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postmortem

New Girl Showrunners Go Deep on Nick and Jess, and Tease a Season 4 Reset

This season of New Girl began with Nick and Jess deciding not to call it, and their weird romance almost made it the full season. The truth is the writers never planned on having that tumultuous relationship last. (Recall: Nick and Jess got together during a drunken game of strip True American.) With their split, showrunners Brett Baer and Dave Finkel say they’re plotting a reset to the “less soapy” group dynamics of the first season. Vulture talked to them about the breakup they always knew was coming, their big Schmidt mistake, and what they’ve figured out about Winston.  

Nick and Jess have called it for good, it seems. At what point did you decide you weren’t going to keep them together?
Finkel: I think we’ve always had designs on having their relationship be not an easy one. It would be a thing that expanded and contracted, so we knew it was going to be a bumpy. It went a little smoother for them than we actually ever intended. We had always intended on breaking them up a little earlier; it just never organically felt right. I don’t know that it’s over forever, but it’s over for now.
Baer: One of the things that has always been a hallmark of this relationship is that these two people, even if they do care about each other enough to try and be in a relationship with one another, we’ve always said they’re not ready. Both of them individually need to grow in their own ways to get to a point where they’re actually capable of being there for each other. Honestly none of us, including [executive producer Liz Meriwether], really knows if they’re meant to be together or not in the big picture.

Was it difficult when the fans became so invested in that relationship, which you just said hadn’t been designed to last long? Does that kind of thing pressure you to give viewers what they think they want when maybe your storytelling instincts are different?
Finkel: It is hard.
Baer: Yeah, I mean, [Fox chairman of entertainment] Kevin Reilly very early in the run of the show said to us, “I like the characters where they’re at. I like Nick where he’s at. I don’t want him to grow or change too fast.” He said, “As writers and showrunners, you’re going to feel compelled to change them faster than the audience is going to want them to change. So you have to be patient and relax before you start mixing up the game board.” What happened with Schmidt at the beginning of the season [when he was cheating on Cece and Elizabeth] turned out to be a good warning device for us about Nick and Jess. I don’t think we expected the audience to react as negatively to the Schmidt decision. We thought it was funny, and that it was in his character to be in love with both of these women. But the audience really felt, I think, hurt by Schmidt. We all looked at each other like, wow, the audience is really invested in these characters in a way that’s extremely deep. We have to take care with the Nick and Jess thing in a way that we honor their investment in this relationship and not play games with them. We didn’t want to pull the plug before it felt appropriate or right.

A lot of our readers felt the breakup was really sudden. How did you feel about how you built up to it?
Finkel: Their issues are baked in. They’ve always had quiet issues with each other that haven’t been able to put a voice to. We talk about our personal lives in great detail in the writers' room, and most of our heartbreaking and troublesome breakups came all of a sudden. If there’s a kernel of toxicity in a relationship, it grows to a point where the thing falls apart. Sometimes it’s gradual and sometimes it’s a horrible, hard moment. I think we wanted to plan the horrible hard moment and see what that gave us.
Baer: I also think specific to Nick and Jess I think they got out of the relationship as quickly and as impetuously as they got in. Part of the charming quirk of their relationship is that they have made some quick and fast decisions that speak to how unprepared they really are to be in this relationship with each other. Jess was still with Sam, and Nick just grabbed her and kissed her at the end of “Cooler.” That moment was thrilling but it was also like, What is he doing? The idea that they are breaking up under the same kind of fast and dirty circumstances is something we wanted to do.

We talked to Liz last month right after the breakup episode aired, and she said the plan for next season was to go “back to basics” because she felt that things got a little heavy this season. Can you elaborate on what “back to basics” will mean?
Baer: It’s really getting back to the core group dynamics of the show. By putting Nick and Jess in a relationship — which felt right and I think we all feel where we needed to be series-wise — it also in a weird way isolated them. It created story factions where it was always like the Nick-and-Jess story and the Schmidt story and the Winston-and-Coach story. The thing that was probably missing more because of the Nick and Jess relationship goes back to what was best about our show early on: five, and with Damon Wayans six, characters together. The fun part of the season finale “Cruise” episode for us was wanting to reset the table for next season. This episode was about how this group of people is going to go forward having fun adventures together, having history, having baggage they need to deal with. All that stuff, that relationship baggage, is there, but the group together is moving forward. We’re hoping it’s going to open up a lot more comic opportunities and be a little less soapy, if you will.
Finkel: For us, the show has always been broken people with some very real problems that need to be dealt with before they can graduate to the next phase of their lives. Even having a relationship is a group dynamic issue, and they’re all so broken it requires the groupthink to get through it. That’s the thing that definitely resets the table a little bit.

