, do you think you have solved the Winston Riddle?

Liz Meriwether: Did we solve it, or did it just get more complicated? I think we went into this season thinking that we could figure out his character more than we have. On the other hand, we’ve done some really cool things with him this season. I think that people have gotten more and more pro-Winston and passionate about us getting our act together and figuring out his character. Which means Lamorne (Morris) is doing a great job. We’ve been hearing very enthusiastic requests to work on his character. This season, we were figuring out a lot about the show and our process, and we had this huge central development with the Nick and Jess relationship, and other things got on the backburner. I really look forward in the coming season to figuring out stuff for him that’s compelling and interesting and deep. But that being said, I feel like he was hilarious this season with so many of the things we gave him. And they were often the most random, out there ideas. He just nailed them. He did an entire episode with a cranberry in his ear. I think in the finale when he’s up in the ducts with a badger; we threw crazy shit at him, and he delivered every time. Every episode, we learn more and more about what we want to do with him, and hopefully that continues into season 3. I think we need to find a great love story for him, is my feeling.

How much does the romance tend to drive the comedy? Because some of the other characters have these ongoing romances, it becomes easier for them to step to the fore, where Winston hasn’t; even though he had a couple of long-term girlfriends this season, they weren’t the most successful relationships.

Liz Meriwether: This show does have a lot of relationship-driven stories, so having a character who isn’t in a relationship that has a ton of weight to it pushes that character more to the sideline. So I’m hoping I can fix that next season. But it’s kind of refreshing; I thought in the finale you could see that Schmidt and Nick and Jess are embroiled in these relationship dramas and he gets to be purely funny. I think that’s important, too: having a character who’s just holding up the comedic side of things. I think he’s done that really well for us.

You said before that you spent a lot of the season learning things about your show and how it worked. What were you learning?

Liz Meriwether: Like I said, having that kiss happen in “Cooler” really focused us. At the beginning of the season, there was a sense that we were throwing things against the wall a little bit. Tonally, it felt slightly all over the map. Sometimes, in a good way. Sometimes, we discovered, “Ohmigosh, we can do a murder mystery sort of episode,” like “Pepperwood.” I think there were some things that were surprising: “Okay, our characters can do this, which we never thought they could.” But I felt like I learned that the heart of the show is these emotional, character-driven stories. Whether it’s about relationships or not, I think our show is better when we’re not doing things for comedy’s sake; when we’re grounding what we’re doing in the real world and the reality of these character’s lives. You would think that would be obvious, but it kind of took us a minute to figure that out.

You mentioned “Pepperwood,” which is a fairly out-there episode. You’ve done other things like in “Bathtub” where Jess and Winston fake the robbery. You’ve gone to crazy places at times, and then at other times it’s a very human-scale show, and you have to balance the emotion with going for laughs. Having seen how successful the second half of the season was, what are the outer limits of crazy you think the show should go?

Liz Meriwether: I don’t know. That’s something that I’m asking myself a lot, and trying to figure out a way in my head to know when we’ve gone too far. Sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling that you listen to and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes the schedule and the craziness of making a television show makes you go, “Okay, I don’t have time to analyze whether it’s too broad or not. We just have to put an episode of television on the air.” I think that I’m just praying to the showrunner gods that I’m going to get better and better at having a sense for what the tone of the show is. I think we’re on a path to settling into something. Like I said, sometimes when we really go off the path, we find great things. It definitely isn’t the kind of show that has a formula. For better or worse, I think you genuinely don’t know what you’re getting week to week. I think there’s something fun that we can do a bunch of different things on the show. I just would like all of the things that we do to be good. That’s the struggle.

Jess spent part of the year unemployed, then part in this adult ed teaching job that she didn’t like. And then last week she seems on the verge of getting a job working with Curtis Armstrong and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Do you feel like you got enough value out of Jess being in this bad place in her life for much of the year? Or did you ultimately decide that having her working with kids was a better arena for her?

Liz Meriwether: I wouldn’t say that that was a part of the season that we really aced. We definitely struggled to find stories that we liked in the workplace for all the characters. Jess has been challenging, because as Brett (Baer) and Dave (Finkel) will tell you, one of the first rules of improv is never do a teaching scene, because teaching scenes are where comedy goes to die. We struggle with how we make teaching stories funny. I think that is something that we really need to figure out for next season: her workplace and creating an environment to generate story that the audience likes to go to. Part of the struggle of

“Pepperwood” is we knew we wanted an episode that took place in her new job, and were just really banging our heads against the wall trying to do something that felt fun as opposed to, “Am I a good teacher, am I not a good teacher?,” and suddenly we were doing “Dangerous Minds” and didn’t mean to do that. And we potentially overcorrected with “Pepperwood.” We started off season 2 really excited about the idea that she was getting fired and her work was up in the air, and then we found that the show just isn’t a show about the workplace; it’s a show about these friends and this loft. It wasn’t exciting us to leave behind all the other characters in the loft. So I don’t know. I kind of wish that we’d done all that stuff better this season. But we really liked working with Curtis Armstrong and that particular school, the kids are a little older than where we started off in season one, and she was really funny with older kids. So I think we might be going back to that school next year.

Finally, I want to ask about Jess’ sexuality this season, because she seemed more confident and enthusiastic about it, even if she was still weird, whereas there were times in season 1 when sex was something she could barely even talk about without giggling. Can you talk about writing a slightly more adult Jess, both in and out of the bedroom?

Liz Meriwether: We didn’t really tlak about it in terms of adult and juvenile. I think we talked about it in terms of flaws and making mistakes. We went into season 2 really wanting her to make bold choices that were sometimes wrong. We felt like in season 1, she didn’t mess up enough. Season 2, we wanted to make sure that she was screwing things up enough. I think that’s kind of where you find the heart of the characters sometimes, and all the things they do wrong. And also it’s just funny seeing someone make stupid decisions. That was definitely a focus for us. So this season, she jumped into things a little bit more. The whole Sam relationship was out of her character, and she went for it. I think that was really good for her – to see her be more confident and also wrong. And with her sexuality, this is a tough question for me because I, I don’t know – I feel like that that episode “Naked” that aired in the first season got a lot of attention because people saw us infantilizing her and the fact that she couldn’t say the word “penis.” I just thought it was an episode about a girl who thinks some aspects of sex are funny, and obviously it didn’t translate that way. So I’ve never seen her as a character who is a child about sex. She’s just awkward with it. But that’s probably my five cents.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com