What Was New Girl’s Legacy?

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The cast of New Girl. Photo: FOX/FOX via Getty Images

“What we’ve done here is create maybe the first post-post-9/11 show.” That was longtime New Girl executive producer Brett Baer’s assessment back in 2012, of why people responded so well to the pilot. He continued, “The comedy in the past ten years prior to our show had an edge to it. It was satirical. There was a cynicism about the comedy. What our show came along at the right time for — this weird alchemy that happened — is that we were willing for the first time to go, It’s okay to feel again.” Baer admitted he “might be completely boneheaded and wrong,” and many argued at the time (including myself) that he was. But he wasn’t, at least not totally. Baer was correct that Liz Meriwether’s sitcom about a (new) girl moving in with a bunch of boys represented a shift in American TV comedy. But the shift they helped start evolved to a point where they were left behind.

New Girl’s adorkable first season aired on Fox during Dan Harmon’s last season running Community on NBC. There is no causal relationship to this fact, but it’s not necessarily a coincidence. Before New Girl, there was one dominant narrative about the state of sitcoms: The good ones were on NBC and only culture snobs watched them. 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, and Community debuted, got lauded by sites like this one, and then were slowly ignored by the slice of America that has Nielsen boxes. Though wildly different, especially tonally, they were all deemed ambitious, be it comedically, structurally, or thematically. Even The Office, which by that point was a shadow of its former self, still offered glimpses of the ambitions of its invention. We watched them because they were funny to us and we liked the characters, but also because of an interest in how they moved the form forward. It was the early stage of our current culture, where watching TV shows became a necessary part of your cultural education.

In contrast, New Girl was just easier — low stakes, low concept, fairly episodic —while maintaining a level of comedy that still appealed to urbane, nerdy, pop-culture-savvy types. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s signature molten chocolate cake — the Trojan horse of chocolate cakes — is a fine metaphor for what New Girl was able to do: present an easy-to-understand package and hide its secret sauce inside. At its zenith, it was accessible, while still having sites like this one wonder if it was the best sitcom on TV. And wouldn’t you know, people watched it! It wasn’t exactly pulling in Modern Family numbers, but enough that for a while it was considered a hit, regularly pulling in over 7 million viewers at its peak. It succeeded popularly in a way that our NBC faves — or Happy Endings, its clearest post-9/11 forebearer — didn’t. At minimum, Fox was able to pair it with The Mindy Project, and it felt like a declarative statement: This is what TV comedy is.

Until it wasn’t. Cable shows happened. Streaming shows happened. Network shifted to higher concepts, the explicitly political, REBOOTS. A tweener like New Girl — smart in its comedy, humble in its scope — felt like seeing someone in skinny jeans today: Regardless of execution, the Zeitgeist had moved on. Sites like this one didn’t cover it as much, even if writers like this one still watched it religiously. Sure, this happens to most shows later in their runs, but at six seasons, it happened noticeably quicker for New Girl.

Last season’s finale seemed like it could have been a series finale, but I crossed my fingers that it wasn’t. Happy endings are nice, and New Girl’s was fairly earned, but I found myself wanting another scene or two, or 300, after Jess and Nick’s kiss, one where the gang is sitting on the couch or table arguing about something unrelated (probably something Nick said or did). I wanted less done as if it were more, as the show always did at its best. And that’s what I got with the final season, which wraps up tonight.

Despite the time jump forward in the show’s universe, watching these past handful of episodes felt like stepping back in time, to a world where Obama is still president. And for half an hour at a time, each episode has felt like eating one of those chocolate cakes by myself. But, inevitably, it would end, I’d open up Twitter, and sugar crash. These are just not adorkable times. New Girl was built to be a post-post-9/11 show, not a post-11/9 one.

But I like knowing that it lives on on Netflix, after tonight’s finale. New Girl is infinitely rewatchable — perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon or summer Friday when it’s too hot outside and you’ve decided you’ve talked enough for one week. And Jess will be there and Schmidt and Nick and Winston (particularly after they figured out how to write him) and Cece (particularly after they figured out how to write her) and they’ll never stop treating the smallest things in the world as the biggest deals.

What Was New Girl’s Legacy?