It’s never been easier to tell someone whether they’d potentially like a show than it is with Fox’s new comedy “New Girl.” Some people love Zoey Deschanel. They find her quirky, charming and cute. Some people hate Zooey Deschanel. They find her the twee epitomization of the manic pixie dream girl. If you’re in the former camp, you should watch “New Girl.” If you’re in the latter, steer clear.
“New Girl” has a simple premise, and this simplicity works in its favor. Over the last two years, most the stronger new comedies have been the ones that forgo fancy concepts, settings and environments, focusing instead on good writing among a well-developed circle of family and friends (see “Happy Endings” and “Cougar Town,” for example). “New Girl” hopes to be of that ilk, as there’s very little underlying setup. Deschanel’s Jessica has just been dumped and needs to find a new place to live. Three single guys are looking for a new roommate of their own, and you can do the math. That’s really it for the show’s premise.
As Dustin rightly talked about last week, most comedies take time to really get going. So what I tend to look for in a pilot is potential — a show may not know exactly what it is or what it’s trying to do from Day One, but are the pieces there to have a shot at figuring it out? The “New Girl” has those pieces because what it does with this first half-hour is begin to establish the characters. For example, Max Greenfield’s (“Ugly Betty” and “Veronica Mars”) Schmidt is quickly established as a professional (I don’t remember his job) who is a big douchebag. But the show and other characters know he’s a douchebag, and they have fun with it and use it to good effect (such as having a “douchebag jar” that Schmidt often is forced to contribute cash into when he’s particularly douchey). Less interesting is Nick (Jake M. Johnson, no prior roles of note) — like Jessica he is recently(ish) dumped. His character feels like the one that’s going to take the most time to get right and develop, but Johnson is affable enough in the role.
The best of the three roommates, unfortunately, is Damon Wayans, Jr.’s Coach. Coach is a personal trainer who is a total former-athlete meathead stereotype. He’s really funny, primarily because Wayans is so good. This is unfortunate because Coach will be gone after the first episode — unfortunately for “New Girl,” ABC’s “Happy Endings” got renewed last spring, which means Wayans can’t stick around. So Wayans is getting replaced in the second episode by Lamorne Morris (a commercial actor, I think) who will play a new character I know nothing about. The producers were originally going to reshoot the pilot with a new actor playing Coach but decided against it, I suspect because Wayans was so good that they were hoping to rope some viewers back for a second week. If that assumption is right, it’s a bit duplicitous and, in any event, leaves us wondering what this third part of the Roomate Triumverate is going to be like going forward.
But it doesn’t really matter because this is Zooey’s show through and through. And she’s delivering a very funny and endearing performance, often in an underplayed way. For example, my favorite moment of the whole pilot is a simple, no-dialogue reaction she has to Schmidt’s attempt to lift her spirits. It’s a passing moment, but it shows that Deschanel really has a sense for who she thinks this character is. Yes, it’s a variation of the assumed “Zooey Deschanel” character, being of a type that’s not too far removed with her roles in (500) Days of Summer, “Tin Man,” Elf or one of her many other screen credits. But it’s not the same character or same performance. Jessica is a little less “cute,” has a softer snideness, is definitely more dorky and, overall, is kind of a dweeb. She’s not a sad sack or helpless, but there’s a little of that running through her too. And Deschanel has managed to blend all of this well and it just comfortably works (aside from the fact that there’s a touch too much of the singing — we all know Zooey can sing really well, but hopefully she and the show won’t feel the need to throw it at us multiple times per episode).
While the show is cute and has some amusing moments, it’s not “there” yet. But for a comedy pilot, it shows the kind of potential that makes me want to come back and give it a chance. Whether Fox will give it a chance, of course, remains to be seen. Fox has promoted the show well and is using “Glee” as its lead-in, which suggests that the network has high expectations. However, the pilot has been available on iTunes for weeks, and I think Zooey Deschanel has a limited draw, so I’m not sure how many folks are actually going to tune in. But hopefully Fox will let the show breathe for a bit so we can see what happens. If “New Girl” only stays at the current level, it’s a passable background-noise comedy. But if it can build off of and develop what it’s starting with, it’s got the potential to be a reliable show. Not “Parks & Recreation” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” hilarious, but potentially on par with something like “Happy Endings.”
“New Girl” premieres tonight on Fox at 9 p.m.