New Girl is as much a work of speculative fiction as the network’s other new tent pole, Terra Nova. Instead of dramatizing a world in which we learn how apparently boring it would be to travel back in time to recolonize prehistoric Earth, however, New Girl focuses all of its imaginative energy on how whimsical, heartwarming, and wholesomely sexy it would be to actually live with actress/chanteuse/cotton spokesperson Zooey Deschanel. But as delightful as this may seem, even in the realm of fantasy, life with Indie Crush Number One as depicted on the show is a little too twee to handle.
The plot of New Girl should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Alf (as well as to hundreds of Pitchfork-reading, Urban Outfitters-shopping twentysomething men who have long dreamt of cuddling on a couch with the doe-eyed It girl). Desperate to find a new place to live after a traumatic breakup, Jess (Deschanel) finds three dudes (I assume this is how they were described in the pilot script) on Craigslist with an open room in their Friends-style super-apartment. Needless to say, various hijinks and life lessons ensue as this family of hoodie-clad bros (played in steeply descending order of appeal by Jake Johnson, Lamorne Morris, and Max Greenfield) learns how to live with their adorably high-maintenance alien.
Deschanel acquits herself admirably as a comic actress, but she’s ultimately ill-served by a show that requires her to be off the wall in nearly every scene. Sometimes the camera will focus on her repeating variations of one joke for so long it seems like an outtake reel. As such, Jess has yet to become anything other than an impeccably dressed concept. More a collection of tics than an actual character, Jess—who openly weeps through much of the first two episodes, sings her own theme song, and behaves like a live-action Looney Tune as much as possible—makes each episode feel like a particularly challenging improv game that none of the other actors are particularly interested in playing. Okay, you’re at a party and your guest won’t stop crying, singing, and scrunching her nose…go!
New Girl is clearly attempting to skate around the towering influence of the observational in the same way that shows like My Name Is Earl and Arrested Development did so well. But those shows, even with all of their absurdism, were still based in certain kinds of recognizable interpersonal dynamics and concerns. While many of the situations on this situation comedy involve familiarly mundane issues like sharing bathroom space, learning to be a “man,” or mustering the courage to speak to an ex, if, at some point, a bluebird were to flutter into frame, land on Jess’s shoulder, and begin to sing a Serge Gainsbourg song in harmony with her, it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Indeed, despite growing out of a plot conceit that involves Craigslist, New Girl—from its characters to the Felix the Cat-like predicaments in which they land—doesn’t seem rooted in reality of any kind.
In a pilot season dominated by talk of a female revolution (in terms of waves of lady-centric new shows, many of which have been created and run by women), one would hope that the biggest hit of the bunch would be an exemplar of this new age of empowerment. Instead, New Girl presents us with a narratively scattered, male fantasy of a show about a cooing woman-child in a polka-dot skirt who literally can’t say the word “penis” without giggling. If this show’s going to succeed, it’s going to have to figure out how to build a slightly more complex inner-life for its protagonist. Alf may not be a bad place to start.