B

New Girl: “Pilot”

B

New Girl

“Pilot”

Season 1, Episode 1

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. As a follow-up to their Crosstalk-style review of 2 Broke Girls, today Erik Adams and Todd VanDerWerff talk about New Girl.

New Girl debuts at 9 p.m. Eastern tonight on Fox.

Erik: This is something I’ll delve deeper into at a later date, but New Girl lost a lot of potential viewers the moment Fox married a picture of Zooey Deschanel with the unfortunate portmanteau “adorkable.” A series starring Mrs. Ben Gibbard as a nerdy, recently dumped 20something moving in with three dudes was bound to encounter some hurdles in recruiting the more skeptical denizens of TV Nation—a marketing campaign establishing Deschanel’s nerdy bona fides through cutesy wordplay built brick walls in front of those hurdles. And that’s too bad, because the New Girl pilot does much more for Deschanel’s character, Jess, than stick an advertising tagline on her. It allows her to audition before an entire audience—and while that audition isn’t exactly a smashing success, she definitely earns a callback.

New Girl’s première episode isn’t as direct as Fox’s ad campaign. At this point, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel about Jess. And up until the last few minutes of the pilot, most of the people onscreen aren’t, either. Are we supposed to find her tendency to randomly burst into song annoying or endearing? Should her post-breakup habit of watching Dirty Dancing and uncontrollably weeping elicit reactions that are empathetic—or is it just straight-up pathetic? Are her various romantic and social failures throughout the episode “laugh with her” moments, or “laugh at her” moments? For others, that might make for an unappealing viewing experience, but I think it makes for a complex characterization—as complex as 22 minutes of television allows, at least.

In a lot of ways, New Girl turns the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype on its head. Here’s a character whose skewed perspective on life (she apparently thinks “‘Two Boobs’ Johnson” would be a great name for a stripper) doesn’t make her the object of affection for every sad bastard who crosses her path—in fact, those sad bastards might appreciate it if she cut down on the Lord Of The Rings references. I certainly don’t want the series to become the story of how Jess sands off all her edges in order to find a man—but it would certainly be nice to watch the series slowly uncover the human being buried beneath the quirk. What’s your first impression of Jess, Todd?

Todd: It’s here I’ll admit that when I read reviews of New Girl—both positive and negative—it seems to me like half the people reviewing this show are reviewing the advertising campaign, rather than what actually exists on screen. One of the most common complaints against the show is that it seems to present the idea that Jess can’t get guys to date her. But I wouldn’t say that’s strictly accurate: She starts out the pilot with a serious boyfriend, and other guys show interest in her over the course of the half-hour. (It’s here I should say we won’t spoil this, but since it’s been available for free and legally online for a while now, we may be a bit less circumspect with plot details than we normally would be.) Jess’ problem is more that she can’t get guys to take her seriously, that they look at her and find her whole aesthetic and behavior rather ridiculous, and that means they walk all over her. That’s quite a ways from “Zooey Deschanel can’t get guys?” which would, indeed, be sort of terrible.

So, yeah, I don’t mind Jess. In fact, she’s my favorite thing about the show so far. She’s pretty much Zooey Deschanel as a sitcom character, but I think that could be an interesting sitcom character, if given enough time. My problems with New Girl, which I mildly enjoy but don’t love and don’t terribly have a lot of confidence in, mostly center on how formless the whole thing is. The premise seems to be, “A bunch of people live in an apartment together, and one of them is Zooey Deschanel!” And, yes, high-concept premises are often the death of comedy, which often thrives when the premise is “Look at these funny people in a (insert setting here),” but the other characters around Jess are pretty formless as well, which could end up being a problem. Indeed, the best, Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), is a character who will be written out in episode two so he can go back to Happy Endings. This strikes me as one of the worst creative decisions made by a new show in a while, since Coach could have developed into a good character, and the producers probably should have just recast the role and reshot the pilot. (We were hoping to see episode two before this review is published, so we can see how the new guy fits in, but the series’ tight turnaround prevented that.)

