LOS ANGELES – When the “New Girl” cast reflects back on the show’s seven years on the air, they won’t be able to point to Emmys or blockbuster ratings. But they can brag about a certain visitor.
“You can have whatever opinion you want about our show, but it was good enough for Prince,” said actor Max Greenfield, recalling the superstar’s appearance in a 2014 episode that ran immediately after the Super Bowl. “Everyone would like to be part of a show that is considered ahead of its time, and that didn’t happen for us. But that dude showed up from Minnesota for two days and blessed us with something. We’ll always have that.”
It’s difficult to figure out why Prince did what he did. (For that matter, I’m still scratching my head over Bob Dylan’s 1999 cameo on “Dharma & Greg.”) But let’s go ahead and assume the late legend found the sitcom about 30-something roommates in Los Angeles “adorkable,” something teenagers are just now discovering as the show begins airing its final eight episodes after a yearlong absence from the air.
“It feels like our show got a second resurgence when they started dumping episodes on Netflix,” said Greenfield, who plays Schmidt, the overly confident marketing associate who contributed more than his fair share to the apartment’s “douchebag jar.” “I have these kids who are younger than I would have imagined telling me that they’ve just binged 175 episodes in a weekend. Even my daughter, who is 8, wants to watch. I’ve told her she can’t, but at some point, she’ll be old enough.”
Fans are likely drawn to the way the show elevates a TV persona usually relegated to the role of wacky next-door neighbor — the flighty but crushworthy female goofball — and puts her in the center square.
It’s an approach the show’s creator, Elizabeth Meriwether, first explored in her screenplay for the 2011 film “No Strings Attached” — Natalie Portman was the player instead of the playee — then built upon to develop “New Girl” Jess, who has Betty Boop’s charm and Captain America’s integrity.
“What I like about the character is she’s not one thing,” Meriwether said a few months before the show debuted in late 2011. “I feel it’s common in TV, especially with female characters, to kind of put them in a box and be like, you know, ‘They’re a dork, so they can’t be attractive. They’re attractive, so they can’t be smart.’ ”
She hit pay dirt by landing Zooey Deschanel for the role. At the time, Deschanel was an indie-film favorite (“500 Days of Summer”) who was eyeing a development deal with HBO. The actress was smitten, despite the show’s original title.
“When I first got the script, I was like, ‘I’m not reading something called ‘Chicks & Dicks,’ ” Deschanel said in January. “I felt violated just looking at the title. This does not sound like it’s going to end well. But it was so funny.”
Audiences fell hard for the (renamed) sitcom and its breakout star. The premiere drew 10.28 million viewers, making it Fox’s most watched fall debut for a scripted show in 10 years.
Jess’ bangs became the coolest TV coif since the Rachel. Deschanel graced the cover of more than 20 major magazines, including Cosmopolitan three times. In 2014, Hannah Nicollet, an Independence Party candidate for Minnesota governor, tried to capitalize on her resemblance to Deschanel by campaigning under the “New Girl” moniker. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.)
But by the time Prince stopped by, the show had peaked. After getting five Emmy nods in its premiere season, it was never nominated again. During its last three seasons, it averaged fewer than 3 million viewers, a slide that left the show on the verge of cancellation.
Meriwether persuaded the suits to give her eight episodes to wrap things up.
“I did feel really good about the end of Season 6, but I really wanted a chance to say goodbye,” said Meriwether, who invited back favorite guest stars including Rob Reiner and Dermot Mulroney for curtain calls. “I think we saw these eight episodes as sort of a love letter to the fans.”
A show about ‘growing up’
When the show returns Tuesday, the story line has jumped ahead three years.
Schmidt and his wife (Hannah Simone) are obsessing over their daughter, Ruth Bader, to the point that her birthday party resembles a matinee performance on the Vegas Strip. Winston (Lamorne Morris) has a baby of his own on the way, while Jess and on-again, off-again boyfriend Nick (Jake Johnson), now a successful author, are on the verge of getting married.
“This show was always, kind of, about growing up, and I think this was a nice way of putting that final bow on it,” said executive producer Brett Baer, who co-wrote the series finale, set to air May 15.
Not that “New Girl” feels like a reboot of “The Waltons.” Silliness abounds, whether it’s Nick and Schmidt battling over the future of a porn-star mustache or Winston getting banned from a Lamaze class after ripping the head off a toy baby.
At one point, Jess looks forward to taking a nap on young Ruth’s bed so she can feel like a giant.
“It’s been like high school, but longer,” said Deschanel, who got divorced and remarried and had two children during the show’s run. “All my professional experiences before this one had been limited to the run of a movie. I’ve gotten to work with all of these people through so many life changes.
“I feel this sense of camaraderie that I’ve never felt before and I don’t know if I’ll ever have again.”