Televitmus Test: New Girl

(Editor’s note: Now that we’re a few episodes into the fall season, it’s time for me to apply my test of four episodes – previously described as my “televitmus test” to some of the new shows I’ve taken the time to watch. I’ll describe how the show has built on the things I liked about it starting out, whether or not it’s continued the things I disliked, and what’s surprised me in either a good or bad way, and pass my final judgment on whether or not I’ll keep watching. First up: FOX’s New Girl.)

It hasn’t been a very good season for most television shows in the ratings, with some shows flaming out after one or two airings, several reality shows opening to weaker ratings than expected, and NBC failing to dig itself out from its position as whipping boy of the major networks. But there are still some glimpses of hope to be found, and one need only look at FOX’s New Girl to find them. After taking a gamble by releasing the pilot episode several weeks early, New Girl opened with over 10 million viewers and the highest rated debut since The Bernie Mac Show ten years ago, even managing to build on former FOX standout Glee. Subsequent episodes retained a large chunk of that audience, and the network liked what it saw enough to make it the first new show to get a full season order.

And then suddenly baseball playoffs and the World Series reared their heads, pairing with X Factor to squash most original weekly programming on FOX. New Girl was put on the shelf for almost a month and returned with ratings a few pegs down. (Good thing it got that order beforehand.)

This development bothered me more than most ratings news* of the year, because New Girl was a show that I felt legitimately deserved the positive attention it was getting. I quite liked the pilot episode when I watched it, thought the writing was steadily funny if not remarkable, and found myself unexpectedly charmed by this incarnation of Zooey Deschanel’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl character. The three subsequent episodes – “Kryptonite” and “Wedding” pre-hiatus and last week’s return “Naked – haven’t done much to dissuade me from finding it a likable, funny show, even when I acknowledge that it regularly tiptoes very close to my threshold for annoyance.

*Community is probably the ratings news I should be most depressed by, but I no longer expect Community to do anything short of atrocious in ratings and after five episodes won my bet with friend of the blog Cory Barker that it’d lose to The Vampire Diaries in the key demo. It exists only because NBC is a disaster – treat every episode as a gift, boys and girls.

And the figure who does the tiptoeing is of course Ms. Deschanel’s titular new girl Jess, who has had her fair share of exploits. In the last three episodes she’s been engaged in trying to get her stuff from her ex-boyfriend and eventually hurling potted plants, perfecting her version of the chicken dance for a wedding (“I like to do a peck, ’cause it’s more realistic”), and trying to corner Nick to talk about her accidentally seeing him naked. The writers seem to be reaching into the bucket of sitcom plots and seeing how the character would react, and for the most part Zooey’s reacting as you’d expect: wide eyes, childish enthusiasm and an almost oblivious view of the discomfort of her roommates.

In my initial review I said that Jess was cartoonish, but not a cartoon character, and for the most part they’ve managed to keep her behavior in that vein. My complaints usually come when her oddities teeter to heavily into cringe comedy (easily my least favorite flavor of comedy) obstructing the bride at a wedding or trying to talk to Nick about naked dancing in the company of a stranger. When she’s dealing with her more childish traits*, like her inability to say the word “penis” in the last episode,** it’s a lot more fun because you can see everyone trying to work around her unique viewpoint and finding ways to manage. I also particularly appreciated her defiant stance in “Wedding” (easily the best of the four episodes to date) when, after a full episode of being told to “suppress the Jess,” she stated that she is who she is and if she wants to chicken dance while wearing prop teeth she’s going to.

*I don’t know if we’ll ever see what her work situation is like, but between being the object of every third-grade crush and her boundless enthusiasm for creativity, Jess has to be one of the best grade school teachers in history.

**It also helps that this is territory Sarah Chalke mined very well in Scrubs. Remember this exchange? “We must have looked at a hundred women’s bajingos today! Bajingo, bajingo, bajingo! I mean, I can’t even look at my own bajingo, you know?” “Is that because it looks so much like a vagina?” “(Spit take) Carla! There’s people!”

Deschanel decibels aside, the biggest question that came up after the pilot was the fact that one of its cast members wasn’t going to be there after the pilot, given that Happy Endings earned a second season and got to keep Damon Wayans Jr. His replacement is Lamorne Morris as Winston, a basketball player who’d spent the last two years in Latvia and was now coming back after a career slump. While the transition wasn’t handled too well – only a couple lines about how he’d originally lived in the apartment, and then Jess waking up his hungover self – he’s done a fairly good job of gelling with the rest of the ensemble in subsequent installments. He’s got the same anger issues Coach did, but they’ve incorporated it well as culture shock from two years abroad and being unable to get a real job.

