Tuesday, June 26, 2012

More Formulaic Than Audacious, New Girl - Season 1 Is An Unfortunately Typical Sitcom.

The Good: Funny, Interesting characters, Moments of performance, Writing
The Bad: Character arcs are too-often plot-based, Often predictable plots, Main protagonist does not work as well as the supporting characters do.
The Basics: Off to a far rockier start than many would like to admit, New Girl Season 1 is a tough set to recommend buying.

For the 2011 - 2012 television season, my wife and I had a real surprise. In advance of the season, we watched a slew of promos and we figured out our viewing schedule. Immediately, she blocked out time on Thursday for us to watch the new show Whitney and when I asked her about New Girl, she said she was not at all interested in it. I was interested in it because I very much enjoyed the first season of Happy Endings (reviewed here!) and I was shocked when the first promos for New Girl aired and Damon Wayans Jr. was in them! I was eager to see what his fallback was if Happy Endings was not renewed. So, when Whitney aired, we watched the first episode and my wife actually made the same face she makes when she tastes something that is sour, bitter, and rancid all at once. It’s an expression of disgust that has a somewhat pained quality to it, as if to say “Why would anyone produce this thing?!” Halfway through the second episode of Whitney that we watched, she stood up (literally), glared at me, said “I said I didn’t like this and wasn’t going to continue with it!” and then she stormed out of the room. We saw no reason to continue with that lemon.

As an ironic reversal, when I had the premiere episode of New Girl on, she did not start the episode with me. Instead, she was working in another room and I must have had the television up too loud because all of a sudden, she laughed and walked into the room. “That was a funny line,” she noted. She sat down and started watching the rest of the episode. What I found to be pretty mundane and predictable, my wife found absolutely hilarious. We never missed an episode after that, even when they reran them. In fact, right now, my wife is pissed at FOX and ABC for putting Happy Endings and New Girl in the same timeslot next season. I have to agree with her, though I enjoy Happy Endings more than New Girl.

Now on digital download and forthcoming on DVD, New Girl is an ensemble comedy that focuses on Zooey Deschanel’s character of Jess. Giving Zooey Deschanel a starring role was a risk; as a zany supporting character, she has had several memorable roles . . . most of which seem ridiculously similar to one another. The danger that New Girl faced in its premiere season was that it would be revealed that Deschanel’s one –note acting was pretty much the only tool she had in her arsenal. Sadly, that is exactly what happened.

New Girl’s greatest weakness is, in fact, the title character Jess. Not nearly as endearing as she tries to be, Jess represents a fa├žade of both ignorance and integrity and it does not take long before the character comes into contradiction with her own self. More than any other comedy I have seen of late, it seems like the writers and producers had no real idea who they wanted the character to be, so each new writer – or the writer of each of Jess’s arcs throughout the season – made their own take on her.

This would not be a critical problem for the show, save that the four other characters on the show each have strong, well-defined characters that pretty much endure in their stable, adult natures for the duration of the season.

With twenty-four half-hour episodes, the first season of New Girl essentially tells the story of Jess. Jess is a schoolteacher who attempts to be spontaneous with her boyfriend only to discover him cheating on her. Distraught, she hunts for an apartment and finds one with three men - Nick, Schmidt, and Coach (who is almost immediately replaced by Winston). Over the course of the first season, she tries to get over her loser ex-boyfriend by dating a nice, meek, teacher and her rich opposite (and the father of one of her students). She befriends the guys and gets conflicting advice from them and drags her best friend Cece into her new, crazy life.

That life frequently takes the form of Schmidt making douche comments about women (though he reveals a pretty desperate need to be accepted at work where the women treat him as an outsider), Nick trying to cope with being so poor, and Winston – who has been in Latvia playing basketball for years – trying to get back into the swing of things Stateside. Thanksgiving ends in a predictable disaster and when Jess tries to use music to reach troubled students, she discovers Winston has a talent no one knew about . . . for bells. Over the course of the season, Jess gets the gang in trouble with the landlord, Nick’s new lawyer girlfriend, and with each other when she insists Schmidt stop cleaning up after everyone.

In the first season of New Girl, the principle characters include:

Jess – The titled protagonist of the series, she is young, enthusiastic and eager-to-please, which often makes her seem dippy or disconnected. She has a big heart, but little real-world experience, which is why she freaks out her boyfriend on Valentine’s day trying to wear kinky lingerie (which she wears wrong). She frequently confides in Nick and advises him on his romantic entanglements. Near the end of the season, she dates the father of one of her students and finds herself enjoying life with money, but missing her friends and roommates,

Nick – A down-on-his-luck bartender, who has a very rough on-again, off-again relationship with a woman who only seems to like him when he can prove he can do better than her. He lacks confidence, especially after Jess sees him naked. Even more than Jess, he becomes seduced by his brush with the monied world, especially as it comes shortly after he has a cancer scare.

Schmidt – Athletic and overconfident, he delivers amazingly dry humor most of the season. While he initially appears misogynistic, he often just wants to have fun (like for his 29th birthday) and connect. When Jess introduces him to Cece, he becomes determined to bed her . . . and then keep her in a relationship! He and Jess are seldom on the same side of an issue,

Winston – Back from Latvia, he learns about all of the internet stuff he missed and searches for a job in sports, which turns out to be a job in sports radio. He decides to try to rekindle the relationship he left when he went off to Latvia,

and Cece – A model and almost a complete nonentity (it’s actually not sufficiently explained how she and Jess are such good friends) until she and Schmidt start interacting, she is very concerned with appearances and social convention. As such, she keeps Schmidt as her “dirty little secret.”

The sitcom humor in the first season of New Girl is unremarkable and much of it hinges around Jess being in some way socially awkward. For example, she will burst into song periodically and as she begins, her friends warn her not to, so she sings anyway, but with even more erratic starts and stops. That is very much like what Zooey Deschanel has done in other works in which she has performed.

That puts Jake M. Johnson's Nick as the one to watch. His performance are frequently moody and the character is often dour and self-loathing, but he delivers his lines with the most earnest humor (whereas both Max Greenfield and Lamorne Morris excel at the zany and zany deadpan) and a sense of realism that makes him easy to empathize with.

New Girl is likely to continue for several seasons, unless Deschanel gets bored with it and she abruptly quits the show. As a result, it will be syndicated at some point and when that happens, watching the first season for free again might be worthwhile. While it is not bad, I cannot justify adding it to my permanent collection.

For other current shows, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Happy Endings - Season 2
Two Broke Girls - Season 1
Weeds - Season 7


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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