More broadly speaking, the pilot doesn’t strike me as terribly understanding the strengths of single-camera comedy. The best single-camera comedies are the sorts of things that could only be done in that style. They either offer unusual filming styles—like Parks And Recreation or Arrested Development—or they have a wild, joke-a-second pace that wouldn’t be possible in a multi-camera style—like Community or, again, Arrested Development. New Girl certainly has its moments, but too many of the jokes fall flat, and there aren’t so many that wilder ones can compensate for weaker ones. It’s a show that seems to be entirely predicated on being cute and adorable all of the time, and I’m not sure how sustainable that is long-term. But what about you, Erik? What do you hope the show does going forward?

Erik: What I see in the pilot and what I hope it becomes are both reflected in a note from my second viewing of the pilot: “Younger, poorer 30 Rock.” Not younger in terms of less time on the air, or poorer in terms of quality; at times, New Girl feels like it’s the show about Liz Lemon before she arrived in New York. And while I’d agree that the pilot seems to be at a loss when it comes to handling the single-camera style, it does show some skill with one of 30 Rock’s most reliable comedic tools: The cutaway. Yes, that’s the same device on which Fox’s various Seth MacFarlane properties lean too heavily on for delivering cheap, not-essential-to-the-story laughs, but each time we get a cutaway in the New Girl pilot, we learn a little bit more about the main ensemble: Nick’s been in denial about his breakup from the start; Schmidt’s misplaced machismo is the result of an emasculating workplace; Coach really needs to work on his communication skills; Jess’ awkward tendencies are hardly new developments. The cutaways are akin to single-camera training wheels, and if New Girl can keep using them without toppling over, it stands to reason that the series can pick up the other tricks and advantages inherent in not filming before a live studio audience.

And hey, once the show’s writers figure out how many jokes you can squeeze into an episode when you don’t have to navigate around audience laughter, maybe they’ll start writing better, stronger material for the male leads. We don’t get a good sense of who any of Jess’ new roommates are, but that’s not to say that we won’t in the next couple of episodes. (With the unfortunate exception of Coach, of course.) And while Schmidt displays some annoying tendencies (tendencies he’s rightfully and humorously forced to purge via minor financial penalties), I see some potential in Jake M. Johnson’s sadsack bartender, Nick. Of course, we can see anything we want in Nick, because he’s pretty much a blank slate in the pilot—the viewer surrogate, if only because he’s the character with the fewest quirks. He spends most of the episode in mild befuddlement at the people who’ve been allowed into his life, but we get a glimpse at his innate compassion at the end of the pilot, when he’s the first of the roommates to ditch the “Wild West” party to save Jess from her disastrous non-date. Then again, maybe I just like Nick because it feels like if New Girl was made in an alternate 1970s universe, he’d be played by Judd Hirsch.

That said, I really, really, really hope that decision isn’t the first step down the road toward developing a romantic relationship between Nick and Jess. The dynamic between the four roommates is ill-defined as it is—there’s no reason to wreck it this early on with a desperate move like that. (Not to mention immediately wasting any future reserves of “Will they, won’t they?” tension.) If the pilot has any discernible form, it’s that of a frothy “battle of the sexes” comedy. That’s boring, well-trod comedic territory, sure, but one from which humanity has mined centuries of humor. The New Girl pilot gets some fresh ones as well, from Coach trying to console a weeping Jess by brusquely telling her to “Stop it” to Jess’ flailing attempts at figuring out what men find attractive. (One joke along these lines I could do without, for the rest of my life: Schmidt abruptly removing his shirt during the roommates first meeting with Jess. Why is that the sitcom meme of fall 2011? I blame “The Situation.”) I don’t have any faith that New Girl has anything earth-shattering to say about sexual politics, but that’s not what I expect from Fox’s swiftly forming Tuesday-night comedy bloc. I’m looking for a few quick laughs, endearing characters, and a touch of irreverence, and New Girl seems like it could fit that mold a few weeks down the line. What do you think, Todd? Is New Girl a future sleeper hit in the vein of Glee and Raising Hope? Its stakes are obviously a little higher, seeing as its lead is a movie star and everything. 

