I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
New Girl tries to be many things: a situational comedy of what it’s like being the only female roommate; a PG-rated version of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; a will-they-won’t-they romantic comedy, featuring three guys; a representation of a school teacher amidst millennial doomer culture.
On many of these fronts, I think it succeeds. For instance, New Girl plants Jess in the lives of the other characters in a way that feels like the best seasons from Friends. It has all the promise of PG-rated Philadelphia, with a cast of characters capable of building themselves up into frenzied group arguments. However, the opening seasons of New Girl fail to:
- Explore the show’s inherent nihilism
- Represent the life of a teacher
- Utilise the ‘new Girl’ trope effectively.
Problem 1: A failure to explore the show’s inherent nihilism
At its core, New Girl is about a bunch of nearly 30-year-old doomers dating like they’re eighteen and struggling to hold down meaningful jobs. For those not in the know, “doomerism” is an outflowing from nihilism, mixed with an all-consuming pessimism about the socio-economic state of the world and one’s own place in that world.
You could describe Bojack Horseman and Philadelphia with a very similar premise. Those shows, however, are aware of their character’s own nihilism and seek to portray, celebrate, or challenge it.
In those shows, the characters have no satisfaction from work or life, so they turn to self-destruction as they wrestle for meaning in life. New Girl is willing to acknowledge this mindset in its characters but is unwilling to challenge or explore it.
However, all sitcoms are inherently nihilistic. By the end of the episode, the status quo needs to be re-established, or else the show’s premise would need to change. If the cast of Philadelphia decided to sell their bar and get real jobs, the show would end. If the Friends moved out of New York, their friendships would grow distant. If Ugly Betty decided to work in an industry that valued her intelligence, then there’d be no premise.
Once characters grow to a point where the premise is solved, it’s the last episode. So they can’t grow. If they win a million dollars, they’ve lost it through a series of hilarious hijinks by the end of the episode. Nihilism, the inefficacy of owns of actions, is baked into the formula.
It’s a shame because New Girl’s cast is ripe for the same sort of satire seen in Bojack Horseman or Philadelphia.
The clear example of a doomer is Nick (played by Jack Johnson). Nick has worked as a bartender for years, and he’s a TV-slob during the day. At the start of the show, he breaks off a six-year relationship, and now he’s on the search for a lifelong partner.
Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield) is a self-obsessed yuppy corporate worker in an all-female company. Schmidt is humiliated at work. He’s volatile. Obsessive-compulsive. He seeks meaning through sex, designer clothes, fine cuisine, and luxury goods.
Winston (played by Lamorne Morris) used to be a basketball player in Latvia and moved back to the USA after his career ended. He struggles to hold down meaningful work and only enters the show as a replacement roommate for another character, who left after the show’s pilot.
There are some common threads across the main cast of male characters. It’s difficult for them to meet new romantic prospects with their work commitments. They all struggle with having meaningful relationships with women. They are still paying off their student debt for degrees that don’t match their current occupations. They find their work either meaningless or stressful. None of them has plans for the distant future; the future is too remote and uncertain. They will never be able to afford a mortgage on an LA house.
Enter the wildcard character: Jessica ‘Jess’ Day (played by Zooey Deschanel), who is a colourful and oddball middle-school teacher. Jess is the antithesis of these other characters. She’s optimistic, kind-hearted, aloof. She’s like Ms Fritz from the Magic School Bus: ready to sweep in and change everything in the lives of these characters. The show’s marketing and intro lean into this angle.
There’s a lot to be deconstructed from that intro. Jess skips through the song, oblivious and saccharine-sweet. Meanwhile, the boys run around and manipulate all the props for her opening. Nick examines a bird with confusion. Schmidt exhales while pushing scenery. Winston is expressionless as he runs up to hold up cardboard cutouts for her. They smile, power pose, and then cut. The guys walk away, disengaged. As though they acted cheery for the opening under duress.
The opening is short and punchy, but it communicates a lot. Jess is supposed to be a ray of sunshine, careening into the lives of three men who are disengaged and unenthusiastic. A romantic Mary Poppins. It’s dishonest, however. The show’s opening and its marketing don’t align with the content of the series.
I watched New Girl on Netflix and was initially attracted to it because of the ‘reels’ feature, which showed me a snippet of the pilot. Three male characters run into a restaurant to find Jess, who has been ditched by her date. They loudly proclaim that they are all there to date her, and sing ‘Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing to cheer her up.
