For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year. Today, the three TV editors sat down and talked about Girls and New Girl, two shows that made it to our top 15, but with significant dissent all around. You can listen to the conversation as a podcast or read the transcript below. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.
Todd VanDerWerff: Hello and welcome to a very special A.V. Club year-end TV podcast. I am Todd VanDerWerff, the TV editor at The A.V. Club, and I’m joined by associate editor Erik Adams and assistant TV Club editor Sonia Saraiya. We are going to be talking about the two shows that we argued about the most in our year-end discussion—New Girl and Girls. Does one of you want to try to summarize some of the arguments we had about these programs, as we were attempting to narrow down this field?
Sonia Saraiya: I think it came down to “the characters are really annoying.”
Erik Adams: It seems to be inherent in both of these shows that they are generally controversial. Girls was kind of anointed from the very start as being an important show, and that rubs some people the wrong way.
EA: Whereas New Girl had a very inauspicious start, and became really good in the last year or so, and that rubs some people the wrong way.
SS: The other thing is that they’re both flawed shows. I mean, this is something that came up during our discussion as well. People have varying degrees of being able to get past the flaws.
TV: I would agree with that, absolutely. Especially in the case of its second season, I think Girls had some problems with its storytelling and its plotting, but I still really enjoy the show’s ambition. [Pause.] I will fight anyone to the death who says that New Girl is flawed. [Laughs.] It is the greatest show ever.
But let’s start with New Girl, because I think that a big reason the show has been acclaimed has been that it really launched the Nick and Jess arc this season. I think showed how to do a will-they/won’t-they, and ultimately resolve it in they will, very well. I realize that a lot of people disagree with me. I’m wondering if either of you feel that this portion of the show—where Nick and Jess are together—has let down the great buildup. Because everybody agrees the buildup was great.
EA: I was, from the very start of the show, kind of against the whole idea of Jess and Nick getting together. It was something that I detected very early on, that the seeds were being planted, and I kind of railed against it for a long time in my reviews. I was really upset at this notion that the show was going to try to force a will-they/won’t-they so quickly and so—sort of, conveniently, I kind of felt. But it really did build into something great. The episode that they finally kiss, “Cooler,” is just such a well-constructed episode in and of itself. And then it builds to that crescendo, that giant kiss that Nick and Jess share together, and it’s so perfectly timed and filmed. They found such a perfect spark. It’s such a weird and difficult balance and alchemy, to get that kind of moment correctly, and New Girl just did all the right work for it. It kind of caught me by surprise that it was going to play off that well.
SS: Yeah. I’m really glad that New Girl made you a ’shipper, Erik. That makes me really happy. [Laughs.] But I totally agree. The show earned it. I think that there are other aspects of the show, which I’m sure we’ll talk about in a second, that aren’t as earned. But with the Nick and Jess plotline—that arc, as you said, the seeds were planted early. But it wasn’t something I was expecting from the premise or from the pilot of the show. And it became this most fundamental thing that was happening on New Girl. And even now, when they’re deep in the middle of their relationship, it all feels earned. It doesn’t feel like the writers are just throwing things at the couple to make them fight sometimes, so that there’s some drama. It really does feel like they’re actually kind of growing together—and as they grow, they run into speed bumps, and then they have to learn how to deal with them. It’s a relationship that’s very alive—and a lot of relationships on television, once they get together, kind of die out.
EA: I think that’s exactly it. Not to get even deeper into ’shipping territory, but—the way those seeds were laid, it was very much like a real romantic relationship. The kind that works in real life is the kind that was a friendship first, and a romantic thing grew out of it. That’s what was so good about the early portions of season two of New Girl—you could really tell that there was this connection between Nick and Jess, and there’s something special about it. The last scene of almost every episode leading up to “Cooler” was this really nice, really honest emotional moments between Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel that really made someone like me—who was cynical about them getting together—really root for them.
TV: I watched those episodes, and what I was put in mind of was that first season of Cheers—where every episode ended with Sam and Diane having a little conversation about something around the episode that had just happened. They talked about something that happened, or they discussed something that had a broader thematic impact on the show as a whole. It was a very strange structure at the time—and still is—because nobody has really captured and copied that structure. They copy the part of, the people almost kiss and then they don’t! They copy all that—but they don’t copy the friendship that is growing between the two people, that sort of blossoms into something else. I think that was New Girl’s stealth secret weapon. It rediscovered that.
