Zooey Deschanel. Need I say more? Apparently New Girl is sending mixed-messages and is confusing many television viewers, as I recently found out after posting a comment about New Girl being my new favorite show. Immediately after complimenting the show I had numerous commenters explain to me that they found the humor forced. Now forced humor isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when it’s done right (Scrubs for example), and humor is largely a matter of taste (The Flying Circus for example), but the question is—as far as the criticism goes—what does it mean when one says the humor is forced? It means the jokes do not arise out of the standard situational events and therefore the timing of the joke may not fit with the pacing of the set-up of the scene and so the payoff might seem unnatural. Usually these are the moments when the audience is expected to laugh although nothing particular happened and have no choice but to laugh along with a laugh track full of god awful canned laughter.
All of the characters on the show New Girl have motivations which are clear, and these motivations ultimately get fleshed out as the series progresses. From the start we learn that Jess (Zooey Deschanel) has been cheated on by her boyfriend, who she was living with, and is in need of a new apartment. She finds a loft with three men who are in need of a roommate to help accommodate paying the bills. That’s the set-up for the premise of the series—three guys and a girl living together (vs. two girls and a guy like the classic sitcom Three’s Company). Of the male characters we have Schmidt (Max Greenfield), Nick Miller (Jake Johnson), and Winston Bishop (Lamorne Morris) who just so happen to all be best friends. Like Jess, their motivations are quite simple. Schmidt is sold on Jess becoming their roommate because her best friend CeCe is a supermodel. Schmidt spends the rest of the series pursuing CeCe’s heart, even as she gives him her affection. Winston, meanwhile, has just returned from a stint playing in the European pro-league basketball and is looking for a new job stateside, having retired from b-ball. And Nick, well, he’s just trying to get his life together.
Now these motivations may not seem like much, but compare them with another hit show, like the Big Bang Theory, and you’ll quickly realize that these simple, straight forward, motivations found in New Girl are a much better springboard for driving the plot forward than the leading competition. Even hit shows like the Big Bang Theory do not have fully developed character motivations, and besides this, many sitcoms lack any overarching character narratives as they are typically confined to the sitcom stand-alone episode formula.
The only real motivation in the entire first season of BBT was Leonard trying to date Penny. Nothing else could really be considered a primary motivation for any of the characters. Later as BBT developed, we learned Penny had the motivation to become an actress, but this has since seemingly been forgotten. At least, it isn’t a motivation that’s driving her character any longer (it’s more like Penny’s dream), and well, what is Penny’s motivation? She has none. Likewise, Howard Wolowitz’s motivation was also to get a girlfriend, identical to Leonard, and it wasn’t until season three of the BBT that Howard developed anything in the way of an original motivation, namely to escape life living at home with his overbearing mother. As for Raj Koothrappali, exactly like Leonard and Howard, his entire motivation was to find a girlfriend and stop living a miserable, lonely, existence, which he has since found, and so is seemingly once again without a proper motivation. Sheldon never has had any driving motivation and, well, they gave him a girlfriend anyway.
This isn’t to say the Big Bang Theory is a bad sitcom. It’s actually extremely fun to watch, and the jokes are always laugh-out-loud funny, but I would say that many of the BBT’s jokes are so formulaic they become predictable. Penny will always misunderstand science, Sheldon will always be awkward in social situations, and although most of the jokes in the BBT revolve around this predictable formula, it’s a formula that works well for the series. Now that isn’t to say New Girl isn’t formulaic, because it is, but it’s far less predictable. With New Girl the character’s motivations do compel a larger narrative, and as this narrative develops so do the characters. This sort of writing is much more involved, and it takes more skill to pull off while keeping the show feeling fresh, and I think many viewers probably take this for granted. I sure know the critics do.
New Girl’s ensemble cast jives just as well as the Big Bang Theory’s, and perhaps shares more in common with the popular sitcom Friends (all three being about friends living together in apartments), but there is a key difference with New Girl compared to other sitcoms, past and present. The lead protagonist is a female. Whereas shows like Friends and the Big Bang Theory are about the adventures of a tight group of friends, New Girl bucks the trend of male leads (i.e., Fraser, Seinfeld, Louie, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Cosby Show, Three’s Company, Two and a Half Men, Cheers, Wings, Monk, etc.) and I personally find that refreshing.
While Ugly Betty, 30 Rock and Cougar Town also showcase strong female leads, they too succumb to the sitcom style of being overly episodic. Even as I commend them on focusing on comedic women I tend to find these shows all lack a certain quality and consistency in terms of the overall narratives of their lead female characters. New Girl, luckily, keeps the focus on Jess’ motivations, and this always pushes the story forward in a way which seems like the next episode is connected to the last. In other words, New Girl isn’t just about great LOL gags, it’s also about good storytelling.
At the same time New Girl isn’t a show that’s afraid of being a little bit wacky, zany, and sometimes unpredictable. Jess even makes constant references to old Hanna-Barbara and Looney Tunes cartoons, she frequently breaks into song and dance to narrate her life or the situation she is in, and has a plethora of random quirks which all become the bedrock of her character also makes her unique charm the bedrock of the series. Perhaps this is why people have been telling me that they just can’t get into it. Jess is not a normal woman. She’s eccentric, to say the least. But she’s also a delight.
If you asked me who would I rather date, Penny from the Big Bang Theory or Jess from New Girl, I’d say Jess every time. And that’s not just because Zooey Deschanel is “my type” (because she totally is) but that the character she portrays is really fascinating and lovable, and I would have to say the Penny character is, regrettably, too one dimensional. That doesn’t mean I don’t like Penny. I find her sweat, and Kaley Cuoco is a rare beauty, but Penny does conform perhaps a little too much to the dumb blonde stereotype. As far as I can tell, Jess is not beholden to any preconceived stereotypes, and that’s great that the writers and show runners of New Girl are respecting their lead character enough to make her genuinely original. Jess as portrayed by Deschanel is stand-out in every way, and as the lead, that’s taking a big risk (especially on a network notorious for cancelling shows that fail to generate buckets of money).
All in all, do I think New Girl is the greatest American sitcom of all time? No. That title belongs to Arrested Development, which is one of the most brilliantly written pieces of comedic television I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing (closely followed by Faulty Towers). Is New Girl as inventive or topically relevant as a show like Louie, which is a hybrid of Louis C.K.’s brand of stand-up with sitcom elements sprinkled throughout? Not so much. These latter comedies are groundbreaking shows that have dared to try new things and refuse to be pigeonholed as just another variety sitcom—and will be remembered for breaking the mold. New Girl isn’t as groundbreaking, but the writing is solid, the characters have real motivations and goals, and there is a strong narrative thread that keeps your interest in the series. It’s hard not to watch three or four episodes and not become invested. I find that hard to say about many of the other sitcoms on television today.
By day I am an educator and a cultural ambassador. By night I entertain notions of being a literary master. In reality I am just a family man and ordinary guy who works hard and loves writing just about as much as I love my family. Just about.