A couple of weeks ago, I noted that New Girl had evolved into such an ensemble comedy that it would be just fine during Zooey Deschanel’s six-episode maternity leave. So far, we’ve had two episodes – both of them, like the last few with Deschanel, filmed immediately after production on last season wrapped, so the show could get them done before they lost the star for a while – just featuring the remaining castmembers (plus guests like Fred Armisen, Bill Burr, and Lennon Parham), but the remainder of Deschanel’s absence will revolve around the introduction of a temporary addition to the loft: Reagan, a pharmaceutical sales rep played by Megan Fox.
Fox has some comedy on her resume, so it’s not a complete surprise that she works out quite well in the two episodes I’ve seen with her. But it’s a significant change in the show’s usual dynamics, since Reagan is tough and poised where Jess is a sentimental goofball, and I wanted to talk with New Girl creator Liz Meriwether about that new dynamic, and about weathering the familiar sitcom ritual of working around a pregnant actress(*).
(*) For a very different (and amusing) approach, see all the ways Brooklyn Nine-Nineis not trying to disguise Melissa Fumero’s pregnancy.
Along the way, we also talked about the state of the show at this stage of its creative life, Damon Wayans Jr’s exit (and whether we might be seeing either Coach or Reagan again), and more.
Where were you in production last season when Zooey told you she was pregnant?
Liz Meriwether: I feel like it was right after the new year. I have no idea what we were shooting. I feel like we maybe just shot “Oregon,” but then it was just figuring out what that was going to mean, and how that was going to affect the next year and all of that.
Beyond, obviously, being excited for her that she was going to have a baby!
TV shows have taken many approaches over the years to dealing with pregnant actresses. How did you decide on this one?
Liz Meriwether: We didn’t have enough big potted plants on our set that we could just have her stand behind plants. There was pretty much no talk of her actually being pregnant on the show. It was just, how are we going to get her off the show in a way that felt relatively organic? We talked about her maybe going back to Oregon to be back with her family. What was difficult was that it just didn’t feel plausible that she wouldn’t be in contact with them, that she wouldn’t be emailing and calling. We wondered if we should bank a bunch of generic Jess advice phone calls. And then we had this idea of sequestering her, because they live in LA and it’s the kind of place where they have high-profile cases. What really sold us on the idea, honestly, was just the idea of Jess in a jury sketch. At the end of the day, it just came down to us really laughing about that. And I had just had jury duty as well. So I was coming off of having to take a week off of work for a DUI case, so that’s part of where we ended up.
Parks and Rec also stayed in production a bit longer when Amy Poehler was pregnant, but they stayed shut down until she was ready to return. Was that ever an option for you, or was it not going to be logistically feasible?
Liz Meriwether: It was all a crazy thing with no one knowing when we were coming back. The decision that we were coming back for midseason was made in May after we had already banked episodes. Then we had to figure out a whole new plan. It definitely kept us on the edge of our seats. (laughs) Just balancing what Zooey needed with what the network needed, and just trying to figure out how long we could plausibly
It’s funny to think about how much the show has changed since the pilot, because back then, the show was so much about Jess, it would have been inconceivable that you could make even one episode without her, let alone six.
Liz Meriwether: I know! I mean, I was terrified. I really didn’t know what we were going to do. The episode that I directed (“No Girl”), that was our 26th episode that we’d broken and shot last year, and we were all at the end of our ability to work. And I think actually being that tired helped us not deal with the anxiety of what we were going to do. We embraced the chaos of it, and you can see that in the episode. Like, what does this mean? We don’t have time to think it through, we’re just going to go with comedy and just try to make it as funny as possible and use it as an opportunity to bring some different people into the loft. But what’s happened is really amazing, which is that all of our cast is so strong, and Hannah (Simone) and Lamorne (Morris) forming this friendship on the show has been great. It’s been an interesting way of shaking things up in the fifth season. We’re forced to bring characters together that haven’t always been in stories together. It’s actually been this blessing in disguise, letting us breathe a little bit of new life into the show. It’s kind of fun.
Was there any thought given to the idea that you had these four characters who were really well-established-
Liz Meriwether: It was that we were also losing Damon and Zooey at that moment. Going from 6 to 4.
But with the four you had, you knew them and the actors so well, was there any thought given to just doing the Zooey-less episodes with them, and not bringing in all these other guest stars?
Liz Meriwether: I think those were the stories that came out. We didn’t set out to do that. I think both of the A-stories in 504 and 505 probably could have been a B-story in a Jess episode.
And how did Megan wind up doing this arc?
