Following a hit-or-miss third season, New Girl has relocated its stride in season four, turning out some of the Fox comedy’s funniest episodes to date. Tonight’s installment, “Background Check” breaks new ground for the show: a bottle episode—the TV-industry term for an episode confined to a single location—that practically unfolds in real time. Though Coach’s brief escape from the loft keeps “Background Check” from being a true bottle episode, it’s still a model of sitcom efficiency, providing a small-scale story (as part of Winston’s police-academy training, the loft is visited by a hard-nosed sergeant played by Cleo King) with big-time stakes (Jess reveals she’s hiding a bag of methamphetamine in her closet—or is she?). The A.V. Club spoke with New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether and “Background Check” writer Rebecca Addelman about how the episode came together, why it was the right time for a game-changing kiss, and what wacky speech affectation Hannah Simone would’ve taken on in a more farcical draft of the script.
The A.V. Club: What were the origins of this episode?
Elizabeth Meriwether: We knew we wanted to do an episode about Winston’s cop life, and how it would affect the loft. We found out that these in-home visits are a real thing for the LAPD, and that the LAPD really does check-up on your friends and acquaintances.
The funniest idea to us was that somehow Jess has the biggest secret. [Co-showrunner Brett Baer] said, in the room, “What if she has a bag of meth in her closet,” and we all just immediately laughed. We were like, “Can we do that?” [Laughs.] I think most of the stuff that has always been my favorite stuff on the show, we always start in the room being like, “Well, that’s a placeholder.” But it just keeps making us laugh and laugh, and it’s just, “Oh God, now she has a bag of meth in her closet.” [Laughs.] I remember that’s how we did the badger in the ducts in season two: “Well there can’t actually be a badger in the ducts!”
What was good about the meth bag in her closet was that it was this immediate problem. For a bottle episode, the stakes have to be very, very high, or else you’re feeling the claustrophobia of not leaving the loft. The example that was in my head was last season, the break-up episode: We kept Nick and Jess in Nick’s bedroom the whole time. You need to have the stakes be that high in order to keep it interesting.
Rebecca Addelman: And with this episode, not only is it a bottle show, it’s kind of a real-time show, which—
EM: We don’t do that a lot.
RA: It’s not even just that the setting stays static—there isn’t flexibility in terms of having the time to have people leave and have story movements happen offscreen. Everything had to happen within 30 minutes: The meth breaks, it has to get hidden, and we kept pushing the stakes forward. For a while, the meth was only discovered at the end of act one, and the bag burst all over the floor at the end of act two, and we kept going, “Not enough is happening.” We kept pushing it up, but in a way you’re solving problems then creating new ones for yourself as you’re pushing the action forward.
EM: It was definitely one of the more challenging episodes to break, for how it ended up feeling so simple and great. We were trying to figure out the tone of the show as well.
RA: We were dipping our toe into farce.
EM: At one point, the script was like Molière. [Laughs.]
RA: Every line had an exclamation mark. And doors slamming, and people coming and going. I think, in the first draft, they were all in the bathroom for a good chunk of the show.
EM: This is embarrassing to admit, but just as an example of how farcical we were, in the original draft of the episode, Cece walked into the apartment, like, “Where’s the meth?” and then they have to play off that she had a lisp the whole episode. Like she’d actually been saying, “Where’s the mess?” and she had to keep calling Jess “Jeth”—
RA: And herself “Thee-thee.” “Yeth, I’m Jeth’s friend Thee-thee.” [Laughs.] “And I’m here to help clean up the meth.”
EM: It was like a Marx Brothers stateroom scene in the bathroom. Everyone’s coming in and out and jammed into this bathroom. Then we went the other direction, where we took a lot of that farce out, and we were like, “Oh, we need to get into intense emotional stuff.” But then it was like, “Wait, there’s meth in the loft.” [Laughs.] “Why are they talking about this emotional stuff?” For us, it was a back-and-forth of “Where is the tone of this going to be?”
And out of that came the Schmidt and Cece story, which hadn’t been in the first draft. But again, we were trying to find a story that could be a B-story up against the fact that Jess is going to get arrested for possession of meth. [Laughs.] It was really hard to find a B-story that felt like it stood up to that and was also the right level of importance. When we came into the Cece and Schmidt idea, that was a good moment for us because it was like, “We have something to take us away from the farce of the meth, into something more emotional—but it doesn’t overwhelm the story.”
RA: Liz is being humble, but as she’s wont to do, she came in one day and was like, “What if Schmidt [Laughs.] kisses Cece? What if Cece’s about to burst in and say the word ‘meth,’ and she doesn’t realize the cop is there, and they kiss?” I know I was thinking “Yes, a kiss is always great.”
AVC: What has it been like to return to writing romantic material for Schmidt and Cece? How does it differ from how you were writing for the characters last year?
EM: This year’s been very different in that we haven’t been engaging in the relationships between the roommates at all. When I came in the room and said, “What if Schmidt kisses Cece?” it was the first time any of that started to be discussed again. I think everybody was a little nervous—“Do we want to go down this road again?” We all love Schmidt and Cece together, and we knew we wanted this season to be about their relationship in some bigger way.
