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Liz Meriwether found herself on new terrain at the start of New Girl‘s fifth season.
Not only did the Fox comedy’s creator have to fast-track the first four episodes to accommodate Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy, but she lost the top of her call sheet for a time to maternity leave and soon found out that the network’s longest-running sitcom would sit on the bench until January.
The longer-than-typical wait for New Girl ends Tuesday night, in a new 8 p.m. time slot, with the first of 22 (mostly) back-to-back original episodes. Meriwether spoke with The Hollywood Reporter at the end of 2015 about the unusual scenario. The showrunner also sounded off on the growing push for women behind the camera, the addition of actress Megan Fox to the cast, and the one casualty of airing midseason — no holiday episodes.
You were one of the many voices in a recent piece about Hollywood sexism. Do you think the issue is finally gaining traction?
This was the first step. People are becoming more aware of things that have been happening for quite a while. It’s a quiet sexism. It feels like the awareness that women aren’t directing as much as they should, just that being on the radar, will help make a difference in terms of more women getting hired. I think a lot of people just don’t realize. Nobody sets out to not hire a woman director.
Is it a conversation you’ve been having at New Girl?
It’s always been a huge priority for me. You’re just up against the pressures of putting out a show. And, at a [broadcast] network, it moves so fast. There isn’t a ton of time to really look for new people. I think that’s the struggle. Sometimes you have to take the extra moment to make sure you’re looking for female directors if they aren’t being presented to you. It’s the extra time that you have to encourage people to take. Showrunners need to take that step back and ask if they have a diverse group of directors. We’re still trying to make sure we have diversity on all levels with the directing. I don’t think we’ve been perfect by any means.
Speaking of the struggle, you had a weird schedule this year.
It was insane. If you think about it, we did 26 episodes last season. Obviously, there are plenty of shows that do that, but it’s difficult. What was hard was starting season five when everybody was so exhausted. There’s usually a routine. Before the new season, we go away for a two-day retreat to talk about what we want to happen with the characters and what we want the arc to be. At the end of 22 episodes, when everyone is their most tired, we had to be like, “Let’s take a step back and think big picture.” [Laughs] I kind of freaked out and made the writers do weird creative exercises.
Stuff I’ll never make them do again…basically fan fiction about the characters. I was really grasping. You make choices in March or April that you don’t necessarily know you’re making. It was definitely challenging, but I’m really proud of the first four episodes of the year.
And most of those still have Zooey.
Our big priority in the first four was to figure out a way to get Zooey off of the show in a way that at least made some sense and was kind of funny. I think her being sequestered on the jury is a fun solution. We were really just excited to put her in pastel courtroom sketches.
Did you get an actual courtroom artist to draw them?
We did. I actually haven’t seen them yet, but I’m very excited. I directed the first episode without her, which was the fourth in season five, so that was our last episode we shot last year.
Were episodes filmed out of order?
Yeah, we shot the premiere third. It took a couple tries. And obviously she was very pregnant. There are things you just can’t do, so our solution was putting her on the scooter.
TV has evolved a lot, but sitcoms still need to strategically place pregnant actors behind lamps and pillows.
There must be some kind of digital thing that you can do. Zooey was so game to keep shooting, and we did try to make it fun for her. I think the scooter is a little bit of a wink to that. You would think that we could come up with a better way of doing it, but she’s still hiding behind plants.
And CGI is expensive.
It’s not Game of Thrones. We’re just going to position her so you can’t see.
There’s a big Bollywood-style dance number in the premiere. Was that on your showrunner bucket list?
I always knew I would, from when I was a little girl. [Laughs] No, the initial plans were so big and so crazy. I think the first draft of the episode, it was a dream sequence. They were on a mountaintop. We were going to put people in front of a green screen. Obviously, after one conversation with the studio, we realized we couldn’t afford that. So we pulled back. What I ended up really loving about it was the romance of it. Max [Greenfield] played it so well. And Jake Johnson’s dancing skills are obviously second to none, so it’s a joy to see his body move. I think I speak for everyone.
How prominently does Megan Fox figure into this season?
She comes on for five episodes. Obviously the challenge of not having Zooey for six episodes this year seemed daunting at the beginning. Megan’s character turned out to be a great story generator. In the fifth year of a show, it’s great to have a new character come in and shake things up. She was hilarious. Her character is this really tough-talking pharmaceutical rep who’s used to traveling — not weird groups of friends who have a lot of emotional baggage. She does a great job of cutting them all down to size. It felt right for our characters to have someone call them on their shit at this point in the series.
Are you starting to think about what’s next for you?
I’m not sure how many more seasons we have. I think it depends on the response to this one, but this year I definitely started thinking about what’s next. I started this show when I was 29. It’s been my life for five years, and it’s been my education.
How many episodes are there this season?
Still 22. It’s different for us, premiering in January. Usually, once the show starts airing, you’re dealing with the week-to-week response right as you’re getting back to work. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s hard. To not have that for the first part of the writing was nice. We obviously miss doing our holiday episodes, but we’re running back-to-back now — except for the State of the Union. In this day, knowing there is a new episode every week is a good thing.
Was there a network edict that you couldn’t have a Thanksgiving episode in late February?
I think it would be so funny to just have the Thanksgiving episode air in May. I should have had more of a disruptive attitude about it. “We can do our Thanksgiving episode whenever we want!” [Laughs] Unfortunately, we don’t have any holiday episodes.
Where are you in production?
We’re shooting episode 12, and I think we have through 17 broken.
It’s not too late for a Thanksgiving finale.
Yeah, let’s not do the Schmidt-Cece wedding. Let’s just do a big Thanksgiving episode. I’m hearing you, and I’m thinking about it.
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