SPEC WRITING ROAD MAP
By Guy Jackson and
SERIES OVERVIEW AND
“NEW GIRL” is a half-hour sitcom on Fox. It concerns the
upbeat, fun-loving, flighty, schoolteacher Jess, who after a bad break-up opted
to move into a loft with three guys. Nick is a law-school dropout, Winston is a
former Latvian basketball player, and Schmidt is working a dead-end corporate
job, and though much of the series’ friendly conflict derives from Jess driving
the boys up the wall, Jess is also their light, their saving grace. Many of the
episodes have an underlying theme of Jess setting fire to, and burning down,
the male characters’ doldrums, by plunging into disasters that somehow go okay
in the end.
Jess also has a close friend, Cece,
a hardworking, mysterious model who spent the first season in a quiet
flirtation and then a passionate secret relationship with Schmidt. The pair was
eventually found out, and broke up.
The series is a massive hit, and cutting edge in terms of
youth, freshness, and joie de vivre, and is at its best when it tends toward
the surreal, offbeat, and heightened forms of comedy. In one episode Jess
initiated an afterschool bell band for troubled high schoolers,
literally a band playing hand bells. At first her roommates were driven mad,
but Winston, the competitive former basketball player, picked up the bells and
immediately was an expert, and led the bell band to a performance of Survivor’s
perennial hit “Eye Of The Tiger” before a crowd of ten in the local park. That sort of surreality. That sort of quirk. That sort of
Also the series relies heavily on Embarrassment with a
capital E, and while most comedy does as much to some extent, the undercurrent
of embarrassment throughout “NEW GIRL” episodes is a constant river. The
characters are embarrassing themselves, or embarrassed of their paths, or
withholding embarrassment, or trying to conceal something so as not to be
embarrassed (as in the first series’ thread of Cece and Schmidt’s secret romance). You can never go wrong writing up something
embarrassing for the characters to experience. In the best example of this,
late in the first season Jess went back to her ex-boyfriend Paul for a
one-night-stand, found out he had a new girlfriend, and when all had been
revealed, Jess had to stand there and watch Paul and the new girlfriend cry and
cry and then watch Paul ask the new girlfriend to marry him in the sappiest
In a related theme, nudity often pops up, characters
frequently appearing in their underwear.
A motif of Roommate Vs. Roommate also crops up a lot, for
example with Nick and Schmidt having a bravura, episode long battle (see below)
and Schmidt and Winston having a slap fight in a grocery store and Schmidt
coming to a point of smashing a cabinet that Jess brought in off the street.
Another of the series’ best aspects is when a comic moment goes for it with a
heavy duty, knockdown, drag out roommate fight.
There’s also a refugee status afforded to every character of
the series. Jess has fled to the loft from a bad break-up, Nick is fleeing his
sense of failure, Schmidt tries to put a brave face on it but he toils in a
soul-sucking, demeaning job, Winston’s bizarre history as a Latvian basketball
player puts him out of sync with the world, and Cece is too smart for her modeling career and the usual breed of men her beauty
The plotting is light, and unlike “BOARDWALK EMPIRE”, a
prospective spec-writer doesn’t have to fret over stepping into an endlessly
tangled plot continuing from show to show to show. Know that Jess and Nick seem
to have an underlying sexual tension, know about Cece and Schmidt’s arc-ing relationship, and know that
Winston was a former basketball player now at wit’s end as to what to do with
himself but pursuing rebuilding a relationship with former booty call Shelby.
And then know the characters (see below) and you’re in a pole position to
tackle a spec. The series is 90% episodic, in other words, and an entirely
self-contained episode is a fine thing.
Episodes of “NEW GIRL” wield A, B, C plots, but many episode
exhibit a unique pattern of letting both the A and B plot be evolving, and the
C plot be either a continuance or a completely surreal story or a note of
character (for example, one episode’s subplot involved simply watching Winston
fail at being an office temp, and so we understood a note of his character). As
with writing any spec of any episode of any TV series, a writer should attempt
to match themes amongst the plots.
