In the 90’s, Seinfeld, the show famously about nothing, reigned the airwaves. It was ground breaking for both sitcoms and sitcom viewers. It was self-aware and unafraid. Viewers grew accustomed to, and eventually embraced, the show’s particular narrative language where plots were forgotten from week to week as if they had never happened. This world of no consequences was relatively new to TV audiences at the time, but has now become the norm for many shows (Arrested Development, Family Guy, etc.).
And, at first, I thought New Girl might be something like that. A show that dabbled in the absurd and didn’t dally in seriality. But quickly, I realized it wasn’t. Each episode doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the characters remember what came before, if evidenced only in the way that they relate to each other (the tension between Nick and Jess grows each episode). No, New Girl is no Seinfeld in structure or quality. But it could be something entirely new.
New Girl’s success is based solely on Zooey Deschanel and her “adorkable” celebrite. Sure, the dudes are a funny group of guys – I’ve become quite fond of Schmidt – but Deschanel is the reason the show is still around. Over the past few years we’ve seen the rise of the auteur-showrunner (like New Girl’s Liz Meriwether), but does New Girl represent the advent of the auteur-actor; an actor who, based on their presence and personality alone, brings viewers back week after week?
Strengthening the notion that viewers are only tuning in for Zooey D’s zany antics is the show’s content, or lack thereof. Each episode has the barest of plots, and so far, it always follows the same structure: Jess has a cooky idea or does something embarrassing and the guys hate her for it, but by the end of the episode they come around and end up admiring Jess’ unswerving dedication to quirkiness and being herself. There’s not a lot to love here, except Zooey.
But not everyone loves New Girl, and the most cited reason why (in my experience) is very telling. It’s not that they don’t like Jess, it’s that they don’t like Deschanel. In fact, it’s impossible to separate Deschanel from her character Jess. Jess is who we assume Deschanel is; we assume that she is just as “adorkable” in real life (side note: the real Jess incarnate is, in fact, Meriwether).
So supposing New Girl is a new kind of show, then it requires a new kind of viewer. Many TV spectators today are quite savvy and relish complex or non-traditional narrative structure (like in the X-Files or Lost ), but New Girl promises neither. It creates a new pact with an audience: show up each week and enjoy Deschanel’s one-liners and wide-eyed expressions and expect little else. And judging by the ratings, audiences have signed on.
But it isn’t there yet. New Girl is so, well, new that it still has a choice to make: continue down this path of the auteur-actor into increasingly zany and absurd moments and perhaps forge a new kind of sitcom, or turn to the safe zone with traditional plot-driven episodes evenly distributed over the ensemble cast. Neither is inherently better than the other, except maybe with regards to longevity (shows on the fringe, like the in-limboCommunity, don’t last long).
So New Girl: What you doing? Hey girl, where you going?