There are lots of things happening in the new season of "New Girl," which returns with two stellar episodes 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET Tuesday on Fox. So many, in fact, that I did a second post of episodic factoids and details about guest stars such as Carla Gugino, David Walton, Rob Reiner and Jamie Lee Curtis, which is posted here.
When I sat down for lunch in August with Liz Meriwether, "New Girl" creator and executive producer, and her fellow executive producers Brett Baer and Dave Finkel, what we mostly talked were big-picture topics, like the ways in which they planned to build on the solid yet enjoyably loopy foundations of "New Girl's" first season, which was not only a critical and commercial success but garnered Emmy nominations for stars Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield.
One slightly strange fact emerged from our hourlong conversation: Their offices on the Fox lot in Los Angeles are very close to those of the writers for Showtime's "Homeland," which returns five days after "New Girl." In the writing staffs' shared bathrooms, they said, notes are compared and writing struggles are recounted.
"It's so funny how different their issues are: 'We have a problem with the FBI,'" Finkel said with a laugh.
Later in our talk, as we discussed the Season 1 episodes the trio learned the most from, I suggested that, as the shows go into their sophomore seasons, the challenges of "Homeland" and "New Girl" aren't necessarily worlds apart. Both programs give prominent roles to unconventional women, and both walk very fine lines: They attempt to build complex characters and textured relationships with realistic challenges, but they work in mediums (espionage thriller and half-hour comedy) in which it would be easy to turn to well-worn tropes and cheap but effective methods of raising the comedic or dramatic stakes.
For "Homeland," the trick was not letting figurative or literal ticking bombs overshadow the characters' dilemmas. For "New Girl," among the challenges were adding nuance to Zooey Deschanel's Jess, who became more assertive and less "adorkable" over the course of the first season, and not letting the antics of a breakout character like Schmidt (Max Greenfield) blow up what evolved into a pleasing ensemble comedy. All in all, "New Girl" and "Homeland" could have sacrificed their characters' integrity for short-term gains, but so far, having seen two episodes of both programs' sophomore seasons, I'm happy to report that neither has done that.
"It is hard, because you want to go for the explosion, or, I guess, in our case, the joke," Meriwether said. "Telling comedy writers, you have to have this [moment] not to be funny -- that's hard."
Meriwether faced just that kind of moment in the episode "Injured," an episode she referenced several times as a key turning point in her evolution as a television writer/showrunner. (Meriwether previously wrote plays and movies, including "No Strings Attached.") In "Injured," Nick (Jake Johnson) had a cancer scare, which understandably unsettled the group.
"Coming from playwriting, I was like, 'Great, I'm totally fine with dramedy,'" Meriwether recalled. But in the editing room, she worried that the episode was too somber. "I kind of had to be talked down from a ledge, because I was really worried that we'd gone too far ... This episode was so serious and there wasn't a joke every minute. I kept wanting to cut pauses and put in a funny face."
The trio said they were happy with the episode that emerged from that particularly difficult editing experience, but, as Meriwether noted, stopping themselves from going too far in the direction of predictably broad comedy is another major challenge. On the set, they said the thinking is to shoot everything the actors, writers and directors come up with, including the kind of goofy physical comedy that Meriwether loves. Then, in the editing room, they hover over each episode to until it achieves the emotional and comedic tone they're looking for.
"Making a drama-comedy, or whatever it is we're doing, we're always trying to modulate. You get tired -- on the set you're in your twelfth hour of shooting, and you just want something to be funny. And it's our fallback position to go for the joke, no matter what," Meriwether said. "And we've found in the editing room that actually what ends up working is not necessarily 'the joke no matter what' -- it's figuring out the [point of the] scene."
What to do with Schmidt, the show's breakout character, is often the biggest test of all. As Finkel said, Schmidt could have easily been "the dumb guy," or the show could have exploited his status as an eminently mockable douche. But thanks to Max Greenfield's endearing depiction of the would-be ladykiller, there's a lot more the writers have been able to do with the character.
As "New Girl" really came into its own in the final third of its first season, his secret relationship with Jess' best friend, Cece (Hannah Simone), became public, and they broke up in the finale. To make any of that resonate, Schmidt could not be a cartoon.