But I want to talk a little bit about the Schmidt plotline, especially from the start of season three. Because that seems to be a big point of contention for a lot of people, including a lot of our writers. But for me, it worked. I’m going to say that I don’t think, on a plot level, that it was the best idea. I wish they had come up with something else than “Schmidt attempts to juggle two girls,” but I felt like on a character level, it underlined who that guy is now, who he’s trying to be. And it underlined in some ways, how he’s kind of smarmy, but in a nice way. That he was trying to do the right thing—and in trying to do the right thing, he did a terrible thing. I felt like it also underlined that the character of Elizabeth was a vital and important one to the show, when we know that she’s going to leave, because she has to go be on Nurse Jackie. If he had just chosen Cece, and Elizabeth had just left, I think that would have done a disservice to the character—and would have said some things about her that I think they were not trying to say in season two. I agree, plotting-wise it was a mess, but I think on a character level it worked for me. I’m curious to know what you guys thought of it.
EA: Can you imagine ending that second season where Schmidt makes that decision? There’s no way to come back from that. And that’s something that I talked about with the showrunners, when we were doing the walkthrough of season two—they didn’t want to make that decision, to both give themselves some road to work with when they came back from hiatus, but to also make sure that Schmidt could stay a little likable. No matter what choice he could have made in that finale, someone—some segment of the viewership—was going to get upset and was going to get angry. So they left their options open. I think then it got stretched out a little too much and where it’s at right now, on a storytelling basis, has fallen kind of flat. For so long, in the early goings of New Girl, Schmidt was my absolute favorite part. Max Greenfield’s performance and the character were really the first things that that show got absolutely right. I think it’s kind of cut some of the ground out from under him in the last half season.
SS: They’re not sure how to let Schmidt grow. I think that if they do let him grow, they lose some of the wonderful neuroses that make Schmidt, Schmidt. He is kind of an unlikable character. I think at the beginning of the show especially, he’s kind of frustrating—and then he’s very funny and endearing, and he kind of goes back and forth. Todd, I totally agree about the honesty to the character. I think that Schmidt would do a dick move like that. I think that sounds about right. But the fact that we can sort of see past it to who Schmidt is and why he might do that—it’s a good idea. I don’t think it’s as well executed as it can be. For my part—and see, none of us are really on the negative side of New Girl—which is why this is so funny, because for my part, and I’m sure you guys would agree, I love the ambition. I love that they’re trying to make this character be flawed and weird and unlikable. And I don’t always feel that way with Girls, the other show we’re going to talk about. I’m often like, “Oh my God, I don’t care if you’re empathetic. I really hate you right now.” But with Schmidt, I get it. And I think the show might still be figuring out how to make that work.
TV: For me, I was never that into Schmidt. I’ve found him funny before. I think Max Greenfield’s way of pronouncing things is just inherently funny… But from the first, I was a New Girl detractor for a long time. Then when I started to come around on it, it was because of Jake Johnson, who is both my spirit animal and my man crush. He is my everything. But yeah, I think that one of the things I posted in our discussion about why I thought New Girl deserved to be in our top 15—and why it’s very high in my own personal top 10—is because I think it does interrogate its characters. It’s not always comfortable just letting them be the nice, happy people who run around and yell jokes at each other. That works on other shows. But I think what makes this show, and takes this to another level, is that it really does look at these people and say, “Here are their flaws. Here’s who they are. Here’s how they’re trying to make each other better, and sometimes failing.” That’s something that I always enjoy seeing in a sitcom, if anyone can tell from my big Community fandom. I really like seeing these sorts of things happen in a sitcom, and I think New Girl does that about as well as anybody.
But before we move on to Girls, I want to talk about the other big point that was brought up in our New Girl discussions—and that is the character of Winston. This is the one place where I sort of agreed with the show’s detractors in the past. They have had trouble figuring out what to do with Winston. I honestly think they should have just recast Coach and reshot the pilot, but obviously that didn’t happen. So now we have Winston, who’s come into his own as a character in terms of comedy, but still, in terms of story, is just kind of there. Erik, I’m wondering if you disagree with that.
EA: Well, Todd, how do you solve a problem like Winston? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
TV: Are you going to be in the The Sound Of Music Live!? Because I hope so.
EA: You better believe it. I’ll be standing in as the unknown Von Trapp child who they squirreled away underneath the bed.
SS: Erik Von Trapp. It sounds right.
