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.