Tonight’s New Girl was the end of season six. It could also be the end of the series, since Fox has yet to cut a renewal deal with its sister studio. As a result, New Girl showrunners Dave Finkel and Brett Baer had to put together an episode that would satisfy the hang-out comedy’s fans if it was the last one ever, but that would offer up enough story possibilities in the event they come back for more.
(Spoilers coming.) This was a big maturing year for the show’s characters. Schmidt and Cece bought a house, moved out of the loft, and found out in the finale that Cece is pregnant. Winston and Aly got engaged, and Winston reached out to his long-absent father. Schmidt’s first name was finally revealed to also be Winston, which is why everyone calls him Schmidt. Nick’s Pepperwood Chronicles novel turned out to be an unexpected hit among the Young Adult crowd, and Jess finally got promoted to principal. And after outside relationships with Reagan and Robbie didn’t work out, Nick and Jess finally reunited as a couple — after a callback to the Dirty Dancing singalong Nick led in the pilot to cheer up a heartbroken Jess — in what may be the series’ final moments.
Late last week, I spoke with Finkel and Baer about where the show stands, what they wanted to be sure to do before it was all over, why Jess and Nick — a coupling whom fans have tended to enjoy more in theory than in the times the show has actually put them together — would be different in season seven, and a lot more, coming up just as soon as we schedule a no-pants dinner…
What would you say at this point are your odds of coming back for another season?
Dave Finkel: I’d say they’re looking pretty good. We’ve been hearing things here and there and nothing official yet, but it seems like there’s a good chance at least of a short order, but nothing firm.
Brett Baer: All the scuttlebutt is pretty positive. I think it’s just the business stuff that is being worked out and that’s what we’re hoping for.
You didn’t have any guarantee you were coming back, so this could wind up being the series finale. What did you want to make sure that you had in it?
Baer: I think for us its really important that we give the audience a very satisfactory conclusion to the series if in fact it was going to be the ending, and we wanted to make sure that there was some resolution of sorts on the Nick and Jess front that would at least give us an opportunity to give the audience a little bit of what we think they want and then, at the same time, also provide for us a launching point for a possible seventh season. So we didn’t want to shut the doors completely. I think we’ll have to be creative about that to keep the engine of the show going, but I think besides that, we just wanted to see all these characters reach the whole kind of arc.
Finkel: It’s the same thing we experienced on United States of Tara where we just didn’t know, but we knew we owed a finale of some sort — whether it was the series finale or the season finale — and we knew we wanted to make it something big. We went into it with the same sort of thing we did on Tara, which is just sort of, “Let’s put a bunch of balls in the air and then if we come back, we’ve got a lot of stuff to play with still”, but we wanted it to feel satisfying.
There were points earlier in the season where it felt to me as if you guys knew this was going to be the last year. Schmidt and Cece move out of the loft. The Thanksgiving episode is literally called “Last Thanksgiving.” How much was the question of finality hanging over what you were doing over the course of the whole year?
Finkel: I don’t think we went into it feeling like this is the end, I suppose it’s always been in the back of our heads that it could be, but I don’t think we entered into it with that in mind. We knew that we needed to progress them, that it was silly that this married couple was still living in this loft. We had to graduate them and let them live their adult lives in a way that made sense for adult humans. Having them have their own place after they got married seemed like the next logical trajectory for them. We really did enter into it as, “Let’s make it feel organic, do the way people actually behave.” It would be bizarre to keep them in the loft for that much longer.
How did the storytelling of the show change, though? You once had Schmidt live down the hall for a little bit, but now you have two of your main characters living elsewhere entirely. Were there advantages to that, or was it more of a headache to figure out, “Now that these guys are going to be over at Schmidt and Cece’s house”?
Baer: I think it’s always a risk when you play with the pieces on a sitcom and make larger-scale changes like that. I think one of the things that we did well and I think it helped us make the transition, not only as writing staff, but hopefully for the audience as well, was the slow development of the construction of the house gave us time to build that set, to see how to use it. It gave us a reason to go over there, to bring the friends over to check on the progress. Then, I think it organically became a place on the show where it made sense for those people to be going over there to hang out with their friends, now that they live in that new space. We actually found it, ultimately, to be a nice way to mix up the pieces and it actually, I think, helped storytelling.
