Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review: An adorkable season of Fox's "New Girl"

In an age of television comedy that can truly be considered golden (Parks and Recreation, Louie, 30 Rock, Happy Endings, Cougar Town, and literally on and on), the bar is understandably set high. A year or ten ago, a current hit like Modern Family would have been groundbreaking, not only as comedy but as television in general. Today's great TV comedies offer worlds with such great depth (think Pawnee, or the wide eyed curiosity with which Louis C.K. sees the world on Louie) and characters that constantly evolve (think Jeff Winger, or any number of Community characters). So when something like Modern Family embraces its role as a product sold by The ABC Manufacturing Network Inc. and over the years stays exactly as consumers seem to want, those who have come to know and love depth and evolution will understandably start to turn on it.

In comes Fox's "New Girl", a show whose very title might suggest beyond its literal meaning that whatever it is you're about to see, it's anything but stale. Is it? In some ways yes, and some ways no. On the one hand, it's perhaps the boldest show on television in how willing it is to take risks that have a fairly middling rate of success. But when those risks don't pay off, it's not much more than high brow slapstick, if such a concept is plausible.

Consider the first minute of the pilot: it's impressive how funny the conversation between Jess and CeCe regarding Jess' hypothetical sexy names (some of which weren't sexy in the slightest) is. Though the returns diminished as the season went along, you have to find it admirable that Zooey Deschanel was always "going for it" comedically. There are two moments in that pilot episode that sum up the pros and cons of this sort of writing: the first is a line in the pilot in which Jess is talking to a guy at the bar and upon him complimenting her glasses, she replies "Thanks. They help me to see" in a tone that suggests she's trying to impress him with this bit of info. The second is a gag where Jess, after trying to wear high heels, has fallen onto the floor and needs help getting up. The latter "joke" hits you in the face with all of Fox's irritating "She's quirky and adorkable!" marketing from last summer that got really old by the time the show eventually premiered. Jess can be funny - we've seen it firsthand; but the writers should really find a way to make her funny without all of her jokes having a success rate of 50/50 or worse.

On a greater problematic note is the show's "Winston problem" in that the writers of "New Girl" have absolutely no idea who Winston is or what should be done with him. The funny thing about Winston, and really the only funny thing about Winston, is that he's always doing things - he's fighting with his 10 year old co-usher, he's a master at playing the bells, he's refusing to abandon his horrible car, or he's wearing ridiculous earrings - and yet these first 24 episodes reveal almost nothing about him as a person. None of the things he's done reflect whatever personality he might have or validate his reason for being a part of this show. Would having Lamorne Morris take over the role of Coach have been any better? Possibly, if only because at least that character might not have been left behind (it seems odd that all it takes is one episode for a major character to get lost in the shuffle). Would eliminating the fourth character have been any better? Probably not, because counting Hannah Simone as CeCe, four is a fairly small cast even for 22 minutes of weekly content, and also because Nick and Schmidt living together without a third roommate would have caused absurd gay panic even without Schmidt's occasional effeminate tendencies. The most glaring problem with the existence of Winston, though, is that he seems to invalidate the show's title, because within one episode, even though Jess is still the newest to this world of characters, she is no longer newest to us as viewers.

Next season, some new character combinations would be greatly beneficial to improving the dynamic and interplay of the characters. Some of them work as they are (for example, it's hard to go wrong putting Schmidt, the best part of the show, with anyone, and his relationship with CeCe became genuinely touching) but the show could have a lot of fun with an episode in which there is an A story with Jess and CeCe, and a separate B story with the guys. Such episodes could have maybe, shocker of shockers, integrated Winston into the show better, rather than sending him out alone into a world isolated from the rest of the characters. Surely with the summer hiatus, Liz Meriwether and the writing team will realize that their insistence on these isolating stories mean they have a lot of course correcting to do in a proper integration of Winston into the show. On the subject of less than effective character combinations, Nick and Jess didn't spend nearly enough time alone together wherein they weren't fighting about something for the show's not too subtle hints at a possible romance for them to feel natural.

In short? "New Girl" is funny and oddly pleasant at times. See: the weird but awesome scene at the end of the finale in which Nick, Jess, and Schmidt, in their separate rooms, dance to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long". Desperate, sad, and desperately sad at others. See: a lot of the "Injured" episode. But when the show works, it works very well, and now it's just a matter of weeding out the parts that are keeping it just out of reach of that golden field of comedy.