Damon Wayans became a series regular this season. What do you think he’s added that the show maybe was missing before?
Baer: I think it’s great to have some guy energy in the show. We had a lot of that with Jake Johnson in the first few seasons, and that kind of became mitigated by him being in a relationship with Jess. The romantic story took over. Having a guy’s guy back in the show, we were able to pull Nick into those stories and Winston. Or even stories between Coach, Winston, and Schmidt, like where they’re trying to get some women up in Schmidt’s apartment. Those were motivated by having the single guy joining the fray and bringing the color back to the show, which goes back all the way to the first season where we had Jess moving in with three gentlemen and figuring out how to navigate their guy stuff.   
Finkel: Damon brought out the best in everybody we worked with. We put him in stories with Zooey. He’s great with Max. I think Lamorne Morris had a breakout season, he was so funny, and I think a lot of it came from the dynamic that he got to play up against Coach.

Since you brought up Nick, how has it been balancing his grounded, emotional moments with Jess with the crazy and, frankly, stunted side of his character. (To quote him warmly and accurately, “Science is more of a belief than anything.”)
Baer: We go back and forth all the time with him. He can’t be so stupid that we don’t believe he’s a functioning human being, and I think we don’t look at him so much as dumb as having this crazy, Nick Miller point of view. It’s something very typical of someone in their late 20s/early 30s who’s still trying to justify to themselves why they haven’t made it yet. We all know people like that. I have a son who’s 19 who talks like Nick Miller. [Laughs.] It’s a pretty typical guy thing to want to rail against the universe because it’s so unfair. That being said, Jake is so talented that I think he makes those turns so well. For women who watch the show, you buy into him as the reclamation project boyfriend who has so much going for him and is great in so many ways. The great thing about Nick is that underneath all that railing is a heart so big that he’s afraid of having it kicked around. That’s where the tough guy bluster comes from, but the reality is he’s a big soppy mushball. He’s just afraid to go there.
Finkel: This is a guy in the pilot who hid in his hood. The good thing about it is Jess is constantly drawing him out of his hood, but that guy still exists. He still has fears and he’s still got his pride and he’s still stubborn. It’s a tribute to Jake Johnson that he does play the romantic lead, but also when you read the online stuff, men completely relate to this guy. You don’t find that kind of actor very often who is able to do both things.

Winston, I agree, has been very funny this season, but he still doesn’t get the major story lines. What have you figured out about how he fits in and playing to Lamorne’s strengths?
Finkel: Lamorne is a phenomenal actor, and he can bank these turns almost better than anyone. Season after season, we’ve had him land these incredible heartfelt moments, and say the truth in a way that I don’t know anyone else can get away with, and so we rely on him to be that ballast for everybody else. Yeah, he may be figuring shit out with his cat or the Honey Roast, but the only way we can get away with that is he makes it believable that that’s something important to him. He shows up to the Honey Roast in a white tuxedo and you believe this really matters to the guy. It’s crazy but he makes you buy it.
Baer: The truth is because of the situation with recasting Damon in the beginning, we did not have the chance to work with Lamorne in the same way we did with the other actors during the pilot and audition process. We were writing the character of Winston before Lamorne was cast. With the other characters, so much of the work we did during the audition process informed the pilot script and was adapted and adjusted to the actors. When Lamorne joined us, I think it took us all a little time to figure him out and figure out what we wanted the character to be. So there has been an evolution, I think, of us finding his sweet spot and how best to use him. Like Dave said, he’s a good enough actor that you can give him a bigger story, and as we move forward I think that character is just going to continue to grow and grow because Lamorne can do so much.

Schmidt seems to have made peace with Cece being unavailable. Are we going to see her boyfriend Buster more next season? Or has he served his purpose as an obstacle for Schmidt?
Baer: We have that in our back pocket and, schedules allowing, something we’d like to use. It’s set up now in a way where they’re at an interesting crossroads, or at least Schmidt is. 
Finkel: What’s clear from this last episode is that Schmidt genuinely loves this woman, and loves her enough to let her go. He’s matured enough to the point where he recognizes that if he genuinely loves her then he wants her to be happy, whatever that means, whether it includes him or not. But there’s always going to be the part of him that’s going to be fighting to win, because he’s Schmidt.
Baer: It’s part and parcel of the idea that he’s got a long road ahead to making things right. I don’t think Cece trusts him, nor should she. I know people really let us have it for the Schmidt story at the top of the season, but in some ways it’s beneficial, because in order to dimensionalize the character a little more, it’s important to have him come out the other side. Even if he’s not in pursuit of Cece, he’s got a lot of reparative work to do.
Finkel: We were so happy this year to start hearing 13 or 14 episodes in, “When are Cece and Schmidt going to get back together?” We didn’t wanna rush it because we felt Schmidt had to do his penance. But it’s nice that the audience was missing that, because they are so fantastic together.

Cece’s a bartender now. One commenter wanted to know if that meant we might not see her apartment and model roommates (Nadia!) again?
Finkel: That’s a standing set, so we’ll definitely be back at Cece’s place for sure. Even though people go away, they always come back.
Baer: Nadia is one of our favorite side characters and everyone loves her on staff. You don’t want to use it too much because you don’t want it turn into catchphrase city.
Finkel: Yeah, because she’s bonkers. A little goes a long way.
Baer: At the beginning of every season, there is always five or six stories being pitched by somebody that include her at the center. One of those will find their way on TV at some point.
Finkel: We wrote her into a bunch of episodes this year, too, but it just didn’t fit. But we got her in our radar.  

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FOX