Let’s talk about Nick and Jess. You guys have attempted this a couple of times in the past with varying degrees of success and happiness from the audience. What have you learned from the previous iterations that you’re going to try to apply to this time, if you get to come back and tell more stories about them as a couple?
Finkel: I think the thing that we’ve always held close to ourselves is that when we did it last time, for better for worse, we knew the characters as they were built at that point were not ready for each other. They still had a lot to learn, they were still very broken, and I think we’ve gotten to a place now six seasons in, as these characters mature, that they have started to figure some stuff out. Nick and Jess have both started to have some personal successes and have firm footing, and I think the move for us has always been, we wanted them to be better people before they were ready for each other. Are they completely ready for each other? I can’t answer that, but I do think they have better footing than they did three years ago, for sure.
Baer: As far as lessons learned goes, I think one of the issues with season three is that it made sense to us that when Nick and Jess got together, that they would be kind of consumed with one another — we referred to them as “Sid and Nancy.” I think it isolated them from the rest of the cast in a way, and I think some of the conflict that we built into the third season with Schmidt feeling that pressure, those are real things that a lot of the writers on set had talked about going through, those who had fallen in love with roommates and had other roommates, those were real things, but I think in a way it changed the chemistry of the show. Looking back on it, it probably took some of the fun out of the group dynamic of the show, which is the calling card of the comedy on New Girl: the chemistry. We always hear, “I want to hang out with that cast, I want to crawl through the television and be in that living room with them.” In a way, by having Nick and Jess locked into each other’s eyes in their bedroom and Schmidt against the whole idea of their relationship, we created conflict in places where we didn’t need it. That’s the biggest lesson learned and the thing that we would try to avoid in the future if they do get back together.
What are your general philosophical feelings about sitcoms and babies? Because if you do come back, you might have to deal with one depending on how you set up the timing of it all?
Finkel: Yeah. It sucks.
Baer: It’s the worst. Babies are hard. Babies are very hard.
Finkel: You get such a limited time on set with them, its very difficult, and those robot babies are real creepy.
Baer: And to find a baby with good comic timing is really tricky. I think definitely we have some thoughts and approaches to how we’re going to handle that and deal with that. We seen everything from the babies that have ruined sitcoms to the babies that have disappeared from sitcoms, a la Friends. Having experience with this on Tara, we know what the ups and downs are and it’s very tricky and very complicated and makes for a hard thing. But we have thoughts on how we’re going to approach that.
Finkel: But there’s also ways of making it enhance the story and make it part of the fabric of the show without devoting too much time to actual onscreen baby time. It can be a handy tool to show a little bit more of the inner workings of a character if done right.
You’ve been doing this a while, the characters are quite a bit older, they’re now all going to be in some degree of committed relationship, the married couple is going to have a baby. How does that change the overall vibe of a show about a bunch of people hanging out together? Or does it?
Baer: I do think it changes the show, and for better or for worse on New Girl, we’ve always tried to follow the organic, true relationship models that all of us experience in life and the show has grown and the characters have changed the way people do. At least that’s our goal, that’s what we try to do. The show is now in its seventh season, the show will be almost a decade older and the characters are a decade older, and a lot has transpired for the characters and they have gone through changes. It’s very hard to change the DNA of a show and succeed, but I do think that if you allow a slow development and evolution to occur, you can succeed and I think there are examples of that in TV history of shows changing slowly and quietly as opposed to taking hard left or hard right turns.
One of the big things you did in the episode that aired last week is you finally revealed Schmidt’s name. How long ago did the question of what his first name was even come up? Was that something you were talking about at episode two?
Finkel: We’ve had iterations of his name as far back as early in season one. It’s gone through several different versions and theories and thoughts, it was pretty Semitic early on, and as it grew, it morphed and changed, and I think it was last season we landed on this thing. It was an idle conversation that happened at lunch one day, that Liz [Meriwether] came up with and everyone’s like, “Well, that’s funny”. That would be surprising. I think it is one of those things that will bear fruit going forward, it won’t just be a one-off joke, it makes a slight appearance in the finale and then going forward it can still continue to be part of the fabric of what’s to come.
