‘New Girl’ Creator Liz Meriwether on Jess, Sexuality, Schmidt & More

Jace Lacob talks to “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether about Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and girl-on-girl snark.

Greg Gayne / FOX; inset: Getty Images

One of the few comedy hits of the season, Fox’s New Girl, wraps its first season Tuesday night.

Created by Elizabeth Meriwether (No Strings Attached), New Girl revolves around a socially awkward teacher, Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who—after discovering her boyfriend has cheated on her—moves in with three guys (Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, and Jake Johnson) and discovers that they are just as neurotic as she is.

At 30, Meriwether might be one of the youngest television show creators in Hollywood. Arriving fresh from a dental cleaning, she was sporting similar eyeglasses to the ones Zooey Deschanel’s Jess dons on the show. Meriwether’s been known to spend the night at the office and says coffee is her fuel. “Honestly, other people’s brilliance and creativity gets me through the day and pushes me to keep thinking about the show,” she said, sitting in her office on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. “Because there are definitely times that I want to curl up with Upstairs, Downstairs and disappear.”

The Daily Beast caught up with Meriwether to discuss the evolution of the show, its handling of Jess’s sexuality, girl-on-girl snark, the breakout character of Schmidt (Greenfield), and more.

One of the things the show has done so well is transform the notion of an awkward girl moving in with three guys into a study of group neuroses, gender, and the ways in which makeshift families are constructed. Was this always the goal?

That makes it sound really smart. The show was always about this ensemble. The way that I had always pictured it was four or five weirdos living together and trying to figure stuff out. Zooey [Deschanel] is such an amazing presence and such a great ensemble member herself. The show is growing towards everybody having their own stories and people being interested in all of the characters, which I think is great. For our show to work, you need to see it as an ensemble and not just one person’s show.

If you look at the pilot, you would never imagine that this is going to grow into a show that can have a cancer storyline for Nick.

This show is about their friendships, so even if it is a cancer story for Nick, it is a story about Jess helping him realize some stuff about his life. The show has always worked best when all of the characters are involved in all of the stories. Because that is the way actual friendships work: all of your friends weigh in on each other’s lives.

Prior to New Girl, you had never been in a writers room before. What has the last year taught you?

I think I have learned how to let other people into my process, which is so important. Coming from theater and film, you get used to shutting yourself off and going into your room and working on your stuff and emailing it out in the middle of the night when it is ready. In TV you really have to deal with so many people. You are a producer as well as a writer, which I think makes you a better writer, because you are forced to deal with the day-to-day realities of an idea that you have late at night.

In looking back at the season, what surprised you the most in terms of where the story and characters have gone?

I really didn’t know if Cece [Hannah Simone] and Schmidt were going to hook up. I felt, probably like the audience, like Cece would never let that happen. Then, the more that we got to know Cece, we felt there was this vulnerability in her that Schmidt could seize on. Schmidt could grab her at like a low moment and get in there. Then, there was a like a strength and a real sexiness to Schmidt that I wasn’t quite sure was going to be there from the beginning.

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I was really surprised by how much I love Lamorne [Morris] and Winston. We started the show with a different guy [Damon Wayans Jr.] and then recast that part, and then we had to break the first seven episodes without having cast Lamorne. We were just writing for a character, but we didn’t have any idea who that character was going to be. So it took us the year to get to know Lamorne and who the character is, and that is a big hope of mine for season two, that we keep going with Winston. He is just so surprising, because he can play the small moments so well, but then when he is doing some big speech, like he is pretending to be the lover on the down low, the Theodore K. Mullins thing, he just went wild with it.

With Jess and Nick (Johnson), there’s a definitely a “will they/won’t they” vibe. Do you have an endgame with them in mind?

I love them together. I love what they bring to each other, what they help each other with. I love crotchety old Nick and Jess’s constant optimism that gets under his skin. I want them to be happy, and I feel like they could probably make each other happy, but they have so much to get through before they are able to do that, that I don’t know.

Some viewers were initially turned off by Jess’s “adorkable” qualities. Was there any sense that you would have to react to that strain of criticism or alter how the character was being portrayed?

When the audience could get past some of the initial marketing of the show and just watch the show, people came to see that it was not just about, like, “Look at how cute we are!” I don’t even think that is really what we are doing at all. But generally, we got in a little bit deeper with her character as the season went on, which I think was really good, and Zooey has all those different levels. She can be annoyingly adorable, but also really soulful and really smart and really strong and be able to do it all at once, which is great. She is hilarious in either scenario, and the thing that matters to me most of all is that it is funny. We will use all the tools in our toolbox just to make a funny show. I never really thought of it as “adorkable.”

