In its first season, the show's gone from a Zooey Deschanel quirkfest to a funny, accurate picture of the awkwardness of young adulthood.
A funny thing has happened on New Girl. Somewhere along the way, the show that started as a potentially irritating ode to star Zooey Deschanel's signature quirkiness became one of the more enjoyable sitcoms on television. As its freshman season wraps up this week, it's also evolved into a sneakily clever take on young adulthood.
Deschanel was already a polarizing figure when New Girl launched last fall—your tolerance for both her and her character, Jess, likely hinges on how much you relate to the need to curl up in a ball and watch Dirty Dancing on a loop post break-up. Or whether you are the kind of person who might own adult-sized footie pajamas. Early on in the season, Jess was a disappointingly one-note character, all cutesy eccentricity and little substance. In one episode she insisted on wearing fake hillbilly teeth to a wedding, and and in another she became so uncomfortable after accidentally seeing one of her three male roommates naked that she couldn't bring herself to say the word "penis." When she first moved in after discovering that her live-in boyfriend was having an affair, her roommates were understandably bewildered by this strange, doe-eyed creature who seemed capable of little more than weeping and bursting spontaneously into song.
But as the season progressed, the writing became both warmer and sharper, focusing more on the talented ensemble cast and tempering Jess's excessive awkwardness with a much-needed dose of self-awareness. In one episode, she goes head-to-head with Julia, a tough-girl lawyer who dismissively refers to Jess's kittens-and-rainbows outlook as her "whole thing." In response, Jess proclaims: "I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours...and that doesn't mean I'm not smart and tough and strong!" While this may not have won over all the skeptics, it was a smart choice to make Jess's foil a worthy opponent. Without dismissing the criticisms of both Deschanel and the character, it allowed Jess to show a tougher side to her personality and to make a case for her unique brand of femininity.
The show, which was initially presented as a standard-issue sitcom about young people sharing an improbably large loft, has become more perceptive in other ways as well. Comedies about attractive groups of urbanites—like the granddaddy of them all, Friends, or even the more grounded How I Met Your Mother—tend to gloss over the economic hardships and crippling self-doubt of youth as fleeting plot points. But New Girl is firmly entrenched in its characters' neuroses and regularly tackles the thorny question of what happens when the trappings of young adulthood (sharing an apartment with multiple roommates, toiling at low-wage jobs, eschewing health insurance), stop being fun and become a little bit depressing/embarrassing.
The characters may spend most of their time hanging out in the aforementioned loft, engaging in 20-something activities like secretly hooking up with (or crushing on) one another, inventing drinking games vaguely based on American history, and forcing roommate Schmidt to contribute money to the apartment's "Douchebag Jar" for offenses like owning a newsboy cap. But the show also highlights the downsides of extended adolescence. None of the roommates seem capable of maintaining an adult relationship, and their dating lives are tinged with mounting desperation. Jess is a teacher and Schmidt holds a nebulous office job that allows him to buy fine cheeses and hair chutney, but other members of the gang are flailing professionally. Winston, reinventing himself after his athletic career flamed out, divides his time between babysitting and interning for a verbally abusive radio host. Nick, arguably the most emotionally stunted member of the group and Jess's inevitable love interest, is a law school drop-out-turned-bartender who is humiliatingly turned away from buying a cell phone due to a low credit score.
"I've never seen a score this low," the store employee says. "Did you just wake up from a coma?"
New Girl isn't the only recession-era comedy to confront the realities of being young, broke, and struggling to gain a toehold into the adult world (2 Broke Girls and Lena Dunham's Girls both come to mind). But New Girl also stands slightly apart from its girl-titled peers in that its characters are all circling 30 (despite her ability to project childlike wonder through her giant anime eyes, Deschanel is in fact a fully grown woman), and the view is a little bit different four or five years into a quarter-life crisis.
This in-betweener angst was crystallized in a recent storyline that centered around Jess dating a successful older man. Jess struggles to reconcile a functioning adult relationship with a guy her roommates refer to as "Fancy Man" and her world of party buses and co-ed bathrooms with faulty plumbing. On their first date, when the Fancy Man has to leave halfway through dinner to deal with an issue involving his daughter, he sends Jess off with money for a cab and an awkwardly paternal hug. She returns home to find Nick throwing a party with a group of college students. "Why is the cast of The Social Network in our apartment?" she asks. The answer: they are in awe of Nick's ability to make a Bay Breeze.
"They don't know what Saved by the Bell is, and they've never felt pain," he cries plaintively.
The roommates on New Girl aren't stumbling into adulthood so much as they're stuck on the threshold—clearly too old for the frat house but not yet financially or emotionally prepared to enter the world of fancy men (and women). As Jess declares in one of her less sunny moments: "30 sucks!"
In this respect, New Girl is one of the more authentic portraits of young folks on television. The show's evolution from "adorkable" star vehicle to engaging ensemble comedy proves that, regardless of its characters credit scores, it's done a lot of growing up this season.