We’ve been more focused this season on the group of friends against the world, dealing with external issues and external problems and not all of the stories being focused on them fighting with each other or dealing with their own relationship stuff. The truth is, the show has these amazing relationships in it, and when we do dip our toe in, it’s always rewarding if we can do it in the right way.
RA: The nice thing about Schmidt and Cece—those characters and those actors—you put them together for one small scene, they’ve got four lines, five lines, and it’s magnetic. There’s an energy, we understand how they feel about each other without having to explain it. And we have confidence in the room that those scenes will work and those moments will play. We blew them up so effectively last season, we were a little gun-shy to get back into it. You want to buy that these two would even contemplate being together again.
EM: But that’s what was so fun about this episode. I was like, “What would it take for Cece to kiss Schmidt again?” It would take Jess almost being arrested for having meth. You’ll see that this episode starts a nice arc between them. I feel really good about what we’re doing with them this year. Those are my famous last words. [Laughs.]
RA: Next week: “What are they doing?!”
AVC: It’s on the record now, Liz. You can’t run away from it.
EM: Other times I’ve felt good were when Schmidt cheated on her. [Laughs.] So I don’t know if that means anything.
AVC: After “Cooler,” “Background Check” is the second episode that’s written by Rebecca, mostly confined to the loft, and also contains a game-changing kiss. Is this becoming her specialty?
RA: I want to say yes. [Laughs.]
EM: She’s a kiss girl!
RA: It’s totally happenstance. It’s dumb luck, it’s just how the various pieces we’ve been building in whatever season it is—season two, season four—how the chips start to fall.
In both of those instances, the kiss was not in the first draft. In “Cooler,” there was more ramp-up to the idea of a kiss. And we chose not to do it. And then again it was Liz who was like, “What are we doing?”
EM: I’m a one-trick pony. We’re having story problems, I’m like, “Why don’t people just kiss?”
RA: I feel like I’m a romance litmus test. Liz will say these things like, “Why don’t they kiss,” and my inner 13-year-old girl starts to squeal.
EM: I feel like you are a pretty big ’shipper on the staff.
RA: I just like the drama. I don’t necessarily want them together all of the time, but I think these characters—their interpersonal dynamics are very real and very relatable, and we understand that they drive each other crazy, but they love each other. I like seeing that stuff get played upon.
EM: She’s saying her inner 13-year-old girl, but in the writers’ room, she has gasped and squealed repeatedly. It’s not very inner.
AVC: But that must be helpful, because as a single-camera comedy, you don’t get a reaction from an audience until the episode airs.
EM: During all of season two, I felt like I was pulling Rebecca and [writers J.J. Philbin and Kim Rosenstock] into the editing room to see how they reacted to different things.
We’re all secretly ’shippers. We all secretly love the relationships between them, but we try to hide it a lot of the time.
RA: Unfortunately, you can’t do it every week.
EM: But you can try, like last season. Then you find out it’s not as much fun.
RA: But whenever a kiss gets floated, I tend to support it.
AVC: Were you also looking for an episode to introduce the idea that Winston could be a good cop?
EM: That was a big thing for us. That was an idea that stayed with the script the whole time. We love Winston, we love going to crazy places with him, we love that he’s become this insane goofball. Lamorne [Morris] has done such a great job at whatever we’ve thrown at him, and crafted this character that I love. But what was surprising and exciting to us was the idea that, no, for all of his silliness, he is a great cop and he’s going to be a great cop. In some ways, his friends were the last to find that out. They needed to be convinced of that, and that’s what was cool in all of the farce of the meth—we had this real, emotional spine of Jess learning that Winston was ready to be a cop. It’s a really nice moment for the series: This character has another dimension to him.
RA: As someone put it in the room, when we were breaking it, this is the episode where we legitimize Winston. That always rang in my head: Yeah, we are legitimizing him. He is competent.
EM: I’ve taken this joke out of so many scripts: “This guy’s going to get a gun?” The running joke has always been that he’s a screwup and the fact that he’s at police academy is funny in itself. I think we got a lot of jokes out of that, and this episode was a nice moment where we’re committing to this, and he’s going to be good at it.
RA: And now we’re allowed to actually show him being a screwup on the job, and continue to do those jokes of the real Winston character—the goofiness, the silliness. But we know underlying all of that is that he is intelligent, he is competent, he legitimately made his way through the police academy. So he can bungle a few things, because he’s human.
AVC: At the end of the episode, “The Fish” tells Winston to “please consider moving.” Is there is a sense that walls are closing in on everyone in the loft?
EM: In terms that they’re five people living in—[Laughs.]
RA: Four bedrooms?
EM: Yeah, I think at the end of this season there will be some changes to the living arrangements. I felt like we did a bunch of stories last season about people moving in and out and rooms changing. I had reached an exhaustion with that kind of storyline, so I went into this season being like, “Okay, we have five people living here, let’s stick to that for now and tell other stories.” It’s going to come up again. Hopefully we do it a little better this time, and organically tell the story of people changing their living arrangements that doesn’t feel as slapdash. Or coming out of an episode about being catfished by Michael Keaton. [Laughs.]
RA: We made some choices. [Laughs.]
EM: [Laughs.] We made some choices.