EA: Yeah, it does, right?
Winston’s one of those things where I’m constantly going back and forth with myself about it. I was very, very worried about what they were supposed to do with this guy, after Happy Endings got renewed and Damon Wayans Jr. had to stick with that show. And then Lamorne Morris was just kind of thrown in. It was like one of those theoretical tests about human reflexes. Like they threw a baby into a swimming pool, and they had to see if it had the innate ability to stay above the surface of the water. I think that what’s really helped is that Lamorne Morris is so funny and such a great comedic actor. The thing about New Girl, and one of the parts that I’ve always held up as its greatest feats and its greatest achievements, is that it really is a performance-led show. Everybody within the main ensemble really knows their characters, even if it seems sometimes like the writers might not yet. That was really the difficulty with Winston for a while. They’ve seemed to come around to it a little bit in this third season where the idea is, “Hey, what if Winston was just the weirdest person among this group of totally broken people?” and that can be a bit unsatisfying on a storytelling level, but I’ve really enjoyed the strange kind of character quirks that he’s picked up—his inability to do a puzzle, his overzealousness with pranks. The nice thing about those is they’re always very specific. There’s always something you haven’t seen a million times on a million other sitcoms. The problem is they just have to figure out how to turn those things into plot lines that are similarly satisfying.
SS: I also really like Winston—and I agree that he has no purpose on the show. I think that they’ve done an okay job of trying to integrate him into the larger story lines, but what they really need to do is get him romantically involved with a character—in a way that feels fundamental to the other characters. Because his love interests in the first and second seasons were kind of peripheral. I loved Daisy, but she was kind of an afterthought, and then she went away really fast. I’m sure there was a good reason for that, in terms of casting, but I kind of want to see Winston come to the center of the show a little more.
I’m optimistic that the reappearance of Coach throughout the end of this season could be good for Winston. There’s an argument that it might force him out even more into the periphery, but in some ways, it also gives him one more person to play off of. He’s had very uncomplicated relationships with everyone else in that house, and maybe if he has a complicated relationship with Coach, there can be something there. You sort of see the beginning of that. There’s a rivalry between them, I think, or a little bit of a passive-aggressive thing going on there. But I think that New Girl can learn how to handle Winston. I’m not sure that it’s figured it out yet, though.
TV: I think he just needs to do more puzzles. Before we move on to Girls: One sentence or less, why do you think New Girl deserves to be on this list? I will say: It’s really funny but it pushes its characters.
EA: I think there’s no better sitcom on the air right now at cutting its characters open and showing their vulnerabilities and spinning that off into laughs.
SS: It’s a show that is letting its characters grow up as it itself grow up. I think the fourth or fifth season of New Girl could be amazing. As it is, it’s great.
TV: That was three sentences, Sonia.
SS: Bite me.
[Todd and Erik laugh.]
TV: So let’s talk about Girls. Sonia, I sense that you are like myself, in the sense that I have seen you both fight for and against the show. If somebody comes and tells me, “Oh, this is the best show on TV,” I’m like, “Have you seen other TV shows?” But if somebody comes at me and says, “I really hate this show,” I’m like, “Oh, come on. Let’s do this. Let’s fight.”
SS: Yeah, yeah.
TV: How did you feel about season two, and how did it make you feel about the show as a whole?
SS: So, I have so many complicated feelings about Girls. So I think that season two—as a sort of cohesive narrative arc—was nonsense. I think pretty much everything that happened in the last two episodes, I was like, “I have literally no idea what this show even is trying to tell me with where it’s going.” But then, given that—some of the show’s finest hours came in the middle of the second season. “One Man’s Trash,” “It’s A Shame About Ray,” and even, is it “Boys” or is it “Guys”?
TV: I think it’s “Boys.”
SS: I think it’s “Boys.” They’re sort of one-offs. They’re a little bit part of the overarching narrative of the season, but they’re also kind of branches off into different characters’ internal worlds—except for “It’s A Shame About Ray,” which I think is the best episode the show has done. Those are amazing. The problems of the show, which is mostly, I think, the intense anger people feel towards some of its characters, are still there. They’re still the shallow, entitled characters that we have a lot of trouble with, starting right at the pilot, but those episodes interrogate them in a way that the whole season didn’t. I don’t know why. [Laughs.] I don’t know what happened. But I’m very conflicted.
