The New Girl showrunners on solving a season-two puzzle—then re-arranging the pieces

The New Girl showrunners on solving a season-two puzzle—then re-arranging the pieces

New Girl showrunners Elizabeth Meriwether and Brett Baer recently spoke to The A.V. Club about their show’s second season. Following part three, this installment covers episodes 18 through 21, beginning with “Parking Spot” and ending with “First Date.”

Parking Spot” (February 19, 2013)

In the middle of a frantic race to claim a free parking spot, Schmidt discovers that Nick and Jess kissed, a flagrant violation of the male roommates’ previously established “no nail” clause. 

Brett Baer: “Parking Spot” was a weird episode because it was the last episode we had broken before the “Cooler” kiss happened and the original version of it was broader and wackier than the final version—which was, itself, pretty broad and wacky. It was in the “A Father’s Love” and “Pepperwood” mode: There was a “Hollywood tour bus” element—we had a character that we wanted to be played by Billy Eichner, who had the tour bus company. It was really crazy zany and we came back from Christmas break ready to table read that episode, and we looked at it and were like, “What are we doing? The whole show has changed. Everything is in this Nick/Jess relationship, and we can’t do this the way we broke it and the way it’s written.” 

We had a short amount of time to do the rewrite before we had to table-read it. So we did something we hadn’t done a lot of on our show: Liz was really embroiled in the rewrite of “Table 34” so Dave, myself, and Rebecca Addelman—who wrote the episode—along with four others, went into this small room and did, maybe in the history of our show, our first room rewrite from top to bottom. And it was a situation where all of us felt this relief to discover this new writing process that was a possibility to make the workload a little easier and more efficient and faster.

Elizabeth Meriweather: It was exciting because, as a staff, we were working as a team better than we ever had—it was just a great feeling where you’re in a room and people are just topping each other.

Jake Kasdan kept pushing us to simplify it. It started out as the kind of impossible-to-shoot episode that we did in the first half of the season, but we simplified it down to the roommates all wanting one parking spot, and it opened up so much more room for the character stuff and jokes—and that was a great discovery: We don’t have to do so much stuff to have a story. It lightens the load and allows the focus to be on characters and the dialogue and the jokes, not carrying all the weight of the story in the insanity. I loved that episode; I think it might be my favorite of the season. There’s something so cool about all the sections where they’re just sitting in this parking spot at a standoff and it feels like these characters are such idiots. But you also love them for not ever backing down.

BB: Up in the writers’ room, we had the same kind of wake-up moment Liz had about when the kiss moment happened—but with Schmidt finding out about the kiss. The first half of the season, we were avoiding the reality of the Nick/Jess dynamic because we needed to extend it, but the second we took the chains off and decided, “This is what we’re doing now,” there was so much clarity that the 15 of us could see the path that we were on. The show slipped into this high-octane groove. We could see the next 10 episodes—at the time we thought it was nine, but it became 10—ahead of us. All the journeys were going to curl on the path. “Oh, now Schmidt’s going to find out, how do they deal with it?” “Parking Spot” was the convergence of all of us saying, “Oh, there it is. This is what I want to do. Let’s just do this.”

“Tinfinity” (February 26, 2013)

Just two guys, celebrating a decade of living together, having their elaborate celebration of friendship hijacked by a Schmidt-destroying wedding proposal.

AVC: Would you say “Tinfinty” was a chance to poke some holes in Schmidt’s armor?

BB: Yeah. [Laughs.] That was a challenging one for many reasons. We literally shot that episode over the course of a month. We usually shoot these things in five days. But we kept getting rained out, so that episode felt like it could never get finished. Writing-wise and shooting-wise, it was a nightmare.

EM: That was tricky for us because we felt like we’d done a lot of Nick/Jess episodes. We’d had this big exciting thing happening, but we didn’t want every episode to be about that. It’s hard to walk away from that—it was hard to figure out a way to tell a story that could be exciting and fun in the middle of the Nick/Jess stuff. But we knew that we wanted to do an episode with all the “tinfinity” stuff. It was a joke that Josh Malmuth had put into his script of “Models.” There’s a joke where Jake Johnson says, “I’ve been living with him, it’ll be 10 years this spring” or “this March” or something. [Laughs.] 

