A lot has changed since last Tuesday, when the pilot episode of Zooey Deschanel’s sitcom New Girl debuted on Fox right after Glee. For one thing, Deschanel fans can no longer claim she’s an actress with rarefied indie appeal. You might think you’re the only person out there sensitive enough to appreciate her quirky charms, but you’re actually in the company of some 10 million viewers — enough to qualify the show as a surprise hit.
Meanwhile, in the universe of the show, the past week has seen the disappearance of Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) and the arrival of his replacement, Winston. And back in reality, Mindy Kaling has published a piece mocking romantic comedies in The New Yorker that seems uncomfortably applicable to some of New Girl’s weaker moments. Let’s just say that her bit about beautiful women being clumsy seems especially poignant in light of Zooey’s radiant but spacey character Jess throwing a basketball through a television this week.
About Damon Wayans Jr.: He’d signed on to New Girl, but could only stay if ABC’s Happy Endings didn't get a second season. It did, and he had to quit. He might be a tough act to follow, since it’s easy to get audiences to like you when you look like a Wayans. But Lamorne Morris, who plays replacement roomie Winston, tries his best. Winston, we learn, is Coach’s athlete buddy who’s back from two years as a pro-basketball player. Sure, the team was in Latvia, and sure, its logo was a single fig, but that still makes him top dog — or at least a higher-up dog than insecure roomie Schmidt. In addition to the deep-seated manhood issues that make him pop his shirt off at a moment’s notice, Schmidt is also tormented by the knowledge that he’s living in the best room in the apartment, which happens to be the one Winston vacated when he moved abroad. Will Winston make him give it back? Does anyone care?
Nobody cares, right? Then let’s move on to the very slightly higher stakes in the episode’s main plot. Jess is running low on tank tops and other necessities because she left all her stuff when she ran out on cheating ex-boyfriend Spencer. After she destroys the TV, the boys demand that she go over to her old house and get her television back. (Cue Professor Kaling on the Klutz archetype: “Despite being five feet nine and weighing a hundred and ten pounds, she is basically like a drunk buffalo who has never been a part of human society.” Deschanel is probably shorter than five feet nine, but the point remains.)
Unfortunately, Spencer and his beautiful hair maintain a wizardlike hold on Jess. She meets him at a park, where Blind Melon plays as Spencer removes his bike helmet and shakes out his ponytail. Things are good with his new girlfriend, a possibly nice ho named Rochelle: They both love bikes. “I love bikes!” protests Jess. “Not enough,” says Spencer. Then he cons Jess into driving Rochelle to the airport.
What’s weird about all this is that while Spencer is clearly a bike-loving dingus, he doesn’t seem to be a hipster: He’s wearing baggy cargo shorts, his theme song is an alterna-hippie hit from 1993, and then there’s that aforementioned ponytail. But Jess doesn’t seem to be that much of a hipster, either, despite the glasses and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl glint in her eye. In fact, New Girl seems totally uninterested in the H-word and all its connotations. It’s as if the show’s creators decided that Zooey Deschanel’s indie cred will be more powerful if it’s never, ever acknowledged.
Having failed to regain the TV from Spencer, Jess tries to buy another one at a pawn shop. But her slick negotiating tactics backfire when the store clerk looks at the piece of paper on which she’s inscribed her maximum offer and points out that it’s just a smiley face. She can’t rob the store, either — too dainty — so she goes home to admit defeat, bringing along her friend Cece the model, a totally realistic person wearing a totally realistic weekend afternoon cocktail dress along with totally realistic weekend afternoon heels.
Back at the apartment, the boys give Jess a pep talk and decide to go with her to Spencer’s. Cece comes along, apparently ditching the disco brunch she’s all dressed up to attend. Jess goes ballistic at Spencer’s place, throwing plants, clanging around the house cartoonishly, and finally emerging wearing all of her winter clothes and looking “like Helena Bonham Carter.” She wants her “JAM-boree” T-shirt back, but Spencer is wearing it and won’t take it off. This means it’s now time for all three of the roommates to do something adorkable in order to prove that they’re on Jess’s side. In the pilot, they sang “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” Now they all put on Jess’s silly hats and yell at Spencer. Schmidt eventually smacks him with his skull ring, winning the shirt, proving his top-dog status, and saving the day. But first he lists all the equipment required for jam-making, and it’s actually pretty cute.
That said, Schmidt feels like the show’s biggest problem so far. Ideally, he’d provide a tinge of tart to balance out Jess’s sugar. But for that to work, either he’d need to be comically reprehensible, like Dennis in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or he’d have to deliver all his womanizing lines with a wink, like Neal Patrick Harris’s Barney in How I Met Your Mother. Right now, it feels like the writers haven’t gotten his tone quite right.
Take the scene when Schmidt and Jess go through his lost and found looking for spare women’s clothing. “You have made love to a lot of forgetful women” is a cute line. Ditto “Rosh Hashanah ’06. Nothing Orthodox about what we did that night.” But then Schmidt holds up an oversize T-shirt with the slogan “I am Claire,” complaining that the shirt’s owner is the reason he had to switch rooms. Is that a fat girl joke, because the tee looks so baggy? Or is it just a joke about uncool T-shirts? Hopefully it’s the latter, since New Girl’s biggest selling point is its absurdist sweetness. TV doesn’t need any more douchebags (jar notwithstanding), but it could use a twentysomething bro who sometimes yells at people about jam.