There’s a lot of great storytelling that can flow from that. Three guys who put aside their dignity to make sure their friend-and-one-day-maybe-girlfriend remains happy. I connected the dots in my mind after seeing the preview reel and the opening. Jess would be the anti-doomer. Ultra-positive, despite the job she works.
In this non-existent show, the guys would have also learned to become better, more optimistic people. They would need to show Jess that her positivity was misplaced. As a group, they would move towards the middle: functioning adults with a realistic outlook on life.
Moments like this occasionally happen in New Girl. In the most important episodes, we see the characters grow a little in their understanding of friendship and romance. The initial premise got pushed to the sidelines. Perhaps after audience testing, the showrunners were worried that their show could come across as heavy-handed or even damaging: creating a fictional world where women exist to ‘fix’ the lives of the men around them.
Problem 2: Failure to represent the life of a teacher
As a middle and senior school teacher myself, I firmly believe Jess’s character would have been less fantastical if she were the actual tooth fairy. She could’ve worked in a Build-a-bear Workshop instead. It wouldn’t have changed the story.
Jess doesn’t tell non-stop stories about her students. She comes home with just a handbag, instead of sporting a backpack and hauling two other bags and a guitar out to her car each morning. Jess says things like, “I’m running late for a meeting with my boss”, instead of saying “late for school”. She doesn’t cover every square inch of her house with piles of marking, books, or resources. She goes out with friends for drinks during the week, instead of staying home to prepare lessons.
Sure, we see episodes in season 1 where Jess is at school. They feel strange, however. She breaks a kid’s project because she’s upset at them. She invites her 30-year-old flatmates to a science fair her students are having. Jess forces a student who hates her to stand at the front of the classroom and sing, and the student does it with enthusiasm. The vice-principal has to lay her off in the middle of a school year, and Jess leaves the school with her “stuff”: a single box of toys and games, instead of crates and crates of books, sports equipment and resources she made or bought with her own money. It isn’t the life of a teacher. It’s the life of someone who cosplays as a teacher on weekdays.
Most people who write TV aren’t educators. Many have forgotten the appearance of their teachers. Everyone has been through school, so many people believe they’re experts on who teachers are. There isn’t a precedent for this type of storytelling. It’s just a shame that New Girl didn’t bother doing any research.
Perhaps that’s why I get the feeling that Jess being a teacher, was almost a last-minute decision. Little moments, like her being ‘laid off after running late to a meeting with her boss’, sound more like script notes from pre-production. They don’t reflect the realities of being a teacher. Instead, they reflect the life of someone with a 9-to-5 job.
Problem 3: Failure to utilise the ‘new girl’ trope effectively
Who is the ‘new girl’ or ‘new guy’ anyway? The trope usually involves someone mysterious who arrives in the social circle. You can imagine two people in the office, whispering. “Have you met the new girl?” It’s not merely about looks. The new boy/girl is inherently exciting because they shake up the status quo.
Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin, and the first season of Friends used this trope to great critical reception. They each featured a driven female character with a firm conviction about herself and the world.
Jess, on the other hand, doesn’t have any healthy goals, identity, or convictions beyond the usual platitudes. As a result, she can’t shake the other characters out of their trance and inspire them towards something more significant. She doesn’t have any strong convictions about life or love, so there is nothing for the other characters to find abrasive, other than her ‘quirks’.
Not only does Jess have less star power than Betty or Jane, but she also stops being the ‘new girl’ around halfway through the first season. Her effect on the status quo weakens with each episode, to the point where she is no longer the protagonist but is instead just another one of the housemates.
Jess becomes just as frequently confused and downcast as the rest of the gang. Jess gets tips from the guys on how to have casual sex. She self-sabotages her relationships. She gets laid off from teaching and starts working at a sandwich bar.
Perhaps this is an intentional creative decision to subvert audience expectations. Maybe the show’s producers were trying to pivot away from the concept of a manic pixie dream girl. Whatever the reason, there is an apparent disconnect between the show’s pilot and marketing material, and Season 1 & 2 of New Girl. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it does leave a disappointing aftertaste.
Halfway through Season 2, I stopped wanting to see what Jess was doing. I grew much more interested in Schmidt’s character because he’s opinionated and abrasive. When Schmidt undergoes character growth, the whole apartment and its occupants (including Jess) become chaotic. Schmidt starts delivering what the character of Jess promised: being a catalyst for the growth of others. Schmidt was the actual new girl, narratively speaking.
I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.