TV: Yeah, I think that when I make—if I make—an episodes list for the year of 2013, “One Man’s Trash” will be somewhere in the top five, I think. That was just a beautiful, wonderful episode of TV. I actually think episode nine, which is probably the darkest episode the show has ever done—I thought that was really wonderfully done. Really exquisitely handled. The OCD thing, where Hannah’s OCD comes back and manifests itself—I appreciated what they were going for, while thinking the execution of it was very strange. I agree with you—the season finale has not worn very well, in my memory. There’s some nice moments in it, but—especially knowing that Charlie is no longer going to be a part of the show—it feels like a very weird season finale on the whole.
But at the same time, I’m so impressed by the show’s ambition. I’m so impressed by what it’s trying to say. And it’s one of the few shows where I watch the episodes to write reviews of them—and I try to watch things twice, it doesn’t always work out—but when I watch it the second time, I feel like I pick up on more than I did the first time. I think it’s a wonderfully crafted show. And I think a lot of the irritation that I and others feel at certain times at character moments is very much intentional, and is very much meant to be there, and meant to provoke you into those sorts of responses. Erik, I’m wondering what you think.
EA: I think it’s interesting to talk about Girls so soon after talking about New Girl, because it feels to me like the characters on New Girl are who the people on Girls grow up into. We were talking about how we’re watching these New Girl characters grow up. They’ve gotten over—to some degree—some of the selfishness, the self-centeredness, the shallowness of the characters on Girls. And it can still be really fascinating to watch these people—who we can recognize a lot about ourselves from being that age, being that young, striking out on your own for the first time. That always makes me kind of forgive a little bit more of the unlikable stuff that happens on Girls. I think both the best parts of the second season and the worst parts are encapsulated in episode seven, “Video Games,” which is the one where they go out to visit Jessa’s dad in upstate New York.
SS: I’m just going to say that this is a controversial episode—because I know Todd really likes it, and I think I really dislike it, so I’m interested, Erik.
EA: I fucking love it. It’s so beautifully shot. I also liked the East Lansing episode from the first season. It’s really nice to take those characters out of the Brooklyn setting, because the show just has such a wonderful visual sense that it can apply to environments that aren’t New York City. But at the same time, here’s this great half-hour examination of one of the characters who was a little underserved by this second season. Jessa had the stuff with Chris O’Dowd at the beginning of the season, but then she kind of disappeared for a while. So here’s this opportunity to hone the focus in, forget about what’s happening with Adam, forget what’s happening with Marnie and Booth Jonathan, and sort of really zero in on what’s happening with Jessa. And then the episode ends up being all about Hannah, and how Hannah is reacting to this stuff that’s happened in Jessa’s life, and Hannah sleeping with, it’s Jessa’s brother that she ends up sleeping with at the end of the episode, right?
TV: Her brother’s friend, I think.
SS: He’s 18? I think that’s it.
EA: Right. So it’s this thing where we’re getting this really intense, great look at what makes one of main ensemble members tick, and then it just takes this weird flip where it ends up being all about the main protagonist—the target of a lot of the most vitriol that gets targeted at Girls. So it’s very conflicting. It’s internally polarizing, in addition to being polarizing to everyone who watches the show.
SS: Yeah, I mean, Hannah is a problem. [Laughs.] Todd, I know you’re going to have an opinion about this, but I sort of feel like—Erik, I think you summed it up perfectly—there are moments where this show says something really brilliant, about not just these characters, but also this age and this particular time we live in—where there are certain expectations placed on youth of a certain class, really, and how those can go so desperately awry. And then Hannah derails it. I think Hannah’s drama derailed the season. Where the season became about her OCD, and what ultimately was a romance, a love story, with Adam, which was not at all what I saw. When I saw those characters, I did not see a love story. I mean, I know this sounds like I’m criticizing Lena Dunham herself, which I’m not. I know the character is autobiographical and I know it’s an important character to her. I would love to see a Girls where Hannah’s a less significant character or given a little more perspective, sort of an outsider’s perspective. We’re so internal with her, and she can be so frustrating, that I think it does hurt the show in the long run.
