Pilot Review: New Girl

As a lot of other critics have been saying in the early days of the 2011-2012 season, comedy pilots are hard to do well. The best comedies are built on the rhythms that the writers and the ensemble establish as time goes on, and it’s rare we get those on day one – instead we get somewhat cliched, even forced jokes to attract network attention. The pilots to The Office and Parks and Recreation were pretty mediocre, lest we forget, and Community bears almost no resemblance to the show it currently is. It takes a rare case, such as a Cheers or Arrested Development, for a show to spring fully formed from a showrunner’s head. As such, I try not to put too much stock in pilots, giving a show my typical four episode test before passing final judgment. (And I’m not the only one with the long view, as friend of the blog Cory Barker made this argument in much greater depth.)

That being said, FOX did make the pilot of New Girl available at least two weeks before the show actually aired, so it seemed like it’d be worth checking out in advance. And as a pilot of a half-hour comedy? It’s actually pretty good. Not in the top tiers certainly, but it’s an amiable start to a show and a mostly inoffensive one as well – that is, provided you’ve got a taste for something sweet.

Our “New Girl” in question is Jess (Zooey Deschanel), a perky young teacher who attempts to spice up her relationship with a surprise striptease, only to discover her boyfriend has been stripping with a completely different woman. Searching for a new apartment, she finds an open room in a massive loft occupied by three guys with their own set of issues. Her new roommates include Nick (Jake Johnson), a bartender still despondent over a breakup six months ago; Schmidt (Max Greenfield), a self-obsessed sort prone to taking his shirt off for female visitors; and Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), a personal trainer with some anger and communication issues.

But don’t let those three distract you from what the show is unabashedly about, and that’s Zooey Deschanel, who is apparently so adorable that an entire room of TV critics was reduced to a fawning mass during a summer press conference. Jess is a free spirit who marches to the rhythm of her own drummer, and that drummer seems to be at least mildly tone-deaf to social norms and prone to uncontrollable acts of quirk. She makes up theme songs for herself on a regular basis, gets so distracted she lights her hair on fire with a curler, watches Dirty Dancing six times a day and thinks overalls are a good choice for a first date (“I was going for a hot farmer’s daughter look” she explains).

Did this bother me? No. I’ve never had a problem with Zooey Deschanel like some people I know – I liked her in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy reboot a few years ago, as well as some other smaller roles – and here I found her to be engaging if not exactly realistic. Very little of her routine here felt like it was forced, and the parts that did owed more to some clunky writing than they did a fault on her part. And what I especially appreciated was they didn’t try to play any of her idiosyncrasies for cringe humor, but presented them as something other people tried very quickly to get her to move on from. She’s cartoonish, but she’s not a cartoon, and that’s an important distinction to make.

But getting past Deschanel, there’s always one question to ask for comedy pilots: is it funny? And yes, it is. I laughed several times throughout, both at things Deschanel said and did but also at several other elements of the show. The recurring gag of the “douchebag jar” that Schmidt has to make a deposit into when his behavior offends was amusing, and I also liked several of the flashbacks inserted throughout the episode: Nick is reduced to sobbing in an English accent to his ex-girlfriend Caroline* over the phone, while Coach gets in the face of a middle-aged woman on an exercise bike in a manner reminiscent of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Nothing made me crack into Archer-level hysterics, but it was engaging enough for what it was and managed to surprise in a few areas.

*An ex-girlfriend played by none other than the Waitress herself, Mary Elizabeth Ellis. Always nice to see her and hopefully we’ll see her in future episodes now that Perfect Couples has been canceled, though with her first child due in December I won’t bet on it.

As to the other guys, I haven’t seen any of them in anything before (that I remember) but I found most of them relatively fun to watch. Max Greenfield’s Schmidt was probably the most memorable of the three, though in a bad way – his character purposely being played up for asshole points, though I did appreciate the self-awareness of it that the aforementioned douchebag jar granted. Johnson felt like the most human of the three and kept from teetering into sad sackdom, and Wayans played a jock type who was oblivious without being dense – his attempt to get Jess to stop crying by saying “Stop it” like he’s training a dog was quite amusing. Again, nothing was extraordinary, but the three did work well together and with Deschanel that I can see them finding their footing in weeks to come.