We love doing Nick/Schmidt episodes because they’re so fun together—we were excited about the chance to explore their friendship and see various anniversaries from the past. But it left us with this conundrum of what to do with Jess in the episode. She couldn’t really have a romantic thing, and we just didn’t know what to do. We went through a lot of different versions of that story, which ended up being with Jax McTavish or whatever he was. [Laughs.] I feel like that’s one of the more unfortunate names of a character this season—I’m not super proud of that one. Usually, we’ll be talking and all of sudden [writer] Berkley Johnson will come up with a character’s name. He has like this insane gift to name characters. So we ended up there, but I never felt like we cracked that Jess story—it felt very thrown together. 

We also knew from the chronology of the season that we were ending with Cece’s wedding, so we knew we needed to get her engaged. So it was like we were checking off from a list: I have to do this, I have to that. Sometimes that yields good results and sometimes it yields a hodgepodge.

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The A.V. Club: But in checking those items of the list, was it a relief to have Shivrang hanging around from “Cooler”?

EM: Yeah. But that also felt a little haphazard—in a perfect world we would have developed that a little better. When Nick and Jess happened, there was so much to service, so we were asking the audience to go with us on this one. [Laughs.] But it was an arranged marriage, so we knew we didn’t have to do a ton of legwork in terms of Cece ending up engaged. That’s one thing we talked to people about: In arranged marriages in America these days, is there a proposal? Is that weird? When we wrote, at the production meeting after the table read it was like lasers and fireworks—and you just have all these people staring at you with dead eyes. They were like, “So how do you feel about the lasers?” [Laughs.] And you’re like, “You know what, we don’t need the lasers. It’s okay. We can just do it with lights.” But when we were shooting that scene, it started to rain, so we started rushing through it—which is what you get when you shoot outside. I think our editor, Steve Welch, or it might have been our music supervisor, had the idea for the Queen song during the proposal. I really enjoyed that. 

I think for our production designer this was the most challenging thing we asked him to do all season. “Can you give us a garden party where the theme is tin? [Laughs.] It doesn’t look like it costs a zillion dollars, but it also doesn’t look really shoddy. And we’re going to be in that set for the entire episode. [Laughs.]” 

AVC: And can you get us a hot air balloon?

EM: You know you’re in trouble when the easiest thing they have to do is get a hot air balloon. [Laughs.] Michael Whetstone, our production designer, did an amazing job of creating this bizarre party-world where everything was tin. [Laughs.] There are some really funny details if you’re paying attention: The Nick and Schmidt photo where you’re putting your head in the hole for their faces was inspired. 

“Tinfinity” was a weird one because it always feels weird when the Jess story is the B-story. There’s something slightly off about those episodes. 

AVC: Is that a balance you have to strike now that the show has become more of an ensemble piece? Do you have more freedom to lower or raise Jess’ prominence depending on the episode?

EM: Theoretically we can, but I think the episodes where we don’t have a really compelling emotional storyline for her, we’re always struggling with. It’s just the nature of the show. She’s the heart of the show and when you don’t feel like she’s at the heart, you’re struggling. I definitely agree that it has become a very ensemble show and I think we can do big stories about other characters—but I think you’re always looking at her to make emotional sense of what’s happening. Maybe in season three she can do stuff that’s purely comic. [Laughs.]

“Quick Hardening Caulk” (March 19, 2013)

A previously unseen drive is unlocked within Nick, and it (along with some highly suggestive hardware-store offerings) gets Jess all hot and bothered. Meanwhile, Winston tries to show Schmidt that there are “plenty of fish in the sea,” a metaphor Schmidt takes very, very literally.

EM: I wasn’t sure this one was going to work because there was a lot of conversation about what to do with Nick and Jess. We were at that point in the season—because it wasn’t the finale and it was a little too early to have them do something cute or for something enormous to happen, but we couldn’t do an episode where nothing happened. I think this episode we were influenced by Cheers more than any other point in the season—I really wanted that dynamic between them. I wanted this combative, confusing, sexy dynamic between them. The idea that at any point, they could either fight or fuck. [Laughs.]