TV: I read a lot of short stories, so I always am trying to sort of fit TV into short-story shows versus novel shows—which is very annoying because not everything is like a clear-cut classification—but I think Girls is a short-story show that sometimes likes to pretend it’s a novel show, and it’s never as good at the latter as it is at the former. What I think is wonderful and beautiful about Girls, at its best moments, is that it does that thing in a short story where you’re so trapped in one perspective—and then it gives you just a tiny little moment, where you see what this looks like from the outside. In season two there were some really great moments like that, but then, I agree, as we moved toward the end of that season, it kind of lost that. At the same time, that’s why I think I like Hannah—because we’re trapped in her perspective. But the show is omniscient enough, the people behind the show are omniscient enough, to let us see the way she sees the world is not the way everybody within the show’s world sees the world. I think that even in some much-maligned things—like when she was dating Donald Glover—we got a very good sense of how she must appear to his character, who I believe was named Sandy. Erik I know you have some things to say about that.
EA: So when the first season debuted, there was immediately the backlash about the lack of racial and ethnic and just generally socioeconomic diversity within the cast—and so when the announcement was coming out that Donald Glover was going to play a bit part in the second season it seemed like it was so simultaneous and, in some ways, a direct response to this criticism. Like, “Okay, yes, we see this, we internalize it, we realize that we are making a show about the biggest city in the world where dozens of different kinds of people live and we’re not representing all of those, so we’re going to bring this black male perspective into the show.”
But at the same time, it just seemed kind of like an afterthought. It seemed like a knee-jerk thing. That it was like, “All right, let’s bring Donald Glover on. Let’s give him a little bit to do.” But then in the end of it, when it all shakes out, I feel like his episodes didn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the season as a whole, and it kind of comes off as problematic accessorizing of a minority group. This is a conversation we’ve been having in pop culture all year, this very worrisome thing about how white, heteronormative values, and people speaking from that perspective, are bringing other people’s perspectives in and using them as accessories—and I feel like some of the Donald Glover episodes could come off like that.
TV: At the same time I really feel like—again, looking at this as a short story show and I agree with you in most points—I think it was worth it for the scene basically where they break up. Where she is, essentially, saying that she does see him as an accessory to her life, and he is saying, “I think that you are a crazy person,” basically. I thought that that scene was worth some of the other stuff where it was just like, “Look at her cool, new, black boyfriend!” Where it really did feel like what they were doing was talking to all of the Salon articles that were written about them in season one, instead of trying to create organic television.
SS: Along those lines, this is where I start to get agitated about Girls—so just cut me off when I’m done. But I would have more patience with this show if I felt like it was not trying to deliberately piss me off about some things. Or to go off of that, Todd, I think that you very generously and maybe accurately really find most of the show’s decisions to be highly self-aware. I don’t think Girls is as self-aware as all that. I think there are times where it’s aware of the fact of how privileged of a perspective it portrays; and then there are times when it casts Donald Glover in what it seems to me like a totally bizarre and random way, where I’m not convinced. I’m really not sure if this show gets what’s going on.
TV: I think that there are times when it’s not very self-aware. Again, I would point to the OCD thing as, even if you have a one-line throwaway about it in season one, you can’t just randomly introduce it in the eighth episode of season two. Even if that’s absolutely true to life, that people who have suffered from a mental illness like that will try to keep that part of their lives hidden and tamped down—we have certain things we expect from fiction, and I don’t know that that met those criteria. I think it led to some interesting things, and some interesting scenes, but I think in a lot of ways what we’re talking about is the old TV problem of bad storylines, and if there’s any good in them. We’ve seen that in a lot of shows this year—a lot of shows—even shows I like. I have always thought that a bad storyline can still introduce good, interesting scenes and interesting story points. I don’t think that the show is the richer for having had Donald Glover there. I don’t necessarily know that it’s the richer for having had the OCD stuff there. But both of those storylines to me introduced at least one scene that I was glad was a part of the show. And also taught me not to use Q-Tips. So… valuable life lesson.
But we’re coming up against the end of our show here, so in one sentence, tell me why you think Girls deserves to be on this list. I’m going to say that even at its worst, there is no show that is trying harder to present its very specific viewpoint.
EA: I think we’ve taken some chunks out of it for not being self-aware, but the age and the time of life that it’s portraying is not a self-aware kind of age.
SS: There’s nothing else like it on television. I look forward to maybe seeing things that are like it, one day, but right now there isn’t anything else.
TV: That was two sentences, so that’s better.
TV: [Laughs.] Thank you so much for joining me, guys!
SS: Thank you!
EA: Thanks Todd!
TV: And keep coming back to The A.V. Club at avclub.com for the next couple of weeks. We’re going to have more best of the year in TV coverage coming at you every day.