Do you think that was, for some viewers, an inability to delineate between the character of Jess and the persona of Zooey Deschanel?

It is all mixed together. The character was me at one point, then it was Zooey, and then it was Jess, and Jess is like a hybrid of me and Zooey, the writers, and the editor. It becomes this big melting pot, and I think that Zooey, as a person, is probably different than the persona of Zooey. I don’t really know what is out there. Honestly, I don’t get that involved in the Internet back-and-forth, because I feel like it is a rabbit hole.

Why do you think female-centric comedies such as New Girl or Girls are the subject of harsh viewer criticism?

Lena [Dunham] is a really good friend of mine, but I can only really speak to my show. I was definitely surprised by the level of anger or snark in reaction to some of the elements of our show. There is definite snarkiness about male stuff and male-dominated shows and all that, but there is a lot of stuff coming from other girls and women that I found surprising, a pressure that our show was a symbol of something or that we were trying to make some statement or that we represented something bigger in the political landscape that we really didn’t. At the end of the day we are making a sitcom. It’s not even an HBO show. That was definitely weird for me. It was a new side of the culture wars, or whatever you would call it, that I wasn’t that excited to find out about. I have been writing women characters for as long as I could write, and it has been really important to me to make funny women characters.

Funny people are flawed people, and what that has been difficult to get your mind around is this idea that to make a really funny character, that character has to be messed up in some way, or off, or immature to a fault, or a weirdo. You have to find something comedic about a character, and that means that the character can’t be an organized, Type A, bleeding-heart, lovely person. The characters don’t have to be symbols of a bigger movement. I feel like we are really past that.

What people were trying to insinuate was that Jess is emblematic of all women, instead of seeing her as one woman.

Yes. It feels like there is a double standard there, because there are certainly plenty of male characters where you don’t do that. I don’t see Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum as emblematic of all museum security guards around the world. Or men.

Can you talk about the handling of Jess’s sexuality? Initially, she couldn’t even say the word penis.

That episode, “Naked,” really came from my personal experience of thinking that sex is really funny, not that I couldn’t say “penis,” or that I come from a place of approaching sex as a child. It came from thinking it is funny and not really understanding people who think it is really serious and passionate. We thought that Zooey was so funny with all of her different ways in trying to say “penis.” We followed the joke and didn’t really think about the larger ramifications for the character.

That episode did air at a moment when there was a lot of pressure about her maturity level. So, I think that it became a much more important character-defining piece of information. She is coming out of a really long-term relationship, so she is uncomfortable with having sex with new people. That is definitely where “Bad in Bed” came from. That was not her character being immature; that was coming from genuine fear about having sex with a new person and [wondering], “Am I good enough?” Every woman has felt that, and every man. Sex with a new person is really scary, and that has nothing to do with whether or not you are like a fully realized woman; that is just like human fear. But she did grow over the course of the season because she was able to enter into this relationship with Russell [Dermot Mulroney] and even better realize what she wanted in a relationship. Making that decision that she wanted passion was a really important character moment for her. Sometimes the hardest thing is realizing what you want, and that’s like a sign of growing up. I think she can say the word “penis” now. We just like to listen to her do it as a Swedish person.

Did you anticipate just how much of a breakout character Schmidt would become?

As soon as I saw Max audition for the character, I knew there was something really special there, that people are going to want to watch this, because I wanted to watch it all day long. Max is a really great actor, and so a character that could have become this dumb fool became a character that is interesting and is deeply flawed. What is really fun about his character is that it feels like he is a total idiot, a den mother, and a douche, which I am proud that we managed to like pull that off, because it doesn’t seem to me to be the easy way to go. But I do really credit that to Max. Hopefully next season we are going to get into his family situation, which I am thinking is probably not going to be great.

Where do we find the gang in the season finale?

There is this looming question of if Nick will move out of the apartment and if Jess can get him to stay and if that is really the right thing for him. Nick is grappling with that. Schmidt and Cece are figuring out what their relationship is going to be. Is it going to be a relationship? Can they handle it? Are there deep-seated emotional problems that they can’t deal with? His dick is still broken. When we took away his dick, for lack of a better word, we were really forcing him into a corner to deal with whether he could emotionally connect with Cece and not just hook up with her. They are still dealing with that. Then they end up in the desert with the coyotes. It is not a cliffhanger, but it is on a cliff.