It was fun because you’re aware that Nick has a crush on Jess—he’s the one that made the move and kissed her in “Cooler.” In this episode, we wanted to show that Jess was genuinely attracted to Nick as well. We really hadn’t dealt with that part of it—her longing for him. We wanted to move them forward, but we knew we couldn’t move it that far forward. Because she was still dating Sam, we couldn’t really show how she felt after the kiss in “Cooler.” This one felt like—

BB: Like it was inside her head.

EM: And I don’t know whose idea it was, but it went to the heart of their problems: She’s attracted to him when he gets his life incrementally in order. [Laughs.]

BB: He irons his shirt, and she’s sexually attracted to him. [Laughs.]

EM: It just made me laugh so hard, and that was a cool avenue to explore. [Laughs.]

BB: One of the biggest discussions of this episode—from start to finish, at every level—was “Why don’t these two get into bed with each other at the end of the episode?” If we were going to walk them up to this line, how do we pull this off? Because we didn’t want to go there at this moment, because it was important to keep things going for the course of the rest of the season. At the same time, we knew we didn’t want to be dicking around with the audience, so we wanted to find a dynamic between Nick and Jess that would stir things up and get things as hot as we could and then not go to where we were rushing the story along.

AVC: In developing that dynamic, do you think you made Nick’s one-off romantic interest, Shane, feel like a legitimate obstacle to Nick and Jess getting together?

BB: That was one element of it. I think the story was broken without Shane, but we felt there needed to be a character that was motivating Nick on his own—we didn’t want it to be that he was doing it to impress Jess because we felt that hurt the comedy of her being excited by him doing anything. We felt that it needed to be something more than just the obstacle of this other girl. It had to be something specific in their relationship that wasn’t ready to go all the way yet, that they weren’t 100 percent in sync with each other and had work to do before they could get to that moment.

AVC: You played with the idea of “driven Nick” for the first time in this episode—what other hidden facets of your characters are you interested in exploring in the future?

EM: The thing about Jake, about all of our actors really, is that we have a group of actors that can go anywhere. Maybe it’s a cop-out to your question, but I don’t know yet and I’m not at all worried that I don’t know yet, because at the time we peel back to find something out about a character, the actors bring so much to that thing and it opens up a new door for us. It’s a domino effect—the writers come up with something, the actors come up with something, and we work on it together.

BB: We haven’t seen him as a boyfriend. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. We saw a bit of that with Julia—but with Jess, it’ll be interesting to see if we choose to go this direction and they stay in some relationship for some time, to explore that dynamic of what he’s like as a partner.

AVC: As you were spending more time with Nick and Jess, did you feel like you were developing stories about Schmidt and Winston’s friendship—like the lionfish plot in “Quick Hardening Caulk”—out of necessity?

BB: Yeah, and it’s funny, because I think it’s twofold. It was out of necessity to have the two of them in their own story together because Jess and Nick were together—but honestly, we started the season saying that one of the goals was further developing Winston’s dynamic. We had a clear idea of his dynamic with Nick and wanted to explore that further, but we also wanted to find out what his dynamic was with Schmidt, find out what his relationship with Jess was about. We talked about that with “Bathtub” a little bit. In a weird way, the two things that happened simultaneously were, “Oh, wow. We need these two characters together,” and, “We really wanted to develop that dynamic and that relationship.” By the end of the season, you get a clear idea of what their relationship is, with specificity that I don’t think you had in the first season. 

EW: Also the English major in me loves the metaphor of fish in the sea. [Laughs.]

BB: [Laughs.] And it’s so obvious to everyone but Schmidt. 

EM: I ended up really liking that. You guys pitched the peeing on the face because of the jellyfish—and I thought it was really funny, and we ended up doing that, but I thought that was something that happened on Friends. That goes to one of the major struggles of making television: Everything has already happened on Friends. [Laughs.] There’s one person in the room who is the person that says, “They did that on Friends.” Usually it starts with Berkley and then transitions to Josh.

“Chicago” (March 26, 2013)

The roommates travel to Nick and Winston’s hometown to pay their respects to the late Walter Miller. There they meet Nick’s colorful extended family, led by appropriately intimidating matriarch Margo Martindale.

