Elizabeth Meriwether found herself in a pickle familiar to veteran renters: She had lined up the perfect apartment – a sun-filled loft – and rounded up four roommates who got along perfectly. Plans were made. Contracts were signed. Then, at the last minute, somebody backed out.
That wayward roommate was Damon Wayans Jr.
Meriwether had cast him in her show, “New Girl,” about a woman (Zooey Deschanel), moving in with three men. In the pilot, Wayans played a fitness trainer who struggles to understand the opposite sex. But then, because of a contractual conflict, he was forced to leave the series, which debuted in 2011 on Fox.
Now, in an unusual twist, he will reappear Tuesday (9 p.m., Fox) in the same role. Which brings up the question: How do you reintroduce audiences to a character who made a big impression in the pilot, only to take a hiatus until the third season?
Needless to say, the start-stop wasn’t part of the plan. Wayans shot the pilot for “New Girl” when it looked as if his sitcom on ABC, “Happy Endings,” would receive an unhappy ending: cancellation. But the series was picked up for another season, and Wayans had to go back to playing Brad, a nutty husband and finance type, instead of the trainer in “New Girl,” called Coach.
In these situations, most shows will either reshoot the pilot or plunk a new actor into the role in Episode 2, never mentioning the switch. But Kevin Reilly, the entertainment chairman of Fox, suggested a novel fix: Write the character out in Episode 2 and introduce a new one.
“It felt crazy to me,” Meriwether said. “How do we introduce a new character in Episode 2 without seeming really cheesy and hacky?”
But, she recalled, “there was no good option.” So Meriwether and the other writers decided that at the beginning of the second show, Coach would simply move out, and a new character, Winston, would move in.
After all, Meriwether reasoned, what could be more natural for people in their late 20s and 30s? “People in that age group are transient,” Meriwether said. “It makes sense to have people coming and going.”
The part of Winston, a former tenant of the loft returning after a pro basketball career in Latvia, went to Lamorne Morris, who had auditioned for the role of Coach before signing on to another project.
As the show marched on, Winston grew into a character marked by a believable ability to swing between sturdy reason and zany antics. (In a recent episode, he arranges for his cat to have a fling before being neutered.)
Now, Winston is more than two seasons into the lease and not going anywhere. But when “Happy Endings” was canceled in June, Meriwether decided to bring Coach back anyway, at least for four shows and maybe more. Coach will be the new guy in his old home, returning because his life is once again in flux; a breakup sends him back into the roommates’ orbit.
Morris, the star who shouldn’t have been, is more than willing to show him the ropes.
“This place is a well-oiled machine, but Damon is so off-the-wall funny,” he said. “It’s like adding another light bulb to an already well-lit room.”
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