'New Girl' Showrunners Talk Finale, Next Steps and the Season of Nick and Jess (Q&A)
Brett Baer and Dave Finkel tell THR about the decision to steer clear of cliffhangers, the complications of writing about a couple and their take on the ratings dip.
The sun has set on another season in the New Girl loft -- and it was not an uneventful year. The Fox comedy brought back original cast member Damon Wayans Jr., welcomed Prince, steered one of its most lovable characters into morally questionable territory and spent the bulk of the 23 episodes following its central duo's ultimately doomed attempt at dating.
That couple, Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel), decided to stay the platonic course during Tuesday's high-seas finale, and the season wrapped with quite a bit of closure.
Executive producers Brett Baer and Dave Finkel, both showrunners alongside creator (and director) Liz Meriwether, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how the cliffhanger-free finale will set up the fourth season. They also talked about the tricky timing of the Nick-Jess breakup, how their writers room will be changing next year and if they'll ever reshoot the opening titles to accommodate everybody in their growing cast.
How did you decide on what kind of note to end the season on?
Baer: Since there was so much story this year, and each of the characters went through so many turns, we wanted to land in a place that was a primer for next year. We wanted to set the table for what the dynamic of the show will be. We sort of took the audience on a bit of a wild ride this year and felt like ending in a positive place where we could see what the loft was going to look like at the top of season four. The dynamics and issues that Nick and Jess are going to have to deal with was sort of our priority.
Finkel: Nick and Jess is going to be an engine in some way, shape or form. It is a part of the DNA of the show, and we have no interest in not paying homage to that. But in the grand scheme of things, the thing that makes us happiest is the group dynamic. It's more fun for us, as writers, and I think it bears more fruit to go forward as a group -- and not focusing 100 percent on the Nick and Jess of it all.
Baer: How do these six characters go forward together as friends, having some history and baggage now, as their lives continue to evolve and change? And the big question is always how to continue living with Winston.
Winston may have reached peak weirdness.
Baer: Lamorne [Morris] has been terrific this season. I think he really broke out this year. He was special in so many episodes, and really coming into his own. I think it's a blending of us understanding what he does and him feeling a little more comfortable. I think he killed it.
How easy was it to keep all of the balls in the air while adding Damon Wayans Jr.?
Finkel: The weird thing about it is that he was so firmly established in the pilot, and then we went away from him for 40-some-odd episodes. In that time, all of the other characters grew exponentially. We have this guy come back into the fold, and he's essentially the same person he was in the pilot.
Baer: All he'd had was eight or ten minutes of material. I think books will be written someday about this situation, for other showrunners to learn how do deal with these kinds of things, because I can't remember another television show that had this kind of situation occur.
Finkel: Damon is the most flexible actor. He's one of those guys who just walks on set, you give him something, and he says "OK."
Baer: He fit into the new group dynamic and was immediately in the swing of it. It's hard to balance six characters, let alone five, but he has worked so well with so many different people. We've had him do stories with everybody and he just killed it. It was better for Lamorne to have him there. A lot of people thought "What does this mean for Winston?" but I think Lamorne probably shined brighter in those episodes with that dynamic between the two of them.
You have Hannah Simone and now Damon as a regular -- any thoughts of reshooting the opening titles to include them?
Finkel: We've thought about that over and over again, trying to figure out a concept that would work for that.
Baer: That's always a tricky question, because there's an identity with the audience and the show. If you switch it up too much, it makes it look like you're doing more reworking of the series than you are.
Finkel: And it's expensive. Those things are like producing a mini movie. It's a discussion we had at the end of last year, so we may again this year.
Baer: We actually tried a new credit sequence in the second season, and it just didn't work. It didn't have the same sort of thing, so we scrapped it. Titles are so short in most episodes, we mostly have that trimmed down seven-second version.
How much of a pain was shooting on the cruise ship?
Finkel: Well, it was easier because it was the Queen Mary. It's not moving. It's as old as time itself. It had its challenges for sure, just the amount of extras needed to make it just look even sparsely populated is extraordinary. You have no idea how big a ship is until you're trying to fill up a screen, and you can see for 100 yards.