Todd: See, and it was the cutaways that struck me as a little lazy here. Part of the problem may be that I watched this in rapid succession with a midseason comedy, Apartment 23, which isn’t perfect but at least handles all of the cutaway gags and other usual single-camera tricks with something like aplomb. (It also made me laugh more than this.) It’s very comfortable in its own skin, and every time New Girl gets away from Jess, it feels like it’s struggling to know what it wants to be. Again, that’s not a show-killer, particularly when you’ve got a nicely defined character like Jess at the center of the show. And maybe there will be time for the series to take hold and start to fill in the others around Jess, beyond just saying, “Oh, he’s a jerk, and he’s a nice guy, and she’s a model.” But it’s also just as possible that this turns into Oh, That Jess!, in which all of the other characters chuckle and roll their eyes as she embarks on her latest antics. Again, I like the show quite a bit, but it doesn’t seem to have a point-of-view (like 2 Broke Girls) or a strong sense of its format (like Apartment 23) or even the vague realism of Up All Night. It’s got one character. And she’s a good character. But I worry she’ll be enough going forward.

That said, I do hope the show gets time to figure that out. There’s enough good here that I’m willing to ride it out for at least half a season. (Practically speaking, I worry it will have problems. It’s a better fit with Glee than Raising Hope was, but Glee slumped in the ratings just a bit last spring, and it’s always hard to get old viewers back. The whole night could turn out to be a disappointment for Fox.) And New Girl—which is created, we should probably mention, by screenwriter Liz Meriwether—doesn’t have such serious problems that they can’t be fixed very quickly. In fact, if the replacement character for Coach is funny, fixing the rest should be relatively easy. Most of it will rely on Meriwether getting a little more used to the rhythms of TV comedy and figuring out what does and doesn’t work there, something that will come with time and writing more scripts and supervising a writers room. And with Deschanel holding down the center of the show well enough for now, she’ll have some breathing room to do just that.

I always feel weird reviewing comedy pilots because I almost feel like they should get “previews,” like Broadway shows, where we all agree not to review anything until February sweeps, when the shows will at least have figured out what they want to be. I didn’t like the pilot for New Girl as much as you, but most of my substantive criticisms here are more concerns about future potential than anything else. The truth is: It’s damn hard to do a good comedy pilot (there are probably only a dozen in the history of the medium I’d give an A), and even if New Girl isn’t a great one, it’s at least a pretty good one. And that makes it more than worth watching. (Though I agree it would be even more worth watching if Judd Hirsch circa 1978 were actually in it.)

That said, I feel like all of this will be dependent on just how soon the show tries to thrust a will-they/won’t-they element onto the proceedings (something you’ve touched on). If it’s a few years down the line, well, that’s probably inevitable. If they’re doing so by November sweeps, I might be running.

How about you? What are your best- and worst-case scenarios for this?

Erik: Best-case scenario: Meriwether and her writing staff give more life to the ensemble, pull Jess’ head out of the clouds every once in a while, and start having a little more fun with the single-camera set-up. Maybe, you know, introduce some zippier dialogue, something that has skipped merrily hand-in-hand with moony female leads and “battle of the sexes” plots since the Golden Age of Hollywood. Much like Free Agents, there’s an excellent screwball comedy deep within New Girl—I’m just hoping New Girl doesn’t push the “They will!” button as soon as Free Agents did.

Worst-case scenario: The Internet’s knee-jerk reaction proves true, and this New Girl turns out to be everything they say she is—empty, twee, and hiding behind a fake adjective that was more accurately applied to a previous Fox star.

Erik’s grade: B
Todd’s grade: B-