I blame “adorkable.” No sooner had that mash-up been coined to describe Zooey Deschanel and her “New Girl” character, Jess, than the backlash began. “She’s too cutesy! Too silly! Too girly! And that voice!” Both the actress and character were destined to be knocked off their pedestal, and online, it’s easy to chime in on anything with everything from disinterest to hate. But such dismissal isn’t deserved here. For those who avoid the show or gave up on it, or for those watching the show but afraid to add it to your list of comedies you talk about watching (“Parks and Recreation,” “Community,” “Cougar Town,” “Happy Endings,” “Archer,” etc.), know this: It’s OK to watch “New Girl,” and it’s even OK to admit to liking it. Staying strong in its freshman season, the Fox comedy continues to grow and deliver laughs and sweetness. And it’s not just about Jess, who, you should know, has started to evolve. The show’s five leads have developed into a tight ensemble — although as Joanna points out, Max Greenfield as Schmidt constantly steals scenes — and add to the collection of tales of young 30-somethings still trying to figure things out. It’s smart, and funny, and a welcome addition to the primetime lineup.
Tuning into “New Girl” now compared to watching its earliest episodes, you can see a difference, especially in Jess. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly wondered if creator Liz Meriwether and writers were intentionally toning down Jess in answer to the critics who claim her cute factor passed over-the-top as soon as the pilot’s credits rolled. Some even cited Jess (or, really, Deschanel) as a prime example of what they see as the problem of women these days acting like girls: “It’s much harder to bring down a woman, or to call her a moron, when she’s not in pigtails and Ring Pops,” wrote comedienne Julie Klausner. (She’d also like us gals to stop accessorizing and decorating with birds.) Meriwether, who says she hasn’t deliberately toned down Jess, took such attacks personally. “It was a little weird for me,” she told EW, “as a feminist who’s actively trying to create interesting roles for women, to hear that attack, that Jess is like a little girl.” She went on to describe the double standard of men being allowed to behave like boys (see Apatow, Judd) while women can’t behave like girls. “Isn’t immaturity supposed to be funny?” It can be, and in “New Girl,” it is.
It’s important to remember where Jess began — getting dumped after a six-year relationship with a guy she shouldn’t have been with in the first place. She had burrowed so far down in her comfort zone and grown so accustomed to unleashing her eccentricities that she barely knew how to reign it all in when new people and situations came around. She was a mess, and leaving her boyfriend (who cheated on her) and moving into an apartment with three strangers she found online was essentially culture shock. Nick (Jake Johnson), Winston (Lamorne Morris) and Schmidt were equally freaked out by her quirks, but they soon grew to appreciate her and protect her, even if they roll their eyes at her habits in the process. As Jess grew more comfortable not only with her new roommates but in her own skin, she began to keep some of her neurosis in check. She can still be called out for hiding behind funny voices or the use of a “feeling stick” — Nick harshly told her that in those cases, she doesn’t know how to be “real” — but she just as easily points out to her detractors that in their criticisms, they often are saying more about themselves than her.
There’s still enough crazy in Jess to go around, to be sure, but that only lumps her in with “30 Rock’s” Liz Lemon in the category of Geeky Women Who Always Embarrass Themselves. The problem with Liz Lemon as a character is that fans became tired of wondering when she would ever get her act together. Both Jess and “New Girl” still have plenty of time. Even more, Jess is starting to emulate qualities displayed by a much-loved female comic character: “Parks and Recreation’s” Leslie Knope. Yes, when Jess exclaimed “I’m pumped!” as she listened to the audiobook of Diane Keaton’s biography while jogging (Keaton was about to film The First Wives Club!), there was a definite level of Knopeness to her — an inherent confidence and passion that can only be admired. But Knope’s tendency to do and say the wrong things doesn’t garner as much criticism as do Jess’ flaws. Does it come down to the delivery — that Leslie (really, Amy Poehler) is cute but not so “cutesy”? Jess is just as strong as Leslie; they’re both kind, devoted friends who love their jobs and believe they can make a differences in the world. One just wears more dresses. “I’ve examined and reexamined myself,” Deschanel told EW. “And I really don’t feel that liking to wear dresses is a problem for the feminist world.” She’s right; it’s not. Just because Jess — or Leslie, or Liz, or a woman who wears necklaces with bird charms, etc. — doesn’t conform to society’s definition of serious doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Even more important to the show is how the rest of the cast has been handled. Again, it’s not that Jess has been toned down, per se, but that her male counterparts have been ramped up. They’re getting more backstories and being put in ridiculous situations, too. Now, it’s one big silly family. (Hannah Simone, as Jess’ model friend Cece, is the straight man, the one who balances everyone out even while getting sucked in to their shenanigans.) So, Jess makes up weird songs to narrate mundane actions? Nick (Jake Johnson) uses a plastic baggie as a wallet and has been so irresponsible that his credit score won’t even let him get a cell phone. Winston (Lamorne Morris) likes to sing along to the “Wicked” soundtrack when he’s alone in the car, and he also knows a thing or two about playing hand bells. And Schmidt? His obsessive behavior when it comes cleanliness, food and personal grooming, to name a few areas, leaves him unable to cast any stones. On the flip side, Schmidt lately has had the chance to be the envied one for his having a secret relationship with Cece, and likewise, everyone has been presented with ups in their lives as well as downs. No one is perfect, but no one is constantly the underdog, either.
Whether intentional or not, evening the playing field among the leads of “New Girl” was the smartest thing Meriwether and other executives could have done, and “New Girl” has developed into one smart show. Its characters have flaws, but they aren’t flawed characters, not even Jess. It’s in the real world that Jess and her silliness, as well as her femininity, are criticized. In “New Girl,” it’s not even an issue. She’s already equal.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas, and she has several pieces of jewelry and even more decorative items featuring birds. And flowers. She will not apologize.