Baer: It was also Liz's first time directing, and she did a fantastic job. A season finale set aboard gigantic cruise ship is not the easiest way to jump in. There was very little time on the loft set.
How do you feel about how the Nick and Jess relationship played out?
Baer: Originally we had in mind that there would be this all-in Sid and Nancy kind of quality, and there would be at least a push of seven or eight episodes. I think there was a lot of debate moving forward, deciding when do you pull the trigger and have them decide to not be in a relationship. The hard thing about these shows is that you do ten episodes in the writers room before you're even on TV, and then you start to get feedback from the audience. You're always performing a little bit in a vacuum. It was one of the more complicated things about the season -- that and some of the choices we made about Schmidt kept us in this constant dialogue of what's best for the show so we can keep the core constituency of the audience engaged.
Finkel: We go for a writers retreat at the beginning of every season, and one of the things we knew we wanted to do was show that this was not going to be an easy relationship. As we let the relationship go longer, I think they got a little comfortable and it was going along too swimmingly. Most of the fun of the last two seasons has been seeing these two people, who clearly care a lot about each other, butt heads. We wanted to have some longevity to this, and we probably wanted to break it up a little earlier, but it ended up staying around a little longer than we wanted -- possibly because we didn't want to have them break up anywhere around the Super Bowl.
Was the Super Bowl your season highlight?
Finkel: Take the Prince part out of it, that's it's own special microcosm, but just the creative aspect of making the Super Bowl... what would you say, Brett? That was like a four- or five-month journey?
Baer: It was like a show within a show. It was its own cottage industry. We had two of our best people on it for four months straight months. It takes that much effort to do it Successfully. Then you throw Prince in... they haven't created a word for it yet. It was a maelstrom.
Finkel: And the fact that it turned out well. I remember standing at testing for the episode, and it was very positive. I had this sense of relief.
Baer: Creatively, for me, I think the breakup was once of my favorite episodes we've ever done. The idea of having a bottle episode came to us very early on. We knew it needed to be motivated by a big turning point, but like so many incredibly fortunate accidents -- like when they got together -- when they broke up was something that sort of revealed itself as we were writing that story. It's not something we originally intended.
Is your writing staff staying mostly intact for the fourth season?
Baer: One of our favorite people and main voice, Luvh Rakhe, his contract was up this year and he got a job showrunning the Tracy Morgan show on FXX -- which we're ecstatic about. To know he's moving forward and upward is one of our biggest joys, but it's a tremendous loss on the show. I hope you don't see that loss on television, but we're going to miss him in the room. But we have a lot of writers returning. We just went through renegotiations for the first time, which is always an interesting process.
Finkel: We'll probably be adding a few new voices, and we're waiting with bated breath to find out what happens with J. J. Philbin's pilot. She's a tremendously important piece of this show and we love her to death. She's the engine driving Nick and Jess in the writers room.
There's been a ratings dip. What are your reactions as producers?
Finkel: You can't be a slave to it. We get the numbers early in the morning, but it's frustrating for old dogs who've been doing this for a long time. We've been on shows that got canceled with a 10.7 rating or an 11 share. But as you look at the numbers, the paradigm has shifted. It's a bummer. You wish more people would watch it live, but you know people are watching it. I, as a TV consumer, don't watch any show live -- so I can't throw stones. They are watching it, they're just watching it in a far different way.
Baer: This season was, in many ways, a landing point for the first two seasons. The next season becomes a jumping off point for another arc for where the show goes in the subsequent, hopefully, multiple years. We're excited about next season as a chance to, in a weird way, reset the group dynamic. More options are open to us now that Jess and Nick aren't in a relationship. From a comedy perspective, that's going to give us even more colors to play. I think we're all re-energized looking into season four, and by doing that, hopefully we can bring the audience back to live viewing. It would be nice to see those numbers bounce back up again, and I think we can do it. I think we've got the best cast in television.
Finkel: And to be fare to ourselves, numbers are down across the board. You look at the numbers on Wednesday morning, and you look at your number first, obviously. You get sad, you cry, you drink yourself back to sleep -- and when you wake up three days later, you see everyone's numbers are so much lower than they were a year ago.