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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New Girl: Season One

With all the hullaballoo around Lena Dunham and Girls, it seems almost quaint to look back on the buzz circus that surrounded the premiere of New Girl in September. There were think-pieces and blog posts about Zooey Deschanel, her public persona, her place in the culture, et cetera. A lot of feminists took issue with her girly, “adorkable” act, claiming it was doing a disservice to women in the entertainment industry. And because this is the world we live in, there was the inevitable backlash to the backlash, saying that feminism meant Zooey Deschanel should be free to pluck ukulele strings and ice cupcakes to her heart’s content. And then the show premiered.

It was inevitable that the first few episodes of New Girl would be judged through the prism of Ms. Deschanel’s character. It didn’t help that for a while the show presented her as some kind of space-alien beamed in from a planet where the natives have trouble accurately describing adult-themed situations. But then a funny thing happened. Actually, a lot of funny things happened, and New Girl became what it probably wanted to be all along, not a referendum on the state of modern womanhood, but a damn funny show.

The show is a modest hit, buoyed by a favorable lead-in from Glee. It’s also became a critical favorite, and in its back half reeled off a string of episodes that hopefully established its place in the current television landscape. New Girl is a nexus point between a host of competing trends, and if the quality keeps up, I believe it is poised to become the representative sitcom of the generation that first encountered a world of social media and had to make sense of it.

Why New Girl? Well, a lot of the other candidates have some pretty serious flaws. Community obvious moves the needle online, but in terms of actual eyeballs it’s something of a dud, kept afloat only by NBC’s sinking fortunes. (Mixed metaphors ahoy!) Dan Harmon’s show is also willfully inaccessible in a way that New Girl is not, not to mention uneven. Parks and Recreation is a better show in just about every way, but it feels like a more old-fashioned show. Modern Family is the ratings juggernaut, and it deserves kudos for making a mass-appeal family show featuring gay parents, but it lacks the inventiveness to truly make a mark on sitcom history, it’s more like our times’ Everybody Loves Raymond. Though not nearly as many people are watching, the show most similar to New Girl is Happy Endings, and not just because the producers of both shows wanted Damon Wayans, Jr.

Happy Endings is zanier, more manic than New Girl, but the latter matches it laugh for laugh. Where New Girl beats out all comers in this race to represent a generation is in the quality of the cast and the roundness of its world. Happy Endings is a sitcom steeped in the world of improv, the men and women in the cast have fun with each other as they try to shoehorn in as many silly gags and catchphrases as they can. New Girl’s cast are accomplished actors who happen to be very funny, and it lends a believability to the characters and their situations that separates them from the pack.

Ironically, the thing that made me realize what was so different about New Girl is something I hated. In recent weeks the FOX network, provider of such boons to humanity as the glowing trail on the hockey puck, has seen fit to place suggestions for Twitter hashtags in the corner during episodes. Hey, Cece’s thick-accented Russian roommate Nadia thinks the Disney hero is named McMouse, maybe you should tweet that? They did the same thing with last night’s finale, first urging home-viewers to tweet the banal #NewGirlFinale, then later exhorting them to echo Jess Day’s roadrunner impersonation. #MeepMeep, indeed.

This rubbed me the wrong way, and I think the reason it did so is because it felt false to the work that had gone into the scripts. A cynical observer might think that FOX was directing the people behind the show to make sure to insert things that would make for likely internet memes. Whereas when I was watching those episodes, the moments themselves felt built up within the show itself, each of those lines was funny because of all the work that had been done leading up to those moments.

Meddlesome though it may be, the Twitter hype is at least a sign that FOX knows what it has with New Girl, as is the fact that the show is constantly used in promos for the networks other shows. It’s easy to see why. The show’s core ensemble is a likeable group that is easy for the under-35 crowd to relate to. The dynamics of douchey bro Schmidt, hangdog loser Nick, post-basketball searcher Winston, and frustrated modern woman Jess are well-established. The show has made remarkable use of romantic pitfalls, career setbacks, and angst.

What’s especially nice, and realistic, about the group is that while each has their well-defined traits, they are flexible enough to occasionally switch roles within the group dynamic. Winston is usually the sensible one, but every so often he goes off the deep-end himself, like when his fear of the dark causes him to lose control in the desert. No one in this group is relegated to being the straight-man.

If there is anything to quibble with in the first season of New Girl it is the fact that the show often seemed to rush through things that would have been better served with more breathing room. Some of this is just due to the nature of the television business. High-profile guest-stars are only going to be on three episodes max, so sometimes new boyfriends or girlfriends are going to be rushed off the stage for less than convincing reasons. The show did better than most on that count, milking Justin Long, Lizzy Caplan, and Dermot Mulroney for all they were worth. But things like Nick’s decisions to move out of and then back into the apartment aren’t given credence by being walked back within the space of 22 minutes.

Still, for a first season, the show is remarkably well put-together. They’ve normalized Deschanel’s Jess to the point where her quirks aren’t supposed to be of the infantilizing, “isn’t she cute?” variety, but are a part of a whole, rather mixed-up person. One I think even feminists with blogs would find a lot to relate to and laugh at. Obviously, my optimism for the show’s future is a tad premature, but I think there’s a chance Schmidt could be filling up the Douchebag Jar for years to come.

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