The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

New Girl Wins 2011-2012’s “Most Improved Sitcom” Award

Written by: Les Chappell, Special to CC2K

While it’s not exactly a natural law of television, it’s a commonly accepted trend that a sitcom needs time to find itself when starting out. Shows like Cheers that spring fully grown from the brow of their creators are an exception rather than the norm, as most comedy pilots and early episodes are the writers throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, tailoring stories and dialogue to what their ensembles can do and the world they want to build for these characters. In the last few years alone, Community, Parks and Recreation, Cougar Town, Happy Endings and Raising Hope are easy examples of this: shows that had fair-to-poor pilots but by the end of their first season were firing on all cylinders.

To that list this year we can add FOX’s New Girl, which wrapped its first season last week. I wrote about the pilot when it first aired and checked back in after a few episodes, and now looking at the season as a whole I’m surprised and impressed at the strides Liz Meriweather and company made in terms of making the show not only consistently funny but even moving at times. Unlike 2 Broke Girls, which abandoned its early potential to wallow in its puns and stereotypes, New Girl found its way out of freshman doldrums to become the ensemble sitcom anchoring FOX’s Tuesday night comedy block.

The word “ensemble” is probably the most important part of what’s made New Girl such a reliably entertaining show. Thanks to the FOX marketing department turning “adorkable” into the portmanteau of the summer, the show seemed to solely be a vehicle for Zooey Deschanel to do her Zooey Deschanel thing as Jess Day, meaning that it was easy to get turned off depending on your mileage for Manic Pixie Dream Girl shenanigans. The other characters—Max Greenfield as unapologetic douchebag Schmidt, Jake Johnson as sad-sack bartender Nick, Hannah Simone as Jess’s best friend Cece—weren’t badly played but felt sort of vestigial in the opening installments, there to increase the awkwardness in Jess’s weird/childlike behaviors. This also of course wasn’t helped by the fact that Damon Wayons Jr. played one of the roommates in the pilot and had to be removed after Happy Endings was renewed, with Lamorne Morris’s ex-basketball player Winston having an even harder time finding a personality.

So understandably there were a lot of missteps in the early going, but given the show managed to be a hit for FOX in the early going—over 10 million viewers for the pilot despite that pilot being made available on Hulu a month before—it got the time needed to develop. It took the same tactic Cougar Town and Happy Endings made in their early episodes, orienting the show away from its opening concept to be a show about a makeshift family of people, whose various issues and oddities balance each other out. As the characters found their way, this also meant the writing got much sharper, with a legion of quotable lines coming from Schmidt and Nick in particular.

The key element was finding the right volume for Zooey Deschanel, who’s a very engaging persona but also one of those people where a little goes a long way. There was a lot of stumbling in the early episodes, including painful examples where her awkwardness bordered on childlike immaturity—“Naked” and “Bad in Bed” are almost unwatchable at times. However, they managed to reorient into a lack of experience balanced by self-awareness, someone who knows how her sunny disposition is seen by the rest of the world. The show even went to almost meta territory in “Jess and Julia,” which featured Lizzy Caplan as a no-nonsense lawyer who wound up offering a commentary on Jess’s personality, putting her on offense to defend desserts and checks with baby animals on them.

Interestingly, as a consequence of toning Jess down the other characters found themselves tuned up, and they became funnier the more they got to stop being straight men to her lunacy. Schmidt has been the best example of this, with his unapologetic douchebaggery—obsession with hair-care products and cleanliness, belting out obnoxious one-liners and willingly depositing money in the “douchebag jar” afterward—becoming the show’s most endearing trait. Like Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation this is a character who knows he’s a dick and doesn’t really care, and like Tom it’s forgivable because he proves time and again there’s more to the character than that. The episode “Control” further cemented the character’s worldview and bearing, and proved there’s a wealth of material in his psyche by turning him into an even more self-obsessed hippie. (As Winston put it: “When you try to fix Schmidt, it only makes him worse.”)

Meriweather and company have also had success tweaking the rest of the cast, and they’ve managed to give them enough time to flesh out their own personality quirks. Nick, introduced as being unlucky in love at the start, has now evolved to being unlucky in virtually everything—a law school dropout with a credit score so low salesmen laugh at him. The writers have figured out that Johnson’s funniest when he’s rambling in excitement or panic, and consequently they’ve turned up the wattage on his crises. Winston’s adopted some of Coach’s hyper-competitive attitude, but more importantly is depicted as someone adjusting to not having a purpose in life, fumbling through career uncertainty and trying to make a relationship work. Cece, the one character who doesn’t live in the loft, got a shot in the arm by being paired up with Schmidt midway through the season, a move that pulled her into the loft more regularly and allowed more of her insecurities to come to the front.  

And like any good comedy, it knows when to use the right guest stars to shake up the dynamic and lead to character development. Besides Lizzy Caplan, first season highlights included Dermot Mulroney as a romantic interest for Jess who also inspired a man-crush from Nick, Martin Starr* as Nick’s pretentious college friend to set him on the path of dating younger women, and Phil Hendrie as a Frank Reynolds-esque talk show host to help set Winston on a new career path.

*Which when paired with Starr’s spot as a political science professor on Community and a snow-globe museum curator on Parks and Recreation, proves that Starr needs to have a pretentious guest spot on every show.

If you’ve been away from the show and are wondering whether or not it’s worth coming back, the episode I recommend visiting is “Secrets.” In addition to containing a fairly important plot development where Schmidt and Cece’s relationship as exposed to the rest of the population—and one of them realizes this might be more than just sex—everyone in the ensemble gets a moment to shine. Jess not only deals with her best friend keeping secrets from her, but also the embarrassing revelation that all of her roommates picture her while “self-completing,” and deals with it in a matter more restrained than she would in earlier episodes but still very much in character. Schmidt’s pride in his romantic conquest (“Can we just take a minute to celebrate me?”) is wonderful, Nick’s desperation to deal with his string of affairs pushes him to the nonsensical rambling that Johnson never fails to make hysterical (“Jesus took it! A Jesus hawk on a speedboat! Magic! The environment! Bears! Family!”), and Winston delivers a monologue I won’t spoil but which cemented him as an actual character instead of “not Coach.” It’s been more emotional in other episodes (“Injured” being the most obvious example) but “Secrets” is the one that proved the show found a formula that works.

And given New Girl was renewed for a second season—where along with Raising Hope it’ll continue t serve as one of the tent poles for FOX’s Tuesday comedy block—we’ll hopefully get plenty of time for that formula to keep working. It’s done what every good comedy is supposed to do: take the group of funny people it assembled at the start, learn how to write for them, and give them opportunities to play off each other in increasingly chaotic faction. You could probably still “adorkable,” but I’d rather call it what it is: a funny, endearing show.