Baer: I always liked that there was a logic to this idea, that it made sense they would only call him by his last name because they have both have the same first name.
The more important name question is that earlier this season, among the many different guises that Winston assumes is “Retired Rear Admiral Jay Garage-a-roo,” which of all the fake names that you guys have ever used in the run of the show may be the best. What is the origin of “Retired Rear Admiral Jay Garage-a-roo”?
Baer: Dave Feeney, one of our writers, calls his garage a “garage-a-roo,” because he talks like he walked out of a 1942 MGM musical. Another one of our writers, Berkley Johnson, seized on it, because he’s come up with all our best names.
Finkel: Yeah, he’s responsible for J. Cronkite Valley-Forge.
Baer: Here’s the truth, though: I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was twice as long in the original draft of that scene. We had to trim it down and probably for the better.
At this point, if you get another season is there anything left on the New Girl bucket list that you haven’t done, that you want to do?
Finkel: I think we’ve grown Nick to a place where he’s just on the precipice of really getting to where Nick should be. Everyone else’s pieces have fallen in place in terms of where their careers should be, and Nick is a little bit of a holdout just because he’s a slow grower. It’s just taking off now, and I feel like there’s a lot of juice in playing with a successful Nick, we’ve not seen that. Watching him grow into whatever he’s supposed to be, his novel seems to be taking on heat, if that’s the next iteration for him then that’s a really fun area for him to see what does Nick look like when he’s got his shit together.
How did you decide that Nick was going to be a good writer and that people were going to like Pepperwood Chronicles?
Baer: I think it felt funnier to us after we introduced how horrible his writing was in season two, and how offbeat and weird — he had a word jumble in the middle of his book — to turn the screw and say, “What if he’s actually really good and he connects with an audience?” Our first thought was well there’s got to be some kind of weird comic book-style audience that might his delight like graphic novel or something that might be into a Pepperwood-type character and then somebody — and I can’t remember who it was on the staff — came up with the really funny idea that he would connect with the young adult audience and mostly girls. We just thought that the fact that inside Nick is the understanding heart of a 14-year-old girl, felt really hilarious.
You guys leaned a lot this year on the relationships with Reagan and Aly, and Megan Fox and Nasim Pedrad were guest stars. In seasons past, sometimes guest stars have been available and sometimes not. This year were the two of them available when you needed them to or did you have to work around anything significant?
Finkel: Megan just had a baby early on in the season, so that obviously was tricky. Obviously very happy for her, we knew we wanted to bring her back after she left last time, at the end of last season.
Baer: But wasn’t available to episode 11.
Finkel: So we had to develop that out at the top of the season. Nasim was doing a pilot with one of our writers, Rob Rosell, called Chad. While it didn’t get an immediate pick up, they were holding it, and they didn’t say no to it, so the possibility that they were all of a sudden going to rush into production on her other pilot with Rob was there. She couldn’t commit to us and we couldn’t commit to her, but because the studio also produced the pilot we were able to get her for those first three episodes in small doses. We didn’t really know what her situation was so we were always equivocating between whether she was in or out. We loved her relationship with Winston, and Lamorne and Nasim work so great together, we definitely didn’t want to end the relationship if we were going to have a chance to bring her back. Again, that didn’t develop until later. We probably could’ve brought her back a little bit earlier than we did, but that was right when we re-introduced Reagan into the show, because of Megan’s schedule. Then adding all sorts of mishegoss to the beginning of the season, Johnston was shooting The Mummy, and so he returned late to the season, so all of his stuff had to be shot separately and isolated. It was a very, very tricky navigating everybody’s schedules and then we had the Brooklyn Nine-Nine crossover, which had a whole bunch of stipulations on it schedule-wise. It was a lot of paper pushing and management to try and make it all work.
Finkel: Zoey being pregnant at the end of the season, making sure that we were taking that into consideration and making her life easier. It was an interesting season logistically trying to make all those pieces work, you end up sending people all over the globe to make the logic work, but I feel like it got there.
How do you feel the crossover turned out? And given that they were going to be in New York, had there been talk of doing more with Coach or was that going to be one part too many and you just wanted to have Damon Wayans pop up for five seconds?