For example: one episode began it’s A plot with Jess helping
out a bullied kid in school, putting him in front of the class to play backup
piano while she sang an anti-bullying song. This resulted in the class bullies
filming and editing the video into a mockery of Jess, thereby evolving the plot
from Jess preventing bullying to being bullied herself. In her anger she broke
a robot arm science project of the bullies’ leader girl, and had to fess up
when the robot arm didn’t work at the school science fair, thereby evolving the
plot from Jess being bullied to Jess being the bully. As disasters always do in
“NEW GIRL”, this one turned out alright when Jess’ boss Tanya congratulated
Jess on finally becoming a real teacher and hating the kids.
Meanwhile, the same episode’s B plot also evolved. First
Nick received a cactus plant from his traveling girlfriend, which he assumed
was a gift designed to test whether he could take care something, anything,
i.e. the easiest plant to take care of. Nick failed, and wound up with a broken
cactus stuck together with popsicle sticks. Then he
decided the gift was a break-up gift, and when his girlfriend came back from
her trip she did indeed break up with him. The plot both evolved from a simple
present from a girlfriend to the end of their relationship, with the cactus as
a metaphor for all kinds of different things. Also the plot thematically linked
to the A plot, with Jess breaking the robot arm through hapless carelessness
and Nick doing the same to the cactus.
The C plot of the same episode concerned Cece and Schmidt continuing their passionate hookups and trying to hide the same,
matching the themes hapless struggles and relationships.
One more example of a particular great evolving A plot: in
one episode an exploding toilet revealed Nick to be the fix-it man of the
house, but a surreal, haphazard, jury-rigging fix it man with elaborate, Rube
Goldberg ways of unclogging the sink, fixing leaks in the roof, etc. (The B
roll contained a hilarious moment of Nick drilling a hole in the middle of a
puddle on the roof, thereby draining the puddle into the ceiling, and uttering
‘Fixed!’.) Schmidt took eternal issue with this DIY behavior, and demanded a
plumber be called, then paid for a plumber out of his
own pocket. The plot then evolved when Nick flew into a rage and he and Schmidt
had a bracing, screaming argument about which things in the apartment belonged
to whom, and the plot then evolved again to a discussion of how Nick was a
failure in life, which brought back around in a circle to Nick being a failure
as a fix-it man. As in any screenwriting, if you can take a plot around in a
full circle, you’re golden.
“NEW GIRL” also uses B Roll footage, the slang term for
footage that usually flashes back into the characters’ deep pasts. Most often
in the B Roll we come to understand how Jess has a long history of doing
whatever it is she’s doing currently, or else the B Roll references the obese
childhood/young adulthood of both Jess and Schmidt.
Going even barer with the bones, here’s the ‘average’
skeleton for an episode, an average based on five typical “NEW GIRL” episodes
broken up beat-by-beat.
1. 1st beat of A story or
2. Non-sequitar mini-sketch.
1. If not in the Cold Open/Teaser, immediately have
the 1st beat of A story.
A. Use B Roll footage to capture any exposition
2. Introduce B story.
3. 2nd beat of A story
can spin in new direction
4. 2nd beat of B story
5. 3rd beat of A story
6. 3rd beat of B story
7. 1st beat of C story
8. Cliffhanging 4th beat of A story
1. Resolve cliffhanger of A story/5th beat
2. 4th beat of B story
3. 6th beat of A story
A. Story can spin in a new direction
4. 2nd beat of C story
5. B story cliffhanger (5th beat)
6. A story cliffhanger (7th beat)
1. Wrap up C story (withholding A story, drawing
2. Wrap up B story
3. Wrap up A story
(Note that oftentimes there’s no commercial break here, and
the credits will begin rolling, and a typical “NEW GIRL” episode will therefore
sort of wander into its tag.)
of A story, (8th beat)
Note that (of course) the A story has more beats than the B
story which has more beats than the C story.
