New Girl: The Sitcom as the New Reality TV
By guest contributor Suzanne Barnecut
I boycotted New Girl when it first aired. Partly because I haven’t been overly interested in a sitcom since Seinfeld and Friends, whose respective demises dovetailed with the rising phenomena of reality television. It was also something about Zooey Deschanel. Wasn’t it enough to be a movie star with a successful band? She also had to sell Pantene, Rimmel London, the Toyota Prius, and Cotton? Not to mention the iPhone. My annoyance was probably Apple’s fault—I’d seen her ask Siri whether it was raining outside one too many times.
It was curious, though. Was her descent into advertising and television a sign she was sliding down the rails from A- to B-list, or was it precisely the opposite? Was New Girl designed around her, and was the show itself some sort of elaborate commercial?
That Deschanel was suddenly everywhere is a hallmark of our times. Somehow, I knew she was getting divorced from Ben Gibbard. Her tweets began showing up in my Twitter feed through other people I followed. There was an endearing openness about her—she’s funny, and sweet, and I decided that maybe I just kind of really liked her.
Season 1 was nearly over by the time I began watching New Girl. I was very pregnant and housebound and every episode was available on Hulu Plus. If you’ve never seen it, the premise is pretty basic: three male roommates need a fourth to make rent. Jess moves in and becomes ‘the new girl’.
Admittedly, it was the boys I first fell in love with. Bartending, angry, broke, Gentile Nick (played by Jake Johnson, who is also awesome, btw, in Safety Not Guaranteed) is a perfect foil to his best friend: the wealthy, once-fat-but-now-slim, womanizing, Jewish Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield). Nick is a writer who spends most of his time not writing, while Schmidt works for the man as a corporate bro. My husband tells me that, if TV were real life, Nick is the character I’d have a crush on, but then says, “You’d totally go on a date with Schmidt.” He is probably right, on both counts.
In the most recent episode, Nick and Schmidt, who met in college, celebrated their 10 year anniversary of living together. The third male roommate is Winston (played by Lamorne Morris), an old friend and former player in a Latvian Basketball League who returns to start a new career and life in the States. Winston’s character seems less defined and sometimes inconsistent (he swings a bit between being overly sensitive and extra manly), and his story arcs are often secondary to the rest of the cast, but it works. He rounds out the cadre of aimless thirty-somethings. Deschanel’s Jess has grown on me too, with her sort of nerdy, sweet, naïve, retro, schoolmarmish, “I’m trying not to look as pretty as I am” thing going on.
An early gimmick was Schmidt’s douchebag jar (which has thankfully all but receded from the show). During the first season, he had to place a dollar into the jar every time he was called out for saying something ridiculous. The gimmick clearly worked because Urban Outfitters began selling one. Now there is a Twitter feed and a Tumblr to document the outrageous, racist, sexist, terrible and hilarious things that Schmidt says.
What I’m trying to say here is that the reason New Girl works for me is that I can relate to it. Like many sitcom characters, Nick, Schmidt, Winston, Jess and Jess’ friend Cece (a fashion model) (because we all have model friends) are larger than life, sometimes even caricatures. But while I’m technically still on the young(er) side of thirty, married, and have a daughter, it’s also true that I haven’t yet bought a house, am overdue for purchasing life insurance, and have restarted my career more than once. I don’t feel as old as I probably am—at least, not until I’m around undergrads, like in the “Neighbors” episode, where it becomes clear that I am, in fact, aging.
That a sitcom is what I most look forward to week after week is a change. Usually I watch the extra sexy or super violent dramas on various cable networks, such as Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Outside of the gratuitous skin, these dramas raise real or at least semi-plausible questions: If I had terminal cancer and there was a way to make a lot of money for my family but it was dangerous and illegal, would I do it? Questions like this are why we all tune in.
I got tired of sitcoms that rang hollow, of shows where the oafish, overweight, one-dimensional man had a hot wife who was always a bitch. Their homes, and their families, no longer resembled mine. No wonder we ushered in the Kardashians, and The Bachelor, and American Idol—for their fantasy, escapism, or for another glimpse at the American dream. I’m not saying I don’t watch or even love some reality shows (Catfish, Project Runway, Kitchen Nightmares, Swamp People, Jersey Shore), but I’m not watching these shows because they’re reality—while they might be someone’s, I’m watching them because they’re not mine. And over time, I’ve tired of the teasers that turn out to be not so dramatic when taken in context, or the way that human behavior becomes predictable, and the inevitably repetitive format.
For better or worse, the characters in New Girl remind me, at least a little, of my friends. It’s similar to how we all complained that no one in New York had an apartment like Monica and Rachel’s and yet we all knew what it was like to fall quietly in love with one of our best friends. The episode when Jess and Nick and their respective S.O.’s went up to a cabin, drank too much absinthe, and broke a few things made me think, “I know those people!” Afterward, Nick got dumped and I totally bought it. And don’t we all have friends who seem like they’d be perfect together, like Nick and Jess, but might never end up together? It’s an ending I think FOX would do well, someday, to consider.Related