Of course, given that Damon Wayans Jr. will not be on the show much longer thanks to the renewal of Happy Endings, we could have an entirely new chemistry by episodes two or three, which gets back to what I said earlier about a show taking time to find itself. As a show moving forward, it seems like New Girl has a set path to follow – Jess will change her roommates’ lives as they change hers, one or more of the guys will start falling for her,* wacky hijinks will ensue as they form a crazy family and do what they can to defend it. That could be a rote course of action, and we’ll have to see whether or not showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether (screenwriter of No Strings Attached) wants to play it safe or go for a more unconventional take on things.

*My money’s on Nick. He seems to be the most protective of Jess starting out, and he’s looking to move on as much as she is.

But based on what I saw in this episode, I’m perfectly willing to give it a few more episodes to flesh things out. Maybe my tolerance for quirk is just higher than most (my Pushing Daisies reviews are a testament to that) but I liked what the New Girl pilot delivered in a half hour format and I can see the framework for how this could grow into a likable, funny show. It could be that a few weeks will drain any enjoyment from Deschanel’s personality, or maybe the show will be able to develop the right apparatus to channel her innate solar energy. Who knows? But it’s a promising start.

Other Thoughts:

  • As it’s a fairly surface-level comedy starting out, I doubt I’ll be reviewing on a regular basis unless the next few episodes find a hidden gear, but I’ll be checking it out weekly and probably revisit again mid-season.
  • I really do hate being one of those critics who talks about single-cam versus multi-cam, but this show does feel like it could seamlessly move into the other format (though the oohing and awwwing at everything Deschanel did would get old within ten seconds). Probably I’ve just been corrupted by all those other sitcoms that take place in a static apartment setting – the large size of the loft apartment is oddly distracting.
  • And while I do forgive the show its twee qualities, I refuse to forgive them for trying to make the word “adorkable” part of the promotional campaign. To quote Coach: Stop it. Putting that in the show itself will give it a serious black mark.
  • “Let’s put the Lord of the Rings references in a deep dark cave where no one’s gonna find them.” “Except Smeagol.”
  • Jess giving Coach advice for talking to women: “One, lowering your voice. Two, listening. Three, rage.”
  • “I talked in short sentences, I didn’t sing, I laughed, I smiled, I said I needed rebound sex and it totally worked!”
  • “Please put your shirt back on. Please don’t make me laugh at you.”
  • “We are reverse Mormons. One man just isn’t enough for her.”
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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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6 Responses to Pilot Review: New Girl

  1. Greg says:

    Agreed on pretty much all counts. Good start, want to see more. I do think “Up All Night” has more overall potential, but thus far this is my favorite comedy pilot of the season.

    • lesismore says:

      Still need to see Up All Night – that one I’m waiting until it has a few more episodes before I make a judgment, since that pilot underwent some extensive retooling. That’s a show I’d rather take a big-picture view of (and one I’m still surprised NBC didn’t put in the Thursday night lineup).

  2. Amos says:

    The four episode test would have had me miss Parks and Rec entirely, actually. Someone eventually told me to just skip the first season and start at the beginning of season 2. They were right. Now I love it.

    • lesismore says:

      I could only get through two and a half episodes of Parks’ S1 myself. I skipped to the S1 finale based on recommendations, and then devoured season two in two days.

      So there are certainly exceptions to the rule, but for a brand-new show it has to earn my viewership starting out. I’ll come back if others are able to assure me it’s improved seriously and I wouldn’t miss anything by skipping.

  3. Gman says:

    I hope this show stays on the air but I honestly don’t see how Damon Wayans Jr. has time to be on two hit shows at the same time. The intro could have been better but I like that Zooey sang for it. She has a beautiful voice. Nothing beats watching my DVR recording in HD though because I have a big TV and I need the best quality. My DISH Network employee HD receiver gives me the best quality possible and the programming is totally free thanks to DISH. I had qualified programming as a qualified customer and the HD is free for life.

  4. Pingback: CC2K Column: New Girl Wins 2011-2012’s “Most Improved Sitcom” Award | A Helpless Compiler

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