Like Amy Poehler’s character in
“PARKS & RECREATION”, Jess is infinitely optimistic, a force of nature in
her vibrancy. She has to be, as she’s an elementary school teacher, who
sometimes seems to range upward and work with older students. (An episode with
a science fair depicted her with a classroom full of 10-12-year-olds but
another episode had her working with high school kids on a ‘bell band’.) Jess
is the definition of quirk, the definition of effervescent, and plenty of
friendly conflict is derived from the way she drives her three roommates nuts
with endless earnestness and constant tripping of the light fantastic.
Jess is always awkward, as well, and a great way to tackle
her character in a spec is to dump her in the most awkward situation possible
and let her squirm. Jess usually squirms with outright weirdness; in an extreme
example, when attempting to have sex with her boyfriend Paul she throttled him,
and the move quickly turned from playful erotic asphyxiation to ‘wow, she’s
really accidentally strangling him’. In lesser extremes, Jess will break into
quasi-songs when she’s nervous, singing her answers to an uncomfortable
question or painted-into-corner conversation.
The term ‘adorkable’ was coined
from this series, but Jess’ heart is in the right place, so in writing your
spec don’t get caught in a cutesiness trap, make sure Jess comes from a place
of honest earnestness. In one episode Schmidt couldn’t rent a party bus for his
birthday, so Jess went to great lengths to rent a school bus and outfit it with
a stripper pole, and even though it was male stripper who showed up, all went
Jess’ heart is so in the right place she’ll often go astray:
in one brilliant, shining, great moment of character revealing dialogue, Cece told her: “Jess, you could form an emotional
attachment to a shoe.” And Jess replied. “Oh, one shoe? How sad.”
Jess talks like a Native American when she’s angry.
Or her goodly heart will bring her to meddling where she
shouldn’t: in another terrific episode, when things went awry with the
apartment, Jess befriended the creepy, crusty landlord, much to her roommates’
chagrin, and the landlord wound up hanging out, drinking beers with Nick and
Jess, and then ultimately voicing that he was nervous about their impending
ménage a trois.
Obscure Character Note: Jess has ‘too-good’ peripheral
vision and that justifies her constant distractedness.
“Who do I speak to re: getting something removed from the
NICK MILLER (JAKE M.
A bartender aching with a sense of failure, Nick dropped out
of law school and had himself a terrible break-up with Caroline, such a bad
break-up that Nick made a video for his future self to tell his future self
never to get back together with Caroline, a video shown to him when he decided
to get back together with Caroline in the penultimate episode.
Nick is a jury-rigger of a repairman, he doesn’t like his
hair touched, he was once aptly, perfectly described
by Jess as “cute in that sort of scruffy P.I. way”. Nick has a weak back. He
sweats a lot. He’s always wearing a five o’clock shadow.
He’s a careless sort, unable to take care of something so
simple as a cactus, and also a failure at growing tomato plants, in the episode
where he tried to go abstinent and grow tomato plants. He’s the inventor of bro
juice, which is apparently drinking out of a big jug. He’s afraid of sharks and
He doesn’t believe in washing towels, much to Schmidt’s
chagrin when it was found out Nick was using Schmidt’s towel. Nick’s reasoning
in this is that when you step out of the shower you’re clean, and that the
towel washes you, you don’t wash the towel. This type of logic is classic of
“Smiling is a sign of weakness.”
“People are the worst.”
Winston is an oddball, maladjusted from a strange (and in
keeping with the series, surreal) past in which he was shipped to Latvia after
high school to play on a Latvian basketball team. As some sort of basketball
celebrity, Winston squandered his education and relationships, using his
current girlfriend Shelby as a booty call back in the day. Throughout the first
season Winston’s been recovering his dignity, un-stunting his growth, and regaining
self-respect and sense of place, as well as making up with the ill-used Shelby,
being romantic and generous.
