Liz Meriwether on How They Changed New Girl While Zooey Deschanel Is on Maternity Leave

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Photo: Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic

New Girl has seen its characters through some pretty significant changes over the past five years, but perhaps none has been more significant than this season’s six-episode, Jess-less arc while Zooey Deschanel is on maternity leave. But, true to its title, there is a New Girl — in the form of guest star Megan Fox, whose first episode airs tonight. Vulture spoke to New Girl creator Liz Meriwether about this new character, unexpected directions, and the show’s one true love story.

I just finished watching the first two episodes of the Megan Fox arc —
And you hate them!

No, I was thrilled! She’s super funny.
Yeah, she’s great. We’re really lucky to have her. There’s something about her in this character that felt sort of new for her, and then there’s something about this character on the show that felt good for us, this confident, tough-talking woman coming in to see through the guys’ bullshit. We do a lot of anxious, neurotic-people comedy, so it was nice to have this character who wasn’t going through all of those things.

How did the decision to bring Megan Fox onboard come about? Did you approach her and then write her character, Reagan, around her, or was it the other way around?
We knew when we found out that Zooey was going to be gone for six episodes we wanted to bring somebody in, and Jake [Johnson, who plays Nick] had worked with Megan on Friends With Kids and had a great experience with her. So we worked on a character that was for her that also worked for us and what we wanted to do on the show this season.

So we’ve got a Jess-less New Girl for a while! Besides the obvious, how will Zooey Deschanel’s absence change the show?
What’s cool is that it doesn’t feel that different. It definitely feels like we’re in the same world, it’s just that [Jess]’s point of view is missing, so her kind of “let’s everybody talk about our feelings” is missing, which is allowing other characters to step up to that plate. I think Winston’s more Jess-like characteristics are coming through, in a way. And Cece’s character is getting a chance to do some of those things. It’s allowing us to get a little bit richer with some of the other characters, which I appreciate as a writer.

What was the process of developing Winston as a character? He’s really come into his own in the last two seasons.
Something clicked where our writers really knew how to write him, and [Lamorne Morris] was really bringing so much to the set, and — I don’t know! He’s great!

He has my all-time favorite character specific, which is the either too-small or too-big pranks.
I don’t want to give anything away, but we do have an arc coming up for him about the pranks in the middle of this season. It’s taking it to another level.

You’re casually introducing the idea that Cece and Reagan are queer. That’s really exciting for a network show. Was there any pushback on that?
There really wasn’t, which probably shows just how much things have changed. We were really excited by it, and were also really aware that we didn’t want it to be this thing where, “Oh, Megan is hot,” so we’re using it in that way — we just wanted to have it be part of her character. 

We were really aware of [not fetishizing it], and in the premiere, we were trying to tell the story of Schmidt dealing with his jealousy issues around Cece, and this kind of fit perfectly into that story, and felt surprising in a cool way that it wasn’t about a man. It was about this woman from Cece’s past.

Is New Girl at its core truly a love story between Nick and Schmidt?
It certainly is this season. Their friendship is amazing; we get an endless amount of joy out of the two of them. That was another element of the show that, with Jess being gone, we had the time and energy to invest in.

It also felt like it made sense this season with Schmidt getting married — when your best friend gets married, that’s a really intense time where things are changing, and you’re figuring out what direction you’re both going to go in, if things are going to change at all after you get married. That definitely made sense to us.

Josh Gondelman, who used to recap New Girl for Vulture, used to describe it as “friendship porn” — it’s just the friendships everyone wishes they had.
[Laughs.] I definitely love in the episode [“Bob & Carol & Nick & Schmidt”], we were in the writers room and we were like, “No, of course Schmidt takes ownership over Nick’s sperm.” There was a very long run of the two of them improv-ing back and forth about owning each other’s sperm and whether or not they did.

They have a parallel Jess and Cece relationship.
We were playing with that in the premiere a little bit, where Cece and Schmidt were asking Jess and Nick to be maid of honor and best man — the idea that Nick and Cece were actually much more similar than we thought going into the series, the way that Schmidt and Jess are weirdly similar.

Besides Nick and Cece’s similarities, what’s one direction the show has taken that you didn’t expect when it started?
God, there are so many, now we’ve done over 100 episodes, and the show has just become its own thing. There are all these side characters, like Outside Dave and Tran, and all these amazing little parts of the world that I never would have imagined. Definitely Winston’s character and who he is were not in the initial conception of the show. So many things that have come from writers and the actors themselves. I also never could have believed we could do six episodes without Jess! I think it’s a testament to how great Max [Greenfield], Jake, Hannah [Simone], and Lamorne are that the spirit of the show is maintained

Who is your favorite minor character to write on the show?
I mean, Tran, but we don't really write him — it might be a tie between Outside Dave and Nadia because they’re both so fun. They go to the part of me that just wants to write nonsensical jokes all day long. We have a little Nadia origin story in the middle of this season that I’m kind of excited about.

What’s one thing coming up this season that you’re really excited for?
I’ve just been loving this season. We’ve had some ups and downs with the show, and I’ve really been enjoying working on it, and where the stories are going, and I’ve been loving allowing the characters to grow up a little bit, letting the stories get a little bit deeper. There’s an exciting ending to the season, and, like I said, along the prank lines, there’s a really funny prank in the middle of the season that really changes everything. “A prank that changes everything” — how’s that for a teaser?

You must have been asked this many times, but I’ve somehow never seen it — if you had to be roommates with one of your characters, who would it be?
Oh my God, I’ve never been asked that! There are so many elements to it, because nobody in their right mind would want to be a roommate of Nick’s … there’s a lot of pros and cons for each character. I feel like Winston would be fun because he’d keep it pretty clean, but he’d be fun, but he’d be working a lot, so he wouldn’t be around too much. I feel like I’ve been living with all of them for five years, anyway!