Television scientists long ago identified a particularly nefarious disorder that affects series predicated on romantic tension between its protagonists. Irritable sitcom syndrome, commonly known as “Moonlighting” disease, is a neuralgia that preys on TV shows that have chosen to settle, once and for all, the fraught issue of “will they or won’t they?” The disease is named after “Moonlighting,” the charming comic detective series whose prickly heat stemmed from the love-hate relationship between Cybill Shepherd’s Maddie and Bruce Willis’ David, and rapidly cooled once the two bickering partners became a couple.
Given the circumstances, it would only be too easy to identify Fox’s “New Girl” as having come down with an inoperable case of “Moonlighting” disease and rest assured of our diagnosis. After all, the first two seasons of the show had toyed with the prospect of a relationship between Zooey Deschanel’s Jess and Jake Johnson’s Nick, feigning in the direction of romance while keeping just shy of commitment. This season, though, Jess and Nick have entered a fugue state of connubial bliss, and the results — one might argue — have sapped the energy of a once-dynamic sitcom.
But the truth lies elsewhere. For in fact, “New Girl” has handled the transition to romance with some dignity. Jess and Nick have not grown unbearably sappy, nor have they been twisted into unnatural positions in order to wrench them apart at regular intervals, à la Ross and Rachel on “Friends.” When they have moved apart, as on the recent episode “Mars Landing,” the tension stems organically from fundamental differences between the grounded, if daffy, Jess, and the perpetually clueless Nick. Nick tells Jess that he plans to become an intergalactic space trucker, while Jess wants to move to that city of “slow food and fast bikes,” Portland, and have horses roam free in her backyard.
We understand that Jess and Nick are a fundamentally mismatched couple who simply like each other too much to separate. I, for one, have never been all that emotionally invested in Jess and Nick’s saga; I always saw their relationship as a fairly blatant attempt to recreate the sitcom-melodramatic chemistry of Sam and Diane, or Ross and Rachel. But “New Girl” was never held back by its sentimental longueurs.
Instead, “New Girl” has suffered from the same two-pronged disease that has plagued its Fox compatriot “The Mindy Project”: an overabundance of actorly riches, and a confusion about its characters’ strengths. “The Mindy Project” has been a promising — well, project — for two years running now in part because it struggles to juggle too many characters, resulting in too much of some (‘sup, Morgan!) and not enough of others. The arrival of Adam Pally, fresh from ABC’s “Happy Endings,” seemed to stabilize the show before it went on hiatus earlier this year; Pally was simply too talented to serve as another undifferentiated supporting player.
“New Girl” also benefited from the “Happy Endings” expansion draft, plucking Damon Wayans Jr., who had starred in the “New Girl” pilot before “Happy Endings” was unexpectedly renewed by ABC. Now Wayans is back as Coach, but “New Girl” remains unsure, almost an entire season later, just what to do with him. Is he an unredeemed player? A pal for Cece? Coach the coach, whipping a ragtag elementary-school volleyball team into shape? Wayans is perhaps the funniest performer on “New Girl” (his work on “Happy Endings” was superb), but his arrival, and the increasing inclusion of Hannah Simone’s Cece among the core cast, has meant the show has too many characters to juggle and not enough direction. Fox has a tendency to overstuff its sitcoms— “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” for all its core strengths, also has one or two too many members of its ensemble — denying its more gifted performers the room they need to breathe.
In the process, “New Girl’s” secret weapon has also been neutered. Upon introduction, Schmidt (Max Greenfield), the smooth-talking lothario, ex-fat kid, corporate tycoon, lifestyle aesthete, and designated rocker of kimonos felt like a successor to George Costanza or Tracy Jordan — an eccentric whose hidden folds could keep a sitcom chugging along for years. Instead, “New Girl’s” wobbly ratio of humor and sentiment mean that Schmidt has been sidetracked into nursing a bruised heart when the show was far better served leaving him as the blithe counterpoint to the more emotionally charged duet of Jess and Nick.
And Winston (Lamorne Morris) has been rendered unrecognizable, transformed from a likable ex-athlete with a sports-radio career to an unemployed weirdo with a predilection for making romantic overtures to his cat, dating sex-crazed eccentrics, and playing the piano in Schmidt’s impromptu home-furnishings store. Winston has come unmoored in a fruitless attempt to heighten the oddball quotient of the show, or to offset Schmidt’s increased normalcy, but the results have meant that our sense of the character has been disrupted.
Rather than a fresh start, Winston’s quiet reboot feels like the betrayal of an elemental premise. Sitcoms promise their viewers a certain dependability that life itself cannot grant; circumstances may change, time may pass, but its characters will remain fundamentally unchanged. Winston’s makeover indicates a certain uncertainty of tone to “New Girl,” a lack of confidence in its own strengths as a genial ensemble comedy with a barbed tongue and a broad sentimental streak.
Network sitcoms seem to pedal faster today than they did in the past, running through shifting permutations at lightning speed. The third season of “New Girl” feels like an older sitcom’s seventh or eighth, an attempt to renovate a mansion that had grown grