Interview: 'New Girl' creator Liz Meriwether post-mortems season 1
"New Girl" wrapped up its first season tonight with an episode about the gang trying to talk Nick out of moving in with his ex-girlfriend. (I reviewed it here.) It was, on the whole, a strong first season for the comedy, particularly starting around the point where Dermot Mulroney showed up. I interviewed the show's creator, Liz Meriwether, about the learning curve that any first-year show goes through, what she learned about each of her characters, how she adjusted to losing Damon Wayans Jr's Coach after the pilot, and more. That's all coming up just as soon as I declare squatter's rights...
I want to start with the finale. What is it that happens with Nick when he's in Caroline's apartment that drives him back to the loft? Is it just that it took Jess' words a little while to sink in?
I think it's the curtains. (laughs) I don't know. I don't think he wants to think about curtains. No, obviously, it's going to take a little while for Jess' words to sink in, and she plants a seed, and then he's confronted with his life with Caroline in that scene, and that drives his decision to go back. It was definitely something that we talked a lot about. We didn't want to give away the ending, so we didn't want to do too much in that scene. He talks a little about decorating the new place in the moving van with the guys before he pulls off to the freeway. She's just hung the curtains, and we wanted to tie that together for that moment. Does that make sense?
What happens to poor Tom Lennon?
Well, he had improv'ed a bunch of stuff that we had to cut out for time. I think he said he faxed his mom and his mom was coming to pick him up.
So Nick can just walk in and just kick the guy out of his room.
Yeah, I think so. That seems like something Nick would do. We're not quite sure what's in that box, though. I don't think we ever quite figured it out. It's something greasy, but needs airholes. We don't know. I just hope he didn't sign anything; I'm not sure he signed a sublet agreement. Maybe we'll deal with that in the season 2 premiere; Tom Lennon could still be there.
Depending on Damon Wayans' availability, you could just have the revenge of all the people who've been kicked out.
Maybe he's gone to live in Santa Monica with Coach.
You've been hinting at the idea that at some point, maybe Jess and Nick would be right for each other. How much is what Jess is doing out of attraction for Nick and how much is just that she likes this guy as a friend and doesn't want him to make a big mistake?
I don't think she consciously knows the extent of how she feels. I don't think she is aware of the attraction and deeper feelings for Nick. I think that it's kind of coming from a place of, "I care about this guy as a friend, even more than I ever thought I would, and it's hard because I think I might lose him if he moves in with this girl that I don't think is right for him." I think the moment where she says "I want you to be happy" is coming from a real sort of friendship place, "This isn't about me, it's about you." I don't think she knows the extent of her feelings for Nick.
What do you know of the extent of those feelings? This is something you tease all the way back in the pilot.
I don't know yet. This season for me was really about their friendship deepening, and both of them dealing with these massive breakups that caused both of their lives to go into an upswirl, and the way they found each other out of the wreckage of both their relationships. For me, the finale is about her saying to him, "I'm really your friend. I'm going to be your friend for a long time. And it's not just about Craigslist and moving in together." I think that's what that's about.
You've just wrapped this season, you have a little bit of time before you have to start thinking about next season. But how much have you and the other writers in the room debated what you want to do with these two: whether you want to go there, when you want to go there, the fact that the audience seems aware this is going on and whether you want to play with that knowledge, etc?
First and foremost, we always try to talk about the characters from an honest place. We really were trying to think of their relationship feeling organic and building in a real way. I think we were all pretty sure that nothing was going to happen between them in season 1. We don't really have any plans beyond that. I think we're going to go into season two and really hash it out. I think we're trying to be true to the characters and where they are in their lives. If something like that would make sense — I don't know. We're not people who have a lot of plans. I think we really just to try to go where the show wants to go. We'll wait to have those discussions in June when we get our writing staff back together to talk about season 2.
In talking about going where the show wants to go, I had enjoyed most of the season, but it felt to me like the show found another level starting around the first "Fancyman" episode. Would you say that was your experience working on it in the inside, or did you feel you figured out the show much earlier than that?