"There's [Schmidt] stuff on the cutting room floor from last season that is so funny," Meriwether said. "It felt like it broke him and it felt like he was too goofy. We're always trying to figure out where that line is."
"When Max came in and did the first read, we knew he was the guy, but he wasn't going to give you those [dumb guy] tones, and we knew there was a greater variety of stuff you could do with him," added Finkel. "And that sort of goes across the board -- it's hard to pin any of those characters, like, 'He's the dumb guy' or, 'He's the wisecracking guy.' They all have a truth to them that we found because of the actors."
And those were among the pleasures of the first season of "New Girl": The actors were able to hit all kinds of different tones, from surreal silliness to disappointment and hurt, and the writers began to tailor the scripts more and more to skills of each actor. The producers said the episode "Jess and Julia," in which Nick's girlfriend questioned Jess' quirkiness, was especially helpful in terms of defining Jess and making her more assertive about her weirder qualities. Overall, the characters and the ensemble gelled quite nicely, to the point that the introduction of Dermot Mulroney's mature and grounded Russell in the "Fancy Man" arc was an enjoyable shakeup of the equilibrium.
The Russell episodes worked because "he was a guy that challenged all of them," Meriwether said. "That's what 'Fancy Man' brought into focus for me. I was like, 'Yeah they're all completely immature and they don't know how to deal with someone who is mature.'"
The goal for Season 2 is to continue to throw life challenges at the characters, even as "New Girl" explores the characters' relationships and even their childhoods.
"This season is more about family and friendship dynamics, but of course I love writing weird sex episodes," Meriwether said with a laugh. Among Jess' challenges is a job search and the multi-episode presence of David Walton's character, whose lack of emotional attachment allows him to tell her the truth about her life.
"Her character is so positive, she sees the good in people, she sees the good in life. It's not as funny when that kind of person has good things happen to them -- it's funny when that person has bad things happen to them and has to figure out a way through them," Meriwether noted.
Nick, the curmudgeon with a soft heart who developed a very funny man-crush on Russell, will continue to be dragged "kicking and screaming" into a life that doesn't revolve around TV reruns, bartending and low expectations. "He's not going to be a high-powered businessman at the end of the season, but I think it's good for him to take these incremental steps forward in figuring out" what to do with his life, Meriwether said.
And Winston (Lamorne Morris), will continue to occupy a role that the writers found for him late in the first season: The loft's voice of reason. "He's hilarious when he's calling people out on their s---," Baer said. Finding that out about the character "allowed us to move him into that anchor position, where he was the guy who was holding on to the logic. And that allowed us to move Nick into a place where Jake was able to show a little bit of his quirkier, zanier stuff."
There are no concrete plans to turn Nick and Jess into a couple, though there continue to be hints, as there were last season, that the two share a special relationship. "The fact is, they're not ready to be in a relationship together," Baer said. "We don't know because that hasn't really revealed itself to us."
What has revealed itself to the writers, however, is that the show is best when it's combining comedy and drama as the five characters explore the difficulties of the decade between 30 and 40, which is when many people take their biggest steps toward maturity.
That is the decade "when a lot of your friends are in completely different moments in their lives," said Meriwether, who's 30. "Some people have children, some people are getting married, some people are so far from that it's embarrassing to be around. We're exploring a lot of that -- that moment when people are growing up, people are making decisions, you're a direction for your career or choosing a different career, having children or get married, all that stuff."
And given that the show is following the characters' halting progression toward those life goals, the producers said they had embraced a more serialized approach. The low-key, humanistic and relationship-driven nature of shows like "Cheers," "Parks and Recreation" and "Louie" were also mentioned as touchstones by all three producers.
"I was watching a lot of 'Seinfeld' on Youtube recently -- that show is so out-of-this world amazing," Meriwether said. "But I feel like as a viewer, I wanted to give people stories to track. I just always click in with that. Maybe it's a woman thing, I don't know. I just always want to feel like things are in process and there are victories to be had and things can change.""New Girl" Season 2 returns on Tuesday, September 25 with new episodes at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET on Fox.