The best sitcoms get you from all angles. They can execute a variety of joke types, tell a wide range of stories, and successfully focus on any single member (or combination) of their principal cast. This nimbleness separates them from the rest of the sitcom pack, and the top shows always feel unpredictable, even if their rhythms are familiar. Arrested Development, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community — each of these sitcoms from the past decade successfully navigated this dance between structure and looseness. Now, midway through its second season, New Girl has joined their ranks.
New Girl premiered in the fall of 2011 to enthusiastic commercial popularity and tempered critical enthusiasm. It had a sharper pilot than most and featured a movie star. The masses (rightfully) loved Schmidt, felt the other males were underdeveloped, and thought the whole thing was a bit too twee. Then, in the second half of the first season, a pair of pivotal plot turns were introduced:
- Nick dated the tough lawyer Julia (Lizzy Caplan), a character directly at odds with Jess’s girliness — and her introduction allowed the show to squarely address that critique. Show creator Liz Meriwether told the A.V. Club that Zooey Deschanel’s profile in New York was a major inspiration: “I wasn’t even really aware that there was any conversation about [Deschanel], who she is or anything like that … I do think that’s an interesting topic: What does being a woman today mean? Is there a right way of doing it? Is there a wrong way of doing it? Different kinds of women, female friendships: It’s all pretty funny, and worth making fun of.” And the show has done exactly that ever since. It was also important for Jess to be able to defend herself against the critics in her own home. She was able to maintain her overt girliness while showing some necessary toughness.
- Jess started to date the wealthy, older “Fancyman” (Dermot Mulroney). He made Jess seem more mature and, more important, made the guys seem less so. The principal cast’s dynamic became less like three older brothers looking out for their whimsical little sister and more like a group of kids in the back of the class egging each other on. It was also through Fancyman that Nick’s character began to solidify. We started to see how insecure Nick is about his manhood. We learned how he developed a shell of grumpiness to protect himself from his fear of failure. And with those core character traits in place, he was able to arguably become the funniest part of the show — yep, even funnier than Schmidt. (It should be noted that it was also during the “Fancyman” arc that the True American game was introduced, so that’s another win.)
As a result, by the end of last season, New Girl was spitting distance from the sitcom upper echelon. But there were still two glaring shortcomings, one of them character based, that the show had yet to deal with.
The first was Winston’s “normal one” role, which was unfair, lazy, and a wasted opportunity for comedy. Then this season’s fourth episode came around and they gave him a thing — we were introduced to “Prank Sinatra,” the world’s worst pranker. While Nick was doggedly spending all of his time subtly ruining Schmidt’s life, Winston kept on thinking of terrible ideas that were either too minor (put shoe-shavings by Schmidt’s car) or too severe (pour acid on Schmidt’s face). This son of a gun mentality reappeared when he made the two Schmidts compete during Thanksgiving and when he misguidedly tried to make Schmidt buy him crack. He’s also had emotional moments — whether it was his panic attacks or getting his period — that were played successfully both for heart and comedy. It’s gotten to a point where any four of the leads can carry a story line, which is extremely important as the show moves forward. (Though not part of the core four, the show is getting better at finding funny things for CeCe to do. As we saw last episode, there’s something in her inability to be funny or imperfect. She can’t just be one of the roomies.)
The second shortcoming was the fact that the show, during its first season, was overly tidy, a trait that could be traced back to creator Liz Meriwether’s background, which wasn’t in television but playwriting. The show was very dialogue-heavy, falling time and again on comedic rants and excessive shouting. It brought to mind a famous piece of advice from Tina Fey’s Bossypants: “When hiring, mix Harvard Nerds with Chicago Improvisers.” To generalize, Fey argued that Harvard nerds risked being too cerebral and Chicago Improvisers risked being too visceral. Though Meriwether technically went to Yale, this still held true for New Girl — it was too in its own head. But then Kay Cannon was brought on as a co-executive producer for this season. Cannon is a Chicago-trained and acclaimed improviser, who wrote the hilarious Pitch Perfect and worked for six seasons on 30 Rock. It was at the latter that she learned to balance rapid-fire dialogue, character-based jokes, and physical ridiculousness. (Think: Liz’s Dealbreaker promo.) On New Girl, she has a writing credit on “Re-Launch,” which featured Schmidt’s insane fire show, and “Eggs,” which featured this moment that perfectly blended more writerly and more performative sensibilities:
It’s hard to know who came up with which bit, but this season has had a ton of good ones: Jess’s attempt at being a model, Winston and Jess ransacking the apartment while pretending to be meth heads, Nick trying to eat an olive after drinking absinthe, Nick getting/giving a water massage, Nick climbing through the window using that giant tire. (Seriously, Jake Johnson has been killing it — proving himself an incredibly gifted physical comedian.) You can’t build a show exclusively around physical comedy (because that would basically be Wipeout: Celebrities With Bangs Edition), but it undoubtedly shakes things up. With this, New Girl has developed a well-rounded, fully formed comedy infrastructure. They can pair whomever together and tell whatever type of story they want, and something really freaking funny will come out of it. And because of this, the show is in waiting, ready for the title of “best sitcom on television.”
It sounds extreme, but it’s something we must prepare for. 30 Rock has one episode left. The Office only has a handful. B—- in Apartment 23 and Ben and Kate were ostensibly canceled last week. Community, Parks and Recreation, and Happy Endings all have uncertain futures. They also don’t have particularly certain presents: Community has entirely new showrunners; Parks, now in its fifth season, is slowly starting to feel stale; Happy Endings has recently struggled because of too many pop-culture references and a failure to develop its characters. Beyond that, Big Bang Theory still drags from repetitiveness and a lack of ambition. How I Met Your Mother and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia can muster plenty of great moments, but its just too hard for a show in its eighth season to feel super fresh. Suburgatory, despite having had a wonderful season so far, is just not there yet in terms of getting laughs. Some of the freshman comedies show promise but are definitely not in the same league as the best. And, of course, there is Modern Family, which is having its strongest season since its first, but it continues to struggle with episode-to-episode consistency. All of these shows might have the funniest episode in a given week, but in terms of big picture, moving forward, New Girl is the best bet — even if it’s partially by default.
Tonight on New Girl, Nick and Schmidt fight over a girl, Winston tries to seduce someone who has no interest in him, and the whole gang plays Strip True American (which the promo suggests involves Nick and Jess trying to kiss in front of a room of cheering friends). It sounds like a silly, fun time, and it might end up being so, or it might end up being surprisingly grounded. Who knows? More important, who cares? New Girl is at a point where we don’t have to worry about these things beforehand. Being the best sitcom is a matter of trust, so regardless of where Schmidt, Winston, Jess, and Nick go, we’re ready to follow them there.