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.