Winston has a fiercely competitive streak and a sort of wild
temper that accompanies it, as in the ‘bell band’ episode when he snapped at
Jess’ pupils for failing to properly play Eye
Of The Tiger. But Winston’s always sweet in the end, and he likes the band
Sister Sister. He’s afraid of the dark. He’s afraid
of thunder. He sleeps on Saturdays. He once had a horrible van, but it fell
apart in a gas station.
He once had a temp job which he tried and failed to make a
game of, and then got himself fired. He then got a job at a radio station,
being the P.A. for local radio host Joe Napoli, who does some sort of nebulous
talk show. Winston was a fan until starting the job, whereupon he reaped abuse
from Napoli and was given signals to flee by Napoli’s co-host, Kareem Abdul-Jabar. After standing up for himself, though, Winston won
over Joe Napoli, and in the tail end of the season became a sort of stern
babysitter to the man.
The womanizer of the group, Schmidt recovered from his fat
childhood and college years (often depicted in flashback) to become a buffed-up
womanizer. He has his own phraseology, calls ‘ketchup’ ‘ketch’, and is most
often the one who has to put money in the loft’s Douchebag Jar. He wears
drinking moccassins. He calls his watch ‘his other
timepiece’. He has a walking cape. He can’t calm down. He’s OCD.
Schmidt works a dead-end, soul-sucking, unspecific corporate
job at the equally unspecific Associate Strategies. It’s also a humiliating
job, with Schmidt having to repeatedly play Santa Claus in only his underwear
for the office Christmas party.
Schmidt is rich, supporting the rest of his roommates and
the loft, and unscrupulous, but in the end of the day he can be fantastically
sweet, as in the moment when he found out Cece might
be pregnant, and immediately fell to his knees and put his ear to her stomach
and said: “We made a baby?”
CECE (HANNAH SIMONE)
The demure model, soft inside but with an ass-kicking facet when
she needs it, Cece’s character is probably the most
perfectly realized, for the way the writers have made her a woman of infinite
mystery, just as a model should be.
She started the series going out with a loser boyfriend who
ate a lot of mushrooms and even fed mushrooms to his cat, but Schmidt’s
infinite sweetness won her over. He had a perfume made for her, a scent with
her name on it, and even though it smelled terrible, it was the winning strike.
Physically fit without effort (as evidenced in one episode
where she easily ran a 5K charity race, then had to go back and help Jess
across the finish line), Cece also often shows an
infinite wisdom, an enigmatic knowledge of all things, as when she easily
handles the tantrums and emotional roller coasters of the rest of the characters. There’s been hints of a tumultuous family life, but
she loves her grandmother, whom she once took Schmidt to visit, in the
grandmother’s nursing home.
In writing for Cece it’s best to
let her hang back until other characters give themselves just enough rope to
hang themselves, and then let her step in with something wise. But she’s not
incapable of emotional breakdowns her own self, mind, when it really matters,
as it did when she finally decided she was in love with Schmidt.
There aren’t a lot of recurring minor characters in the
first season of “NEW GIRL”, and its unknown if any of the following characters,
except for the landlord, will even be back for the second season. But here are
the most important appearances from the first season.
“Passion’s overrated.” Was Russell’s fatal line, the
utterance that caused Jess to dump him. He is the
wealthy father of one of her students, and met her when her car broke down
while she was on her way to his office to yell at him on behalf of the
proletariat. But Russell wound up being a cool cat, and wanted Jess’ mellowness
in his otherwise hectic life.
The two worked on a relationship for several episodes, Jess
even go so far as to babysit Russell’s daughter and try and make nice with
Russell’s ex-wife. But when Jess saw the fire of Russell’s failed marriage, she
decided she wanted passion, to which Russell answered the above.
