FOX has quietly made the pilot of their new Zooey Deschanel sitcom New Girl available to watch on VOD and iTunes prior to the September 20th premier.
So, here's what I found out the hard way.
1) No one is real: Nope, not a single character on this show is believable as a person. Not Coach, not Schmidt, not Nick, not the model, and no, not even Jess. Perhaps this is just because it’s the pilot and everyone is playing it big so we audience members don’t mix up the main characters. Or perhaps it’s a warning of things to come.
I’m willing to accept absurdity in the name of comedy (obviously?).
I’m not watching this show because I want to see if someone has finally captured the voice of stunningly beautiful girls with perfectly styled hair that manages to maintain bouncy barrel curls even in the midst of a devastating breakup and who bring up super obvious sitcom-friendly nerd references like Gandalf, and Smigel so that they can finally be accepted in society.
In spite of the absurdity and the inevitable lame jokes and the requisite bigness of the acting, sitcoms usually give the audience something to relate to. A personality trait. A truism about x stage in life. Anything really. And the more specific the better. With New Girl, we get nothing. The writers, unfortunately, have painted the characters as broadly and dully as possible. We get lame debates about the pros and cons of living with women, we get the “Douchebag Jar*” and what must be the most unbelievable mash up of craigslist roommates ever.**
I do think this is salvageable. If it’s going to be unbelievable, campy, and corny, at least make it funny. Take a Neil Patrick Harris/Barney Stinson master class. Use the ham judiciously.
*Incidentally, if the Douchebag Jar is ever used as an effective joke somewhere down the road, I owe all five of you a beer.
**I’ve lived with my fair share of craigslist roommates, and I’m not sure anyone would have noticed had I disappeared for a month, let alone cared enough to run to the rescue if I got stood up on a date.
2) Jake Kasdan hasn’t figured out the best way to shoot the actors: Say what you will about Bad Teacher, but Kasdan-directed shows and movies like Freaks & Geeks and Orange County prove that he is certainly capable of directing comedy effectively. This could be a format issue. A few scenes that would have worked really well in a multi-cam sitcom were botched by unnecessary cuts that interrupted the rhythm more than a laugh track could ever dream of doing. In one scene Jess goes to talk to a cute guy at a bar, shouts “hello sailor” like a theater brat and pauses as if waiting for the audience to start laughing. I cringed. It’s a bad thing when you start feeling badly for the actors and not their characters.
Another issue could be that because it’s a pilot, and because it’s supposed to set the stage for something (what, exactly, I’m not sure...we weren’t given any hints at future conflicts or tensions which makes me nervous for what the season holds) it doesn’t follow the classic sitcom format. If a show is done well, who cares if we have a recognizable A, B, and C story? But it wasn’t and perhaps the episode would have benefited from some tried and true limitations.
3) It’s not funny (yet): I’m not going to give up hope, but the promos really managed to spoil the entire batch of jokes in the first episode.
4) The men are written especially poorly: In order for this show to work, we need to want to hang out with these guys, but that’s not going to happen if they don’t even seem amused by each other. The lack of chemistry could be attributable to a combination of too much Jess (I get that she just moved in and that’s super exciting, but not every interaction needs to be Jess related), sloppy cuts (see point 2), and the fact that at this point they are all charmless, personality-less dolts. (Coach likes to come home and sit around naked and Schmidt LOVES models...LAWLZ).
In some ways, this last point makes me want to run around shouting “reverse discrimination, bitches!” Alas, Zooey’s “Jess” needs some work too. Which brings me to my final point:
5) Zooey Deschanel IS adorable, but only when she’s not acting like what she thinks a nerd is supposed to act like: Zooey, darling, I like you. I do. You’re incredibly beautiful, and can manage to be terrific in vile movies like Failure to Launch. Your voice is lovely. I covet your clothes. And on top of everything you do come across as a really good person. But this “adorkable” role is not doing you any favors. Elizabeth Meriwether is capable of writing lovable nerds who are incidentally adorable. (e.g. Lake Bell’s character in No Strings Attached. She was bumbling, and awkward, and insecure, and assertive at the wrong times. She had no idea how attractive she was. She was used in limited doses, and it worked.)
Jess is trying too hard. We as the audience have to be convinced that you’re cute and when we’re getting 20 examples of your CRAZYNERDINESS a minute, it actually makes me less willing to accept that. It doesn’t have to be that hard. You could just act like a normal person who does dorky things sometimes. “Geesh” might have worked better if you hadn’t looked so aware that you were saying something that was supposed to be SO CUTE because OMG it’s like not even a word. Also don’t tell me that the girl with perfect hair who wears impeccably fitted sundresses would try to wear overalls on a first date. It’s insulting.
As I mentioned above, the hamming could just be a product of the pilot and the fact that all the funny has been stripped out of the jokes thanks to excessive and excessively self-aware promos. Jess’s saving moments happen when she not trying so hard to be Jess - when she’s giving advice, when she’s genuinely laughing at her roommates bursting out into song in the middle of a restaurant. So once again, I just hope that we get a little bit of restraint in future episode. Who knows, “geesh” might become the new “legen - wait for it - dary.”