EM: This was an episode we’d known we were going to do since the beginning of the season. It was something we were excited to do, but also something we were dreading because we knew it was going to be really hard to pull off. A funeral is not immediately funny. [Laughs.] It was a chance to do something special, and we were threading a needle to make it funny and really emotional. And going into the season, [writer] Dave Iserson came to us with this amazing story that involved a funeral and Elvis and all this stuff. Ultimately, the roommates would have to help throw Nick’s dad’s funeral, and it was going to involve an Elvis theme because Nick’s dad requested the funeral that Elvis had. 

After that, we were trying to figure out: “Who is Nick’s family?” “What is Nick’s role in his family?” “Should this episode be a Nick/Jess episode?” “Should they put that on the backburner?” “How do we land the emotion of this moment and also make it funny?” [Laughs.] We went through a lot of different versions of the story. The big breakthrough came on a weekend: I called these guys and said, I think begrudgingly, “Jess needs to be Elvis.” [Laughs.] We had written away from it and I called and said, “She needs to get the Elvis costume on and be Elvis.” We didn’t know how to have that big, fun angle on it and we’d done a version where it was neither here nor there. We weren’t committing to the emotion, we weren’t committing to the comedy, and we had to keep going back to get both. Where we ended up, when she did put the costume on, wasn’t a big riotous, funny thing—but more cool, weird, and sad. If that’s what you set out for, if you end up with cool and weird and sad I guess that’s okay, too. [Laughs.]

BB: I think we were going to do this episode around 11, 12, or 13, and, at one point, the ending was going to be Nick and Jess standing at the casket—and then Nick was going to make a move to kiss Jess at that moment. [Laughs.] And we pushed the episode deeper because we didn’t want the kiss to happen so early, so we pushed it toward the back half of the season. So when we went to “Chicago” we knew we needed a new angle on it. It was going to be a moment of bonding: Jess’ attitude was going to be that it was surprising to her that he was going to profess some interest in her, but at the same time she was smart enough to know that this was coming out of grief. So that went away, and I think one of the things we needed to do was give Jess a big, funny, emotional gesture on her part. Since the episode was so full of guest cast members, and Nick’s family took up so much room, we needed Jess to have a big, triumphant, giving moment for Nick. And that’s where Liz’s desire came in, to say that Jess has to get in that costume and make the ultimate sacrifice and have the funeral the way Nick’s mother wanted it.

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AVC: On a surface level, “Chicago” looks different from other New Girl episodes: Different setting, different sets, unfamiliar faces. Did Jake Kasdan take additional steps in his direction to visually distinguish “Chicago” from the rest of the series? There’s a lot more handheld camerawork than usual.

BB: One of the things going into the series was that Jake did not want to do handheld—he wanted to distinguish it as more filmic, rather than all the mockumentary-style shows that are so popular now. We had used handheld on occasion in the past, but very rarely—we tell our directors, “If you’re using handheld, tell us why, dramatically or creatively.” And Jake was really clear in this episode that there is an energy coming into the Miller household for the first time, and that’s the spirit he wanted to capture the most. Did you have a specific conversation with him about this Liz?

EM: I think he has such an amazing instinct about the way that he shoots things. We talked, but he knows what he’s doing.

BB: Zooey and Margo were so outstanding together that when we were shooting it, I felt like we were doing a backdoor pilot for a show called The Millers. [Laughs.] “Chicago” did feel so different, but what I thought was so remarkable was our cast finding out how it fit into this world, in that they were all so willing to play the role that was necessary. They allowed Nick’s family to take over the episode in that way, and there was so much chemistry that was apparent even at the very beginning that it created this great dynamic of Schmidt, Winston, and Jess standing around feeling like the outsiders. That was a really nice element of the episode—that it does feel so foreign and different.

EM: We shot so much funny stuff that we had to make a decision in editing that it wasn’t completely about the family being hilarious. We left so much funny stuff on the floor. Nick Kroll and Bill Burr just improvising with Jake—we were crying laughing. There’s a version of Nick walking in the living room and the characters meeting the family that was just so funny—and it was just them riffing about everything. It’s tough when you do improv, because when it works, that means something in the script has to go. That puts you in a bit of a bind because you have to decide if some part of the story has to go because you want to put in a five-minute bit about Gold Bond. [Laughs.] Ultimately, we decided to cut some of that down—but Margo was unbelievable. I’m a huge Justified fan, and it was one of those guest cast things that you’re electrified the whole time. There was an initial cut of the episode that was like 43 minutes long.