Baer: My memory of the Coach thing is that we were lucky to be able to get Damon to come back and do that little piece just with his schedule. There was a version of the story earlier that we were kicking around that had a larger component to it, and then I think just scheduling-wise it didn’t work out for us and we moved in a different direction or creatively maybe we just chose to go in a different direction.
Finkel: It was also just a very big episode when you’re trying to line up the pieces with Brooklyn and based on their shooting schedule and our shooting schedule, there were a lot of moving pieces there to try and get all their cast on our show and figure out how to best get it in the time allotted. We’re in two separate lots across the city from each other. It’s not easy for them to come here and us to go there.
What’s it like when you have a scene where it’s Jess with Captain Holt, to have to write for another show’s guy? Obviously, you’re consulting with Dan Goor, but at a certain point, you guys have to be doing whatever you’re doing.
Finkel: We did a lot of tennis with them, we’d write a draft and then they’d take a pass at it, and then we’d take a pass at that, and we went back and forth a bunch of times. Always impressed and loving the stuff that those guys did and I think they appreciate what we did as well. It was definitely an all hands on deck situation, and thank god we knew about it early enough that we could get into it.
Baer: We had a really great working relationship with Dan and with the Brooklyn guys. It was a really positive experience on a writing front and we had this maxim that if they felt like a joke that we wrote for their characters wasn’t right, we were happy for them to replace it with something that we thought was hilarious and right for their character and vice versa. Honestly, it was a really respectful process and they could not have been more easy and available in terms of working together so that was great.
Finally, you’re hoping that the show comes back but in the event that the deal points can’t be negotiated, and this is it, could you reflect a little on the evolution of this show, which six years ago was 100% “The Zooey Deschanel Show” and the other guys didn’t matter and you’re shuffling Damon out and Lamorne in, and now its become the thing it’s become? What has this experience been like and what do you want the show’s legacy to be?
Baer: Honestly, this six years has been the craziest experience in television that I’ve ever been a part of and I think Dave would agree with me. Starting at the very beginning and losing Damon right out of the gate and having to introduce the new guy in the second episode of a new series entitled New Girl, was super challenging and there hasn’t been a single thing about this show that’s been easy. For whatever reason, it’s just been a wild, crazy, sometimes fun, sometimes harrowing rollercoaster ride.
But, I will say that one of the most magnificent things that I think to be a part of was watching the guys in the show. We had this incredibly talented cast, having worked on a lot of TV shows, you usually have one or two pieces and then there’s a lot of actors that you’re always trying to kind of flex a little bit. We ended up with six to maybe eight incredible players that worked together beautifully, had intense chemistry, could do anything we asked them to do, were not only hilariously funny, but could also take a turn and do some great dramatic acting or some romantic comedy that was very believable and authentic.
For me the thing that this show does that not a lot of shows choose to do is it swings fairly successfully, sometimes better times than others, between a drama or dramedy and super big broad physical comedy or smart one-liners, and then it can take an emotional turn in the next scene. Season one, we did an episode where one of the characters was facing cancer, that doesn’t happen very much on a TV show. There was this almost indie movie thing about it, and I think at our best we were able to deliver unique stories that may be familiar on their face as sitcom episodes, but always had something special and different about them. We took big swings and we didn’t phone it in and sometimes we succeeded and sometimes we didn’t. It was always interesting, and I guess that’s how I would sum it up.
Finkel: Yeah, that’s exactly 100% right, the only thing I would add to it is guys who are coming off America’s premier adolescent ritualistic rape comedy [Tara], it was nice to get into a show that — I hate to get too ethereal about it — really dictated its own terms, we really played a lot of follow the show’s lead. It grew organically when we just took our hands off the steering wheel. Obviously we had our hands dug deep into it, but I think that the episodes told us where the show was going to go. There were periods of time where we tried to force things and tried to force moves, and we realized that they were the wrong moves. That when you just let the previous episode dictate where you’re going to go next — not episodically just emotionally and growth-wise — it really grew the way that life grows, and that was an exciting thing to watch where it’s got a life of its own, and we just got to let it happen on its own.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org