New Girl made a home at the end of one TV era and the beginning of another

Liz Meriwether (center) with Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel on the set of New Girl
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: Fox
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When they tore down the New Girl apartment, the set that had served as the emotional, narrative, and locational hub of the Fox sitcom, creator Liz Meriwether wasn’t there.

“People were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s being destroyed,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t look at this,’” Meriwether told The A.V. Club ahead of the show’s seventh and final season. “It’s crazy to have one set for seven years,” she said, “and then it just disappears.”

The loft was where chipper school teacher Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) originally sought refuge after a bad breakup, but it became much more over the course of New Girl’s run. It’s where Jess kissed her gruff wannabe-writer roommate Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) after a U.S. history-themed drinking game. It’s where mononymous, self-styled operator Schmidt (Max Greenfield) was forced to drop cash in a “Douchebag Jar” for his every insult to fashion, modern slang, or the opposite sex. It’s where Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) lived for exactly one episode before leaving to accommodate the return of onetime Latvian basketball player/full-time bad prankster Winston Bishop (Lamorne Morris).

And when the show picks back up on Tuesday, April 10, it’s where none of those characters are. At the end of a three-year time jump, Schmidt and Jess’ best friend, Cece, are both settled into their own home with daughter Ruth, Winston’s living with his LAPD partner turned love interest Aly (Nasim Pedrad), and the show’s original will-they/won’t-they duo is returning from a six-month European book tour.

“I did not foresee ending the show with everybody in a relationship,” Meriwether said. “I wanted to make a show about weird, broken roommates in L.A. helping each other being single.”

That intent has been key to New Girl’s survival. Though its ensemble-comedy stripes were evident from some of the show’s earliest episodes, they had to fight to be seen through the impish image Deschanel projected on the big screen and in the recording studio—one that trailed her right into the advertising campaign that heralded the show’s arrival in the fall of 2011. “Simply adorkable,” the promos exclaimed, a description that might’ve fit the show’s twee opening title sequence, but didn’t reflect the unforced peculiarities or genuine heart that developed across the first season.

“This show is not just about a weird girl who’s always being weird and three guys who are always like, ‘You’re being weird,’” Meriwether said in 2012. “We could move past that and let them all be weird.”

In the age of BoJack Horseman, You’re The Worst, and the “traumedy,” “weird” and “broken” are common associations with sitcom protagonists. But that wasn’t the case when New Girl premiered, most of a decade and an entire television era ago in 2011. For one thing, broadcast ratings had yet to entirely crater; in its first few weeks on the air, New Girl was a timeslot-topping hit. If you were watching TV on Netflix and Hulu at the time, you were watching reruns or other hand-me-downs from the networks and cable. And when a batch of new comedies created by and starring women premiered that fall, it was headline news with a post-Bridesmaids peg, a focus on the show’s anatomically frank dialogue, and the people who were writing it.

Looking back in 2018, Meriwether said, “I feel like the fact that it’s not even a story anymore that there are women showrunners is great. In the time that I started the show ’til now, everything has changed in the TV business. It’s been kind of crazy to watch, and also crazy to be still doing a traditional network show in the middle of all of it.”

For most of its run, New Girl produced 20-some minutes of comedy about twenty- and thirtysomethings, 20-some times a year. (The final season received a reduced eight-episode order.) And true to Meriwether’s background as a playwright and the show’s hangout sitcom antecedents in Cheers and Friends, New Girl excelled at episodes that revolved around the characters bouncing off of one another in a single location—be it the loft, or the bar where Nick worked. But the show also tweaked tradition in subtle ways, nudging its arrested adolescents toward maturity through their personal and professional ups and downs.

“The idea that characters can change in comedy—I think that’s something that I had to get my head around,” Meriwether said. “The network wanting us to do that is the result of so many great new comedies having come out that really pushed those boundaries and tell stories where their characters are allowed to change.”

She cited the show’s rocky third season as a time when the writers tried to change their characters too much. With Jess and Nick acting on their feelings for one another, the show went into storytelling overdrive: Schmidt moved out, Coach moved back in, Jess’ sister (played by Linda Cardellini) stopped by for a three-episode spell. The run isn’t without its hits among the misses—the introduction of Winston’s inability to complete a puzzle in a timely manner, the post-Super Bowl episode with special guest star (and New Girl superfan) Prince—but it was too much for one sitcom to bite off and chew.

“We sort of pulled back and were like ‘Uh-oh—these are sitcom characters, they can’t change,’” Meriwether said. “And then I think toward the end of the series, we got more confident with the idea that as long as we’re doing it incrementally, and we’re making everything feel like it’s coming from a real place, that we actually can change these characters. It took me three seasons to realize how little story you actually need on a sitcom.”

And few sitcoms, network or otherwise, have rolled with the punches as well as New Girl has. “Some people probably have everything mapped out in their head from the beginning,” Meriwether said. “I was definitely not one of those people.” When Deschanel was pregnant with her first child in 2015, the show put its main character on a sequestered jury, and hired another movie star to occupy her empty room in the loft. When that movie star, Megan Fox, proved to be a good fit with the show’s cast of goofballs, the new new girl was added as a recurring guest star for season six. And there’s no greater show of New Girl’s flexibility than the fact that it’s coming to a close with an emotionally satisfying relationship for Winston, a man who once showed up to a wedding with a live badger.

“By the end of the show, we were finding so much comedy with all of them in relationships, which felt like a huge victory,” Meriwether said. “I was a little scared going into the seventh season: It started off as four single roommates in one apartment—how is this going to still feel like our show?”

It takes a few scenes for New Girl to regain its bearings after the time jump—until all the former, somewhat-less-broken roommates are gathered together in one place, reestablishing old dynamics (Schmidt has made a regrettable choice with his personal appearance, and Nick just can’t let it go) and providing windows into their newfound domesticity (Winston channels his all-encompassing intensity into the role of doting husband). And it’s not long before they’re all barging in on Jess and Nick at the loft as if they all still live there.

“It has always been what the show was,” Meriwether said. “This place where these people could be together and be a family and be home, even though it created a million problems for them.”

“The thing about that space where five people are living together, it’s obviously a metaphor for making a TV show. It’s the writers’ room, it’s where we have our production meetings, it’s the table-read room.” And it’s the beginning, middle, and end of New Girl, too—whether or not it’s still standing.