AVC: After having Margo and Raymond J. Berry on the show this season, who’s the next Justified cast member you’re going to cherry pick for a guest spot?

EM: [Laughs.] Obviously, Timothy Olyphant. 

BB: Are they going to kill him off on that show anytime soon? 

First Date” (April 4, 2013)

Will-they/won’t-they becomes “Is this a date or isn’t it?” when Nick takes Jess out to a dinner that Schmidt and Winston try desperately to disrupt—though an ex-boyfriend and a overzealous police officer do the job just fine. 

EM: That was right around when we got word that—

BB: That we were adding an episode. 

EM: We had great momentum off of “Cooler,” and the network told us they were adding an episode. So we had the whole thing laid out to the end of season and we had to add an episode—which ultimately yielded “Virgins”—but it threw us into a tailspin because we were trying to figure out how to do it. “Bachelorette Party” was going to go after “Chicago” and then be followed by the “First Date” episode, and then we were going to have Jess and Nick have sex at the end of that episode.

BB: When we got to “Quick Hardening Caulk,” we had all these discussions about, “Why aren’t they fucking at the end of this episode?” [Laughs.] We felt we were comfortable enough that we could get away with it this one time. So we start asking these questions like, “How are these people not doing what any other people in their circumstance would do?”

AVC: And that’s where Russell’s valet ticket comes in?

BB: [Laughs.] Exactly. At one point we thought of bringing back all of her ex-boyfriends, but that just seemed a little too convenient. And then we wanted some moment of actually having the two of them face a question with each other, which set up that final conversation between them. It allowed us to walk forward toward the bachelorette party convergence. But I found it interesting that a lot of people picked up that “Bachelorette Party” was supposed to follow “Chicago.” We tried to do our best to mask the fact that there was a weird re-arrange.

Also, there was the American Idol aspect: We knew this was going to be our post-American Idol episode, so we wanted to make sure the episode was clear enough and specific enough about the show prior so that people could jump in and understand the relationships and get invested in Nick and Jess. We were right in the middle of a serious arc that we knew our audience was going to be invested in, but all of a sudden we were having to reach out to an audience that wasn’t our core or people who hadn’t watched the show. So there were a lot of elements that were combining to create a bit of a dilemma that had to be solved—and still be entertaining.

AVC: Was the runner with Brian Stack as the motorcycle cop integrated to make the episode a little more accessible to first-time viewers?

BB: In the beginning, we just had the idea of this Groundhog Day premise of them constantly having to start the date over again and again. Originally, the cop thing started as challenging different parts of Nick’s personality that he was trying to change for his date with Jess, so we had to come up with something to show our new audience that this is someone who’d usually blow up at a cop. He’s Nick Miller, this cynical, anti-government lunatic and here he’s trying to swallow that. Ultimately, we kept playing that runner because Brian was so funny.

EM: There was one moment that everyone wanted to cut, but I think you guys put it back in, where Schmidt said “You’re broke and you have anger problems,” trying to summarize Nick’s character. [Laughs.] If you’ve never watched this before, maybe you’re thinking “Why are these people so idiotic?” [Laughs.]

BB: When the motorcycle falls over at the end of the episode, that was a complete accident. Stack didn’t know how to ride, and when he got off it in his tight motorcycle pants, he pushed off the bike and knocked it over and that was his real response. That multi-thousand dollar rig falls over on the street, dumping gas everywhere. 

EM: That episode was definitely silly, but there was something at the heart of it that wasn’t like we were making Friends. It’s a slightly different time and there’s so much confusion out on the scene of like, “Are we dating? What does hooking up mean?” I wrote a movie about it. [Laughs.] I like in the episode that nothing is easy, because that’s what it’s like and it’s really hard to define. I liked that scene on the curb between Nick and Jess because that’s everything—these two people like, “I don’t know, I can’t walk away from this but I can’t commit to this and I don’t know how to handle that.” And that, to me, felt very accurate.

AVC: And it’s true to the characters because they’ve both been hurt before. 

BB: Yeah. That was an interesting dynamic for us, because a first date for these two was going to be different than a first date for anybody else, because they knew everything that there was to know about each other. They knew the ins and outs, the bathroom habits, what living together was like, and it immediately puts them in a confusing position.

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