It's so much work. I'm just now starting to think about the season on a more reflective level. I have been so busy that I haven't had a chance to think about what happened. But we did have a break around the holidays that we were breaking the first Fancyman episode. So it was the first time as a staff we had a chance to catch our breath, to talk about the characters. We had a little bit more time to discuss things, and I think we really needed to do that. I'm really happy that you felt that way about the last half of the season. I think there was a lot of usefulness in being able to talk about Jess' character and the next step for her and having that moment with the staff to do that.
With pretty much any new show, there's some kind of learning curve. You're figuring out what your actors can do, how you tailor the characters to that, how they interact, what kind of stories and jokes work best. What are some things before that break that you started to notice worked really well or didn't? That was around the point, for instance, where you seemed to say, "Every episode, we're going to have Jake (Johnson) say a bunch of random things in a row, and that'll be funny."
(laughs) I don't think that was an official discussion. We just found ourselves laughing at a lot of his improv. He's such a funny guy, so good at that part of it, riffing on an idea, that we just wanted to share it with the world. But I totally agree about the learning curve. Going into season 1, we broke seven episodes before we cast Lamorne (Morris), so we didn't even really know who that character was. We were writing into the darkness about what he was going to be able to do, and what we wanted to do with Winston and where he fit in. We started to figure that out towards the end of the season. That's a big goal for season 2, to figure out Winston.
In terms of specifics, I felt, and it's another goal of mine for season 2, that Jess didn't have enough obstacles to the things that she wanted. With Fancyman, the idea for the Dermot storyline was, "Let's have her fall for someone where it's hard for her to be with him, or challenging some part of her character." I think we're still delving into her character and figuring out her flaws and her dreams, and trying to get more and more specific about it. I think with the first batch of episodes, you're almost just trying to go off the pilot and what it was about the show that got it picked up in the first place, and in the second half of the season, you're really looking at the characters as a whole, and their lives and where they want to go, and thinking about them in more depth.
I remember the general reaction to the pilot was just "Zooey Zooey Zooey, ohmigod, Zooey!" Whether you liked her or didn't, that was all anybody was talking about. And by the end of the season, it's very clearly an ensemble. Jess can be in the background and it can be largely about Schmidt and Cece, or about Nick. At what point did you feel comfortable saying, "Zooey is our star, but we've got all these other people and they can carry the load?"
It was always imagined as an ensemble show. That first marketing push was obviously about Zooey, but I think Zooey always thought of it as an ensemble show. It's exciting that people are interested in the other characters and want to follow them in their lives. The show just wouldn't be able to sustain for a long time if you didn't feel like it was an ensemble. That was an exciting part of the second half of the season, we felt you could start to see that. She's always so much a part of every story, so it's not like she's taking a backseat, really. but it's her helping them as much as them helping her. At the beginning of the season, it was more them helping her.
With Schmidt, at what point do you feel like you dialed in the correct ratio of douchiness to sweetness?
I don't know. I think that will be an ongoing discussion throughout. Max (Greenfield) is so good that it kind of doesn't matter where we take him. I think there's always something deeper in his eyes going on, even in the most idiotic, douchey moments — there's a good guy underneath there. At least I feel that, and I think that really allows us to push those boundaries of how far we can take him. But I think that's what's so fun about his character: he can do anything or say anything. I really feel like he's given him a real soul. Maybe that's too nerdy, but it allows him to be more of an idiot than I even had imagined.
Was there ever a point where you feel you did push him too far?
Trying to think. It was so fun with him all season. Nothing is coming to mind, in terms of a regret we took it too far. I was definitely worried about the storyline where he pulled his boss out of the car and the security guards thinking he was assaulting her. And then him posing on the table for the Japanese businessmen, I was a little bit worried it was too crazy. But again, once we gave it to Max, I felt like he just finds the real emotional center of it. I think in "Control," when he goes to Venice and momentarily becomes a hippie drummer, it felt a little bit to me like we had potentially taken him too far in the other direction for one episode. Had we done that as an arc as opposed to doing it in one episode — if we do that in season two, we'd slow it down a bit. I thought it was a funny idea and he was really funny in it. It just seemed a little unrealistic that he'd be able to make that change so quickly.
In the pilot, Schmidt is hitting on Cece, unsuccessfully. Did you know even back then that that was something you wanted to try? And at what point did you realize, "Let's do this"?
I honestly didn't think they would get together in season 1. But the more we were putting them in scenes and watching them play together — especially in Thanksgiving, when she's teasing him with licking foodthe off her fingers and he's freaking out, because he's a little bit OCD or something — there was just such great chemistry between them, that in going where the show wants to go world, we just wanted to put them together. We kept wanting to write to that, because they were so great together. They have such different energies: Hannah's such a great deadpan foil to him, and it allows him to go to even crazier places. And I think Hannah's character needed him in some ways. What was surprising to me was I could see there was this need in Hannah for this weird, needy douchebag guy in her life, so by the time we got to Valentine's Day, I was believing it. She was in enough of a low moment with all these douchey guys she was dating. I think it occurred to me when we shot Christmas, when he gave her the perfume. It just felt, if I were her, I would eventually hook up with him. It just felt right.
In the finale, Schmidt and Cece break up. Why did you decide to do that? Was there any concern that being in a happy, healthy relationship was going to soften him too much?
I just don't think that they're ready for that yet. I think that both of them are admittedly bad at relationships, and they don't really know how to have a relationship. They've both drifted from casual sexual encounter to casual sexual encounter, and they went into it only wanting to have sex. I don't think they're quite ready to trust each other and to do it right yet. I think that was coming from a place where we may have gotten past one hurdle, but there's still a lot of emotional work they have to do before they can get to a place where they can be in a relationship.
In "The Story of the 50," we find that Schmidt's douchiest transgression of all time is that he tried to kiss Jess. If you do decide to push the button and go for a Jess/Nick relationship, will that come up again? Will Nick also be fined 50 dollars?
Maybe season 2, Nick needs some kind of a jar for something. That seemed sort of believable that Schmidt would go for that in that moment. One of my favorite shows is this British show "Green Wing," that I had watched a lot when I was working on my pitch for this show, and there's a kind of great triangle in that show between this girl and these two guys that are friends with her. At one point, I was really interested in that with Jess and Nick and Schmidt, but it doesn't really seem like that anymore. They're young and they're single and they're pretty attractive. It doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that they're all slightly in love with each other.
You dealt with that in the episode where Jess finds out about Cece, and they're revealing all their secrets, and she finds out that all the guys have fantasized about her.
Yeah. That just seems like that would've actually happened. I think we will continue to figure it all out next year.
How did you approach Jess' sexuality over the course of this season, and how will you work with it going forward? There were some episodes where she seemed really afraid of sex or clueless or clumsy, and others where she's more comfortable with it.
When we broke that episode, "Naked," where she can't say the word "penis," the episode was never about that. It was originally her thinking that sex is funny and laughing about it a lot. And then we got excited by Zooey, she was so funny riffing, trying to say the word penis, and it seemed straightforward. But when the episode came out, it was the first time we had heard about her sexuality, and I probably would have wanted to elaborate on that a bit more. I never saw her as not being comfortable. I think when you're in a long term relationship, you're comfortable with sex with that person. But to come out of it having to face sex with a different person that you don't know, that can be terrifying. I think, for example, that's what "Bad in Bed" was about. I don't think that it was that she was uncomfortable with sex in general. It was just a really fearful moment of having sex with someone who wasn't Spencer, and was a person that she liked. But over the course of the season, she probably became more comfortable with the idea of life after this really bad break-up. And she's in the process of learning about who she is as a person, and also sexually. I think you are watching that happen. And I just love awkward sex scenes. I sometimes find myself writing them a lot.
With Nick, it feels like the character changed quite a bit from the pilot and the early episodes to the guy he became later on. Did you see that? Were you talking about that in the writers room?
Well, how did you see him change?
I think he started out as the sensible guy, and he got weirder and weirder as the season went along, where you find out that he does these terrible DIY repairs and is stubborn and can't get a cell phone and everything else.
I don't think a lot of that was very planned out. Again, you're coming off of the pilot with the pitch in your mind, the need to differentiate all the characters, and show on the surface how they're all different. Over the course of a season, as you get more and more into the characters, you discover the details about the characters and what's really going on. I don't think we talked a lot about it. I think Jake is so funny, and there's so much of him in the part, and he loves to come up with ideas. He sends me emails constantly of ideas for his character, and we talk about it a lot. We were just going where he wanted to go, too. He was interested in making Nick a real weirdo, and that was where my head was also at. We followed that path as far as we could. I think he's so funny. I don't think Jake Johnson fits into the role of the sensible one. So to make him that would be writing away from what he's really good at.
You said you started to get a handle on Winston towards the end of the season. What are some of the episodes you could point to from this year and say, "This was a good Winston episode" or "This is who this character is"?
I really liked him in "Secrets." I think he's weirdly better as the sensible one character than Jake is, which was a surprise for us. We had thought of Jake as the everyman one, who's stepping away and commenting on what all the crazy people are doing around him. But like you said, I think we found more and more that in the character, there was so much fun to be had with Nick's craziness. I think Winston is really good as the guy who steps out as, "What are you guys doing?" And he's really funny that way. And what I love in "Secrets" is that he is that character, but when he finally does blow up, he's crazier than all of them, with the crazy monologue he gives about being Nick's gay lover, Theodore K. Mullens. a lot of that was improv from Lamorne. He's so funny when he loses it and gets really theatrical like that. He does that in the finale when he loses his mind with being afraid of the dark. I think he's funny with that switch from being the sensible one to the one that's crazier than all of them. I think that's a lot of fun. For season 2, I think we're really trying to figure out what his relationship is with Schmidt and with Jess. I think we've figured out Winston and Nick. That'll be the new focus for season 2.
You knew back at upfront week that Coach wasn't going to be a character going forward, and you said you wrote a bunch of episodes not knowing who would be cast. When you developed the show, how much, if at all, had you thought through what each of these guys were going to represent, and what Coach's relationship was going to be with Jess and the other two, that then had to be tossed?
I remember loving in the pilot — which, again, wasn't how I imagined the show in the pitch — the way that Damon seemed like this dumb jock, and then he had crazy rage problems. I'd been looking forward to playing around with that. I think that Lamorne is so smart, and he reads that way. It was a switch. I think Nick is the guy who has rage issues now, he has all this bottled up anger, and Lamorne is the smarter one. In the pitch, the Coach character was a fat Jewish guy, like a manchild, and it really all shifted and adjusted. That came early on, Jake Kasdan was like, "You have to write for the actor. You can't go into a TV show with set ideas in your mind and shoehorn actors into a character. You have to cast a great person, someone who makes you want to write for them, and then write for them." That was an amazing piece of advice, because we did have so many twists and turns with the casting, especially of that character, that we were able to follow with what the actor was as opposed to putting a bunch of stuff on the actor he couldn't do. I think we're still in the process of figuring out Winston.
I joked around about it before, but if "Happy Endings" doesn't get picked up — and I hope it does — or ABC is just cool about Damon doing guest appearances on another network's show, would you want to bring him back? Or is it too delicate an eco-system to bring Coach back into things now?
I have no idea. I really hope "Happy Endings" Gets picked up again, too. We love Damon, and he'd always be welcome to come back to do some guest spots. But it's not even something that we're thinking about.
Finally, you brought in a bunch of good guest stars that you used well. As I've said, I'm almost annoyed you made me like Dermot Mulroney as much as you did. But at least for now, none of these relationships are destined to work out — Lizzy Caplan and Justin Long and Dermot all came and went in a few episodes — so how do you both integrate them into the group so quickly and yet find a way to exit cleanly?
It's a fun challenge. I'd love, especially in season 2, to create more of a world, like people who are going to come back for more than three episodes, or six episodes. I think we found in Cece's roommate Nadia, an amazing character that we're going to bring back at different moments over the course of a season. But we've had such amazing people, and it's been so fun to write for them. They're so talented. It's fun figuring out what they can do on the show that's a little different from what they have done, and how they fit into the world. We've found with guest stars that they can't come in and have a story with just one of our characters; they have to affect all of the characters. That was fun to figure out that one person in the loft dating — Lizzy Caplan for example — affects all of them. So Lizzy had her stories with Nick, but there was also "Jess and Julia," with Jess. That was a big discovery for me this season, that when we bring people on, they have to have stories with everybody.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org