PAUL (JUSTIN LONG):
A hideous slow-crier and the music teacher at Jess’ school,
he and Jess dated for a couple episodes, found themselves awkward about sex and
everything else, and found that Paul couldn’t fit in whatsoever with the
coolness of Nick, Schmidt, and Winston, and so the relationship ended. After
her breakup with Russell, however, Jess went back to Paul for a one-night
stand, thereby interrupting Paul’s engagement to the ‘Asian Jess’. But Jess
realized she was actually the ‘Caucasian Jess’ and got Paul and his fiancé back
Nick’s ball-busting ex-girlfriend, who
provided him with a honey trap until he was almost lured away from his
roommates and sparks with Jess.
Jess’ hardcore boss, who was defined when she congratulated
Jess on breaking a pupil’s science project, paraphrasing: “Now you’re a real
teacher. You hate kids.”
SHELBY (KALI HAWK):
Winston’s girlfriend, who used to be his sex object, but Winston has been gradually making it up to her, and they now
have an loving relationship.
JOE NAPOLI (PHIL
Winston’s gigantic, obese, Hawaiian-shirt wearing radio show
boss, once demanding but so child-like Winston gained the upperhand,
and now is a babysitting P.A.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
At season’s end Schmidt had ended his relationship with Cece due on jealousy over her modeling, but look for their
back-and-forth to continue. Winston and Shelby had fallen in love again and
Winston had become a success at his radio show P.A. job. Nick tried to move
back in with his ex, Caroline, but after a night in the desert with his friends
he’s back in the loft. Jess broke up with Russell.
The romantic comedy vibe driving Nick and Jess together got
pretty obvious toward the first season’s end. When Jess decided to break up
with Russell because she wanted passion and fire, she immediately returned home
to a knockdown fight with Nick. In the desert (after Nick drove his moving van
there instead of moving in with Caroline) Nick and Jess clutched each other and
faced down a coyote. But fair warning: romantic leads in any series getting
together is a difficult chore, and leads to major turning points in series, so
it’s a fair guess Nick and Jess won’t get together next season, and there’ll
continue to be a subtext of ‘Oh, they’re perfect for one another!’
WORLD & SETTING:
Much of the series takes place within the loft apartment,
somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, but much of L.A. is seen in the show, with
Griffith Park and Venice Beach putting in appearances. Note that the bathroom
of the loft apartment is quite strange, it’s very much
a public bathroom in a bar, with two urinals and a stall.
GOD IS IN THE
These are teeny tiny details of the series you might want to
exploit in a spec.
- There’s a Douchebag Jar in the living room,
wherein people put money if they say or do something douchebag-ish.
- When drunk, everyone in the loft engages in a
game of “True American”, a game with no rules which involves shouting out
random facts and not touching the floor, hopping from piece of furniture to
piece of furniture, or couch pillow to couch pillow. Anything goes in a
depiction of this game, and the object of the game is whatever it is.
WATCH OUT FOR…
Stereotyping the characters with their own characterization.
This is what always makes writing for any television series (but especially
comedies) stale. Jess is not quirky for quirky’s sake, her quirkiness always comes from and relates back to the stories that are
happening to her. In an episode where she decided to have sex with her
then-boyfriend Paul, for example, she decided to buy a stringy spiderweb piece of lingerie, and an endless physical gag
resulted from her faffing and fiddling with getting on and taking off the
lingerie. But it didn’t come from nowhere. The writer didn’t have Jess appear
in a lingerie store and wackily, quirkily try the lingerie on.
When you watch episodes, always note and fawn over the
surreal aspects of the series, and when you have an organic story based in
reality, let yourself take it to those heights. Once Jess showed up at Cece’s apartment, which is full of Cece’s 10 roommate models, and one anonymous model was crying on the couch. “What’s
wrong with her?” asked Jess. “She fell on a cookie.” Cece promptly answered. A perfect exchange, based in
reality and heightened without being overly adorkable.