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New Girl wrote out its star for her maternity leave. It turned into a surprising success.

The show survived its transition to "No Girl" by putting Zooey Deschanel's absence front and center.

Nick (Jake Johnson, left) talks to one of the guests staying in his apartment, played by Fred Armisen.
Nick (Jake Johnson, left) talks to one of the guests staying in his apartment, played by Fred Armisen.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 24 through 30, 2016, is "No Girl," the fourth episode of the fifth season of Fox's New Girl.

Can you make an episode of New Girl without the "new girl" herself?

That's what the latest installment of the ramshackle comedy attempted to ask. Series star Zooey Deschanel is sitting out several episodes of this season for maternity leave, and though the show has grown leaps and bounds from the days when every story had to revolve around her character, Jess, in some way, that's still a big deal — even as the other characters on the series have come to develop relatively full lives of their own.

But it's still, on some level, a show about Jess, and the series seemed nervous about losing its main character in "Jury Duty," the episode that sent her off to a lengthy sequestration on a jury. That whole episode put one question front and center: Would the other characters even function without her?

"No Girl" was an attempt to answer that question, if not in the hugely affirmative, at least in the somewhat affirmative.

Many shows have had to write out their female stars for pregnancy-related reasons

Zooey Deschanel in New Girl
Here's Zooey Deschanel, hiding her pregnancy in this earlier fifth season episode by sitting down.

Maternity leave has long been something network TV shows have had to work around. Anyone who's seen the episode of Cheers that Shelley Long spends trapped in a vent, so we mostly just hear her voice, will know that TV writers have been striving to hide actresses' pregnancies in new and novel ways for decades now.

The first major TV pregnancy, of course, was written into the show itself, when Lucille Ball became pregnant at the same time as her I Love Lucy character. And that's still a popular way to deal with onscreen pregnancies, especially when they happen to actresses who play characters that might be exploring starting a family anyway.

But then there are series where actresses play characters who would in no way, shape, or form be thinking about having a kid. Parks and Recreation, for instance, worked around star Amy Poehler's pregnancy by producing the first six episodes of its third season at the tail end of its second season, so her leave wouldn't impact what would normally have been the start of production.

New Girl copied this method but borrowed from other series as well. The show remained in production at the end of season four to produce four episodes for season five, and then when it went back into production in the fall, it brought in a handful of guest stars to bridge the gap. (Deschanel's daughter was born in August.) The most notable will be Megan Fox, who will join the cast in a coming episode as a new female roommate for the show's other characters.

But the series will only get through its star's absence (for three additional episodes after "No Girl") if its other characters are able to step up and take some of the show's dramatic weight. And if nothing else, "No Girl" was a sign that the series just might find itself creatively rejuvenated by having to solve the mystery of what to do without its star.

New Girl thrives under pressure

Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield on New Girl.
Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield's characters have perhaps New Girl's most intense friendship.

New Girl has always been a messy series. Even in its second season, its best and most consistent, it could occasionally feel as if it were being written by pulling improv comedy game ideas out of a hat. The show lets scenes play out too long, and it occasionally chases its tail to the detriment of everything else. But then every few episodes strike gold and remind you why you're watching.

The reason New Girl is able to survive its own worst impulses largely stems from its ensemble cast. When the show began, Deschanel was its main attraction, but the series very quickly became just as notable for the interplay of Max Greenfield (as fussy, hypersexual Schmidt), Jake Johnson (as sad-sack regular guy Nick), and Lamorne Morris (as the completely bonkers Winston) as the three men Jess lives with. As time went on, Hannah Simone (as Jess's best friend, Cece), came into her own as well.

Truth be told, the strength of the cast might be why so many New Girl episodes feel like half-considered ideas hastily thrown together by the writers in an all-night session. The cast is so good that it can make almost any material at least somewhat funny, and their weird, nervy chemistry means that almost any story that locks all of them in the same location will gain lots of humor simply because they're all hanging out together.

Thus, New Girl seems to thrive under pressure. The show's best episodes usually confine its entire cast to one location and storyline, rather than splitting them up. In its best moments, it uses one initial incident or idea to string together reactions from everybody else in the cast. In some ways, New Girl is at its strongest when it's simply about the process of making New Girl, of how hard it is to keep coming up with storylines for the same set of characters, year after year after year.

That may be why "No Girl" isn't the outright disaster it could have been. In no way is it the series' best episode (or even the season's best episode), but it hums along under its own power, staying a few steps ahead of catastrophe at all times.

In particular it uses its most famous guest star, Fred Armisen, as a very slight spice in the whole mixture. He turns up for a few scenes, but he doesn't take over the story. Instead, the show drills down into the relationship between Schmidt and Nick, who are friends from their college days and have a strange chemistry all their own.

When Nick decides to turn the entire apartment into a sort of boutique hotel (seemingly via Airbnb), it's the perfect idea to get everybody else (particularly Schmidt) involved in the story, while also putting front and center the fact that Jess is gone.

That's the secret, then, to New Girl surviving Jess's absence. It needs to, on some level, make itself entirely about the series trying to survive its star's absence. Most shows succeed when they're not constantly shouting at you to look at what they're doing, but not New Girl. It's never succeeded via grace when it could succeed via poking you in the eye and making you laugh about it.

New Girl airs at 8 pm Eastern Tuesdays on Fox. You can watch earlier seasons on Netflix and earlier episodes from this season on Hulu.