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Elizabeth Meriwether Needed to Write New Girl to Make Sense of Elizabeth Holmes

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Hulu/Fox

If you were surprised that Elizabeth Meriwether, creator of New Girl, was tasked with creating a miniseries about Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos, then you have something in common with Elizabeth Meriwether. But as the eight episodes of Hulu miniseries The Dropout demonstrate, to make a ridiculous story and even more ridiculous character not feel silly (or, God forbid, goofy), you need someone who deeply understands the nuances of silly, someone who spent seven years in the silly mines. Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes is not not absurd — you’ve surely seen the GIF of her dancing — but for The Dropout to work, Meriwether and her collaborators had to develop a tone as unique as Holmes herself, without chasing laughs or passing judgment.

On Good One, Meriwether discusses the unexpected ways New Girl prepared her for The Dropout, how her writers balanced the factual truths of the case with the emotional truths of their story, and processing the unexpected second life of New Girl on Netflix. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode, below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Line Between Comedy and Dramedy

There is a scene in the first episode in which Phyllis Gardner, played by Laurie Metcalf, shoots down Elizabeth’s initial idea for Theranos and Elizabeth responds by quoting Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Which is not unlike a thing Jess might do in New Girl.
Both Jess and Elizabeth Holmes are very awkward.

How do you take that fact and decide how to use it in a scene like this?
The Yoda quote was so ridiculous — she painted it on the wall in her office. Those are the details that made me love the character, but also pushed me away from her, too. Her awkward devotion to things was this really interesting, absurd thing about the character. I wrote most of the dialogue in the actual outline, and this was the first time in the story that someone was saying no to her, saying, Everything that you are and everything that you want to do is not going to work. Which is great for comedy. The more two opposing forces are meeting, the funnier it’s going to be.

A lot of the comedy in The Dropout also comes from the acknowledgment that it’s in the recent past, the early 2000s of it all: We’re going to get a DVD in the mail and watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I don’t want to say Phyllis was wrong, but the world does change really quickly in this period of time. Elizabeth is coming to it from that point of view and Phyllis is like, “Slow down.” I wanted the audience to be aware of those dynamics.

There’s another scene, in episode two, when Elizabeth interrupts a birthday celebration for Edmund Ku. She pulls him into his office to yell at him about something, sees his daughter’s Easy-Bake Oven, and asks him, “Why doesn’t she use a real oven?” This could be written to be very funny, but with her power position, you’re watching it from Edmund’s perspective: I am uncomfortable. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say in this situation.
The Easy-Bake Oven joke is so sad. Really heartbreaking but also funny. It’s a joke about how she doesn’t understand what it is like to be a child or to have a father who, like, plays with you. But it’s also her stepping into her power.

Actually, walking into the room with them singing “Happy Birthday” is based on me. There were many moments in New Girl when my feet were on fire, and I would hear “Happy Birthday” coming from the writers’ room. There was one horrible moment when I stopped the party. So that scene was from my experience: Don’t you understand what I’m up against? Then having to acknowledge the humanity of the people you’re working with and step out of your own stressful existence for a second. That section was really close to my heart.

The show really gracefully gives this feeling of “something is going on with this person” but not saying what it is.
I found out doing The Dropout that a lot of drama execs see comedy as a monolith. I understood there were shades of it. I never wanted the jokes to allow the audience to distance themselves from Elizabeth. I never wanted to be laughing at her. There are moments when you are, but that’s not the intent. The intent was to highlight the absurdity of the situation and to show the humanity of all the characters. A drama writer would’ve maybe been uncomfortable with the shame of it. Hulu was constantly pushing back on me to not let things get too silly. I think they used the word “goofy” in a notes call.

It just chilled me to my core.

A Good Dance Scene Is Better Than a Bad Sex Scene

How did you decide how to approach the romantic relationship between Elizabeth and Sunny?
It was an exciting part of the story because reporters and journalists couldn’t touch it; there weren’t facts about it, and it needed to be dramatized. I wrote a couple sex scenes because, coming off seven years of a sitcom, I was like, Weeeeee, we get to not cut to the next morning? But it came back from legal and they said, “If you’re going to write a scene, they both have to be good at sex.” 

I understand it and agree with it, but as a dramatist, as a writer, I was like, How am I going to write scenes where they’re both good at sex? We tried to write one and it just turned into the two of them saying, “You’re really good at sex,” which is more awkward than before. But I wanted to show the intimacy and history and connection between them. That’s where some of those dancing scenes came from, like that scene with the Lil Wayne song.

What did it say in the script that resulted in that dance?
I think the word “awkwardly” was used, but really it’s all Amanda. My favorite moments in both New Girl and The Dropout are physical moments or, like, just looks between actors. I don’t write that, I write the moment. The actor takes it and runs with it.

I imagine it’s really gratifying as a writer to create a playground where it’s so clear that this can happen.
Absolutely, because otherwise I would just write novels or I would perform my own jokes. I love the process of handing it off. It’s scary and sometimes it’s really hard and sometimes you’re disappointed, but that’s where the best comedy comes from: when the actor makes it their own.

Back Then They Didn’t Want Me

There was a leak from a Netflix report recently where they determined that the TV show everyone wants is New Girl, that they were done with “sad-coms.” What did you think when that came out?
Maybe what they’re really saying is they want cheaper comedies. So many times we would be in the New Girl writers’ room like, “Well, something else has to happen in the loft.” It all happened in this one set. But when we were making New Girl, nobody wanted New Girl.

I remember I had this very funny meeting with the president of Fox. They always wanted it to be a show that, quote-unquote, everybody could watch. Like “Why is this not Modern Family?” It was always, “How are we going to get older men to watch this?” That’s not how the business model works now. Now it’s, “Let’s make shows for niche audiences.” But at the time we were chasing an imaginary 45-year-old man who’s like, “New Girl? I guess I’ll give this a try.”

In that meeting, the president of Fox held up this graph of our viewership decline from the premiere. As if I didn’t know. We were laughing about it in the writers’ room — we had this bit where the graph just keeps going down, and there’s all these assistants holding paper out into the parking lot and the graph is still going down and you’re looking out the window. When I heard that Netflix said that, I laughed. Because that’s not how you make television. You don’t just make a thing like a thing.

Maybe the 35-year-old men who were watching New Girl ten years ago just aged into the demo.
I had a meeting with Hulu where they said 45-year-old-plus men are loving The Dropout. It was this huge full-circle moment. Where do I go from here?

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