New Girl may be ending, but its writer Liz Meriwether is just getting started: 'I feel a responsibility to keep women on the air'

For a while there, Liz Meriwether’s sleeping bag was almost as famous as Liz Meriwether.

After Meriwether’s Fox series New Girl debuted in 2011, becoming a ratings hit and charming critics with its earnest, nerdy heroine, the puffy purple sleeping bag received mentions in profiles in Glamour and The New Republic. The Hollywood Reporter photographed Meriwether in her office, with her laptop, sitting atop it.

The sleeping bag symbolized Meriwether’s deep commitment to her work, but it also gave off a whiff of the dishevelled post-collegiate. It made for a good fit with how the media cast her at the start of New Girl: as a wunderkind, the untested 29-year-old brain behind a sudden juggernaut.

Tonight, after seven seasons, New Girl will end — and so will that chapter of Meriwether’s life. Today, she is 36, married to producer Alex Cuthbertson, and mother of a six-week-old daughter, Harriet. She has become a prominent voice in the industrywide push for gender equality in Hollywood. This year, even as she presided over the end of New Girl, she shepherded three female-driven projects to the pilot stage, becoming one of television’s most productive talents.

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Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson in the Season 7 premiere of New Girl (Mickshaw/Fox)

And she’s no longer much of a floor-crasher. “The last three seasons, I stopped sleeping there,” Meriwether said by phone, just before her maternity leave.

As her habits have evolved, so has her stature in the industry. Meriwether, a Michigan-bred Yale graduate, had already seen plays of hers staged in New York (Heddatron, Oliver Parker) and developed a pilot for Fox when, in 2011, the Natalie Portman film No Strings Attached, for which she wrote the screenplay, was released.

That same autumn, New Girl debuted to more than 10 million viewers, chasing off long-held Hollywood doubts about actresses carrying sitcoms. Meriwether’s writing — honest, wacky, deeply character-specific — has always been the show’s calling card. And in the beginning, according to Dana Walden, a chief executive and a chairman of the Fox Television Group, that was all Meriwether wanted to focus on.

“She would write well into the night,” Walden said. “You’d see her exhausted the next day. She was that person who would put the hood of her hoodie up at the table read and try to disappear.”

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Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) in ‘New Girl’ (2013 Fox Broadcasting Co.)

During Season 3, Walden urged her to take on showrunner duties — to be not just the head writer of the show she had created, but one of its bosses, too. After some hesitation, Meriwether agreed, joining Brett Baer and Dave Finkel as co-showrunner.

“She was a little afraid of the power,” Walden said. “I told her, ‘You cannot be prolific unless you’re prepared to be a leader.’”

Meriwether is now officially both.

Having shed her own invisibility, she seems intent on eradicating others’ as well. All three of the pilots Meriwether is producing were created by women. Bless This Mess — a marriage sitcom for Fox about New Yorkers who move to Nebraska — was co-written by Meriwether and actress and filmmaker Lake Bell, who will also star.

ABC’s Single Parents, which features a gaggle of spouseless friends raising their children together, was written by New Girl producer J.J. Philbin, based on a concept conceived by her and Meriwether. And Fox’s Daddy Issues, which chronicles a father-daughter relationship, was written by Erin Foster, who will also star.

Daddy Issues earned the distinction of an all-female creative team when Fox approved Kat Coiro, Meriwether’s choice, to direct the pilot. “It feels like there’s this openness to taking some chances and giving women an opportunity this year,” Meriwether said. “I don’t know if Kat would have been approved before.”

Of course, the studio’s confidence in a newer talent likely has as much to do with trusting Meriwether as it does this moment in time. “Um, yeah,” Meriwether said. “It’s funny to me that the studio sees me as someone who can vouch for new people. I still feel so new.”

This reaction rings true to how Meriwether’s colleagues describe her: as both fiercely modest and freakishly capable. “In the early days on New Girl, she would shrug her shoulders and go, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” said Philbin, who has worked on the show since Season 1. “Then she’d pitch a story with total precision.”

But Meriwether’s trademark self-deprecation, Bell argues, doesn’t actually signal an uncertainty. “Saying something wildly hilarious and then apologising for it is part of her brand of funny,” said Bell. “But I think she’s grown more confident in her choices. Before, she’d be like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Now, she’s like, ‘I do know what I’m doing.’”

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‘New Girl’ finished this month (FOX)

And what Meriwether intends to do after New Girl, it seems, is write the post-#MeToo playbook. She has been public about Hollywood’s troubling gender dynamics, speaking to The New York Times about gender perceptions in television in 2015, and writing about brushes with misogyny for The Cut last year, at the height of it.

But Walden bets that Meriwether’s role in the reckoning will fall along the lines of less talk, more action. “She clearly has things to say,” said Walden. “But ultimately Liz is going to be able to do the thing that’s really meaningful: promote women into positions of power.” (Including at the network Walden runs. Last season, Fox hired just one woman to direct a pilot; this year, there are four, two on Meriwether’s projects.)

Meriwether is building a decidedly modern professional environment, too, working around the confines of motherhood and mining it for material. Philbin, a mother of two, recalls that the seedlings of Single Parents grew from a time a pregnant Meriwether consulted her for advice. “She had just eaten a whole bunch of Chick-fil-A,” Phibin said. “And she said, ‘I don’t know much about being pregnant, but I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t have done that.’” When, Meriwether wondered, would she get her appropriate-parenting act together? “I told her, ‘You never do,’” Philbin said. “She said, ‘I think we should tell that story together.’”

Bell shared a similar story. She and Meriwether decided to work together during a visit in which Meriwether met Bell’s infant son. Shortly afterward, as they brainstormed the concept at a coffee shop, Meriwether announced her own pregnancy. “She was like, ‘By the by, I’m pregnant, does that bother you?’” Bell said. “And I was like, ‘No! Why would that bother me?’”

With Fox, they planned to push shooting the pilot until Meriwether had her baby. “And it’s going to be OK,” Bell said. “The majority of our team is female, and everyone understood: There’s life, and then there’s work.”

These choices are all part of Meriwether’s ongoing contribution to change. “There’s still a ton I’m trying to figure out,” she said. “But I’ve learned a lot in seven years. Now I’m somewhere between Gandalf and a network hack. And I do feel a responsibility to keep the momentum going, to keep women on the air.”

It is a classic Meriwether take: both a little surprised by her power and exactly sure how to use it.

© The New York Times

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