Indeed, all of the roommates have done very well in branching out from their somewhat caricatured portrayals in the pilot, and credit is due to both Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield* for making the most of their characters. Nick is still easily much twitchier and more emotionally unstable than the rest of the cast, but they’ve done a good job showing how circumstance has made him that way – “Wedding” in particular showed that his ex-girlfriend was as guilty as he was of postponing the final nail in the relationship coffin. The show’s still clearly laying groundwork for a will they/won’t they between him and Jess, and I’m a little bothered that they feel obligated to introduce that, but realistically agree that if a hot girl lives with three single guys at least one would be attracted to her. Plus, having one of the guys be more apologetic and more forgiving of Jess’s behavior yields better comic dividends.

*I’m finally getting back into Veronica Mars after Netflix cruelly took it off streaming, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Greenfield was also on that show as Officer Leo D’Amato. Good in his small role there, and getting better as a member of an ensemble.

And Schmidt, after being portrayed as an unrepentant douchebag in the pilot, has now been humanized with signs that his persona is in some ways a defense mechanism. We’ve seen similar moves with more established characters like Barney Stinson and Tom Haverford, and it always tends to work out better for the character: it’s easy to laugh at someone’s more despicable traits when it’s balanced with an insecurity complex. The writers and Greenfield have been making the most of it, and I’d say he’s had the most interesting subplots in the episode. I laughed quite hard at his getting worked to the point of paranoia when he thinks Winston is using reverse psychology to obtain the larger bedroom, and also when he feels left out at being the only roommate not to see Nick naked. (The closing scene of that episode was predictable, but no less hilarious for it.)

The ensemble’s definitely been gelling in its various combinations, and thankfully Liz Meriwether and her team have managed to give them some good material to play. While I can tell they’re still finding Jess’s voice in the somewhat hit-and-miss portrayal, the show is establishing its sense of humor as very good-natured, grounded in reality and periodically raised by Jess’s bubbly attitude. There’s been some legitimately funny threads scattered through the show – in addition to the ones mentioned above, I laughed particularly hard at Lake Bell’s bartender love interest in “Naked” (Nick’s take: “Sometimes she’s so ironic… that I think she’s being serious”). And the series of cutaways have continued to yield some good dividends, showing us Winston’s poor interview skills and Nick’s emotional breakdowns.

Towards the end of “Wedding,” following a series of unfortunate events, Winston gets Jess alone at a table and after some shared bubble blowing, he admits that despite her quirks the roommates are in agreement: “They’re all glad you’re here… most of the time.” I’d say I still am as well – New Girl‘s managed to get good use out of its ingredients, and I want to think as time goes on it’ll keep finding the ways to up the ratio of endearing Jess to annoying Jess. And if they can do that, I’ll certainly keep watching week-to-week.

Other Thoughts:

  • One caveat to the show: the word “adorkable.” I’ve tolerated it in promos, but if they work that word into the lexicon of the show’s universe it will eradicate a fair share of good will.
  • I had this thought after the pilot, but it’s now become more and more apparent with each episode, and also backed up by friend of the blog Jamieson Borak: the theme song “Hey Girl” bears an almost uncomfortable resemblance to the song from the 30 Rock pilot introducing “Pam: The Overly Confident Morbidly Obese Woman.” (“This fat suit smells like corn chips.”) It’s really distracting.
  • Nice to see Mary Elizabeth Ellis back for a brief visit as Nick’s ex again prior to having her first child. I hope she can find a reason to come back around mid-season after maternity leave.
  • This week in Les Is A Terrible Person news: New Girl‘s return came a day after the announcement that Deschanel and her husband Ben Gibbard had separated. My first thought: “I wonder if this will take New Girl in a very dark direction.”
  • Best/worst idea? Watching The King’s Speech and Human Centipede at the same time.
  • Schmidt appears to, surprisingly, know a lot about making jam. And, unsurprisingly, would rather stay home watching “Curly Sue” with Jess than hit the bars.
  • “She used to get drunk and pass out on our porch. It was like having a hot alcoholic cat.”
  • Words of wisdom from a hammered Nick to everyone getting married in the near future: “And no open bar?! Don’t you understand that’s tacky?!”

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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2 Responses to Televitmus Test: New Girl

  1. elena says:

    new girl is probably my favorite comedy of the new season (homeland taking my favorite new show of the season prize), but I still find it flawed and at times a bit contrived. although I did thoroughly enjoy the dark twist in the thanksgiving episode that the old woman in the apartment they broke into was dead. that was some interesting comedy writing. I just completely hate will they won’t they, and I’m hoping jess and nick don’t. They’re such cute friends. Can there be one comedy where a girl moves into an apartment full of guys and DOESN’T have sex with any of them, please? I hope new girl is that comedy. But eh, it’s better than the rest…

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

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