In Defense of “New Girl” and Its Golden Globe Nomination or My Last Post on “New Girl”, I promise

New Girl is arguably the break out comedy hit of the Fall season. It might not have the strongest ratings, but it has the most buzz. It’s a show that polarizes its audience; you either love it or you hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Those who consider New Girl an all shtick-no-substance show will probably write its recent Golden Globe nomination for “Best Comedy” off as a bad pick, but I think there’s more to New Girl than hollow hijinks and made up terms like “adorkable” and “gumbo pod”.

Undeniably, much of New Girl’s hype is predicated on Deschanel. She is the draw and the deterrent for a large part of the show’s audience. Assumedly, those that are turned off by Deschanel never tuned in, but New Girl’s audience can’t be made up entirely of Deschanel devotees. In fact, a lot of Zooey D. fans gave New Girl a chance, but found it wasn’t for them. Just peruse the comment sections of New Girl recaps and you’ll see lots of “I gave it a shot for Zooey, but I can’t stand this show”. It’s clear that Deschanel isn’t the only thing dividing audiences. The other culprit? It’s Jess!

Let’s be honest, New Girl’s protagonist Jess Day isn’t much of a character, strictly speaking. She’s more of a caricature full of smiles, giggles, and eccentricities. A recent essay published in The New Inquiry readily points this out. Handelman writes, “Jess Day’s one-sided personality relies on an assortment of quirks…” and goes on to argue that Jess’ lack of personal history and desires make her a “stunted character” that relies solely on her idiosyncrasies to entrance and entertain. To Handelman, Jess is more akin to a logo, like the Morton Salt girl, than a real character. Where did Jess come from? Where is she going? What does she want out life (other than to have geeky non-weird sex or thaw a turkey with her body heat)? We, the viewers, don’t know. But the bigger question is: do we need to know?

One answer is no, we don’t. New Girl is a sitcom and therefore requires less character development than a drama. Sure, there are lots of sitcom characters that do have life goals (Leslie Knope wants to be mayor, Lucy Ricardo wants to be a star), but there are also many that exist unentangled by aspirations (Cosmo Kramer, Tracy Jordan) who maintain themselves through their zany antics. For Handelman, “weird for weird’s sake isn’t compelling…It’s embarrassing”, but for modern audiences weird for weird’s sake is a staple of sitcom fare. Inexplicably weird characters like Jess have become part of sitcoms’ narrative language and viewers know how to interpret and enjoy them.

The more interesting answer, however, is that Jess’ lack of personal context is intentional. Each of the three guys Jess lives with have more of a backstory than her, so why the imbalance? Jess is purposefully atemporal; she is a sitcom experiment in minimalism. How bare can we paint this character and still hold our audience? Let’s even make our theme song a cheeky reference to it:

Hey girl, whatcha doin?/Hey girl, where you going?/Who’s that girl?/ It’s Jess!

There are other examples of New Girl’s subtle meta-humor that suggest Jess’ character may be more than just inconsistent writing. In the episode “Bells”, a good-natured spoof of Glee, Jess is a rather inept, but unconditionally accepting, teacher trying to help disillusioned kids by introducing them to music. “Kryptonite”, the only episode so far that features people or events from Jess’ past, introduces her ex-boyfriend Spencer, the center of her ethos, and recalls Deschanel’s indie film 500 Days of Summer.

Maybe I’m giving New Girl too much credit. Maybe its Golden Globe nod is based solely on its shiny, bubbly surface. If so, then I have some parting advice for New Girl: Hey there, tiger. You have the foundation and opportunity to be funny AND smart. Don’t give in and deliver Jess’ backstory episode. Embrace her wonderful inexplicability, add a dash more self-awareness, and let her play confidently and intelligently with her role as the forever new girl.

Top Ten TV Shows In 2011

Meth shenanigans, Austenian redux, zombies, and dawning enlightenment.

1. Breaking Bad Like a modern day Heart of Darkness, Breaking Bad continues to masterfully chart chem-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White’s descent into immorality. Bad is addictive, and this season delivered perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the series.

2. Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes’ ode to Austen may not have been on your radar because it aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, but if romantic period dramas brimming with meaningful lingering looks, sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, witticisms, and Dame Maggie Smith are your thing (let’s be honest, everyone loves Maggie Smith), you need to watch this show.

3. Community One part TV show and one part grand experiment – can we make a critical observation about My Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction that ends in a poop joke? Or how about an anime sequence about Foosball just to test the waters for an entire anime episode? – Community is perhaps the smartest show on TV. Unfortunately, like other smart shows that came before it (#SaveOurBluths), Community currently faces the ratings ax. Instead, we get Whitney.

4. Homeland The return of Claire Danes and the complex political TV thriller, Homeland is 24 meets The West Wing with a savvy post 9/11 perspective and a captivating story arc that makes it the most talked about new show of 2011.

5. The Good Wife A study of the modern id couched in a smart procedural format that riffs on current events, The Good Wife showcases human nature, which carefully orchestrates and twists societal and legal rules to its advantage. At the center of this Hobbesian universe is a strong woman who confronts and redefines the titular characteristics at every turn.

6. Enlightened The best show on TV that you’re not watching, Enlightened is sometimes a maelstrom and sometimes a gentle breeze, but it is constantly, urgently, gently, pushing and at the heart of it all is Laura Dern who has immersed herself so deeply in the painfully genuine Amy Jellicoe that you don’t realize how brilliant the show is until you let Amy in.

7. The Walking Dead Last season saw Rick Grimes and gang moving often and quickly, but this season has so far been about immobility. Each week felt like the characters were on the edge of a cliff, and any number of things could push them into the abyss, not the least of them being Shane’s alpha male huffing and puffing (and blowing out Otis’ kneecap). In reality, not much happened from week to week, but to the show’s great credit, The Walking Dead managed to maintain its heart-stopping tension.

8. Parks and Recreation Eternally optimistic and dedicated Leslie Knope would seem a rarity amongst government employees, but not in Pawnee, Indiana where effervescent optimism seems to fortify the drinking water and even curmudgeons Ron Swanson and April Ludgate have good intentions hidden behind their misanthropic refrain. Parks and Rec’s bubbly do-gooder mission remains refreshing amidst the often depressing media landscape.

9. Game of Thrones They said it was un-filmable, but like the Lannisters, HBO laughs in the face of danger and high price tags. A brooding and intricate epic of the caliber rarely seen outside of miniseries territory, Game of Thrones demands your loyalty and pays you back by subverting expectations and not coddling you with simplification. Also, what would you say about the weather if you couldn’t say, “Winter Is Coming?”

10. New Girl Quirky, and though I hate to say it, “adorkable,” New Girl is a love/hate half-hour of TV, and I think that’s good. Shows that polarize their audiences usually have a strong voice (like the aforementioned Enlightened), and New Girl is nothing if not it’s own brand of comedy. Deschanel’s Jess is this generation’s Seinfeld, the actor inextricable from the character and seemingly unaware of absurdity. New Girl won’t likely find itself on many TV top ten lists, but I think its interpretation of the sitcom will have an impact and therefore merits a place (albeit, barely) on this list.

Cross posted at The Faster Times

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