Liz Meriwether: I don’t actually remember all the details, but just generally, when it became six episodes that Zooey was going to be gone, we liked the idea of bringing in another roommate. And then were was a lot of conversation about what that character was going to be and how that character could help us with the arc of the season that we were talking about. The idea of a woman who is very different from Jess sparked our interest. (Jake) Kasdan had worked with Megan Fox on Friends with Kids and really liked her, and that was how her name started to be discussed. But there was a lot of conversation about if there is going to be a fifth roommate, what do we need in that role?
Temperamentally, Reagan’s pretty much the opposite of Jess, and you’ve put a lot of your personality into Jess. How was it writing for such a different character?
Liz Meriwether: I think I’m a weird mix of Jess and Nick, actually. (laughs) But, yeah, it was really fun. Obviously, none of us would have wanted to bring in a character who was exactly like Jess, and what was fun was bringing in this tough-talking woman who comes into a room and owns it, and immediately reads every person in the room. That was a really fun character to write. In a show that has so many neurotic, broken beta characters, it’s always fun to bring in a character who’s really confident in themselves. That’s what had been fun with Damon (Wayans)’ character when it was working on the show. That energy from Megan was great. And also in the fifth season to have someone new come in who didn’t have a ton of history with the group and could see through some of their bullshit, and call them on stuff, was also a really fun dynamic for us.
Megan’s done comedy before, but it’s usually in the context of “Ohmigod, she’s so hot and men don’t know how to be around her.” You for the most part did other things with her.
Liz Meriwether: We obviously did a little of that, because Jake (Johnson) is just so funny in those situations, being very awkward with women. But what I really love with what we did with her character is I hope we gave Megan Fox a chance to play a more fully-fleshed character. Not to say anything bad about anything she’s done before, but give her a chance to do something that falls a little different. And there are no robots or turtles in these episodes.
She’s very good in the two episodes I’ve seen. Were you surprised at all by that?
Liz Meriwether: She’s so good! I wasn’t surprised, because I knew how good she was going into it, but we’ve been doing more than 100 episodes, been together for five years, everyone knows each other’s rhythms, and it’s a very weird, specific group of people on the show. I was worried about how this would work, but she was just amazing, and her comedic rhythms fit in with the group in a really cool way. She’s so dry, she can just destroy you with just a look. Which was great, because we have a lot of characters who are big and loud and talk a lot, and she doesn’t say a ton, but is very pointed when she does talk. I think she’s great on the show, and I really think she’s funny in a cool way. Which was exciting for me.
Do Reagan and Jess interact, or is she gone by the time Jess returns from jury duty?
Liz Meriwether: Our 100th episode, they overlap with one episode.
You have a cameo in Megan’s first episode, and you’ve turned your costume into your Twitter avatar. How did that come about?
Liz Meriwether: Well, there was a lot of discussion of me being the fifth roommate, and then we ultimately decided on Megan Fox.(laughs) No, that character came out of a network note after the table read. We’d already done some casting on the episode, and in the room, somebody said, “It’d be funny if you played this.” I sort of threw my hat into the ring. The wardrobe was in my office late one night, and I was like, “Oh, no, what have I done?” I had to choose my own wardrobe, which is sort of self-flagellating But then I made it my avatar, so I don’t know. Jake kept pushing me on. He wouldn’t let me just enter the scene, he would push me onto the hallway, so I’d keep messing up the takes, and all the camera guys were rolling their eyes. But I felt like I deserved it, I guess.
In terms of the size of the cast, did Damon’s exit help in any way, just in terms of the number of characters to service?
Liz Meriwether: We definitely could have kept going with him. We loved having him on the show. But there was a moment of panic of going from 6 characters to 4, how is that going to feel. Maybe because that’s the kind of writer I am, or my skill level at breaking stories, but there was some kind of relief of only having 4 characters. There was something nice about, “Okay, there’s an A-story and a B-story, and there’s only two characters in each story.” It also allowed us to flesh out a little bit more what was going on with those characters in the story. At some of our low moments in the third and fourth season, there was a lot going on, and that’s always the difficulty with network comedy, because you only have 21 minutes. It’s amazing what Modern Family can do. I sometimes think six might be too many characters, at least for what I can do. But I think he was an amazing addition to the show, and so funny, and we’re hopefully going to have him back for the finale this year. We’re really excited to have him back.
Is there a chance Megan might return, or is she gone from their lives forever?
Liz Meriwether: Yeah. We’re definitely sorting that out. We’re in the process of breaking the last three episodes as we speak. We’re trying to figure out her coming back. We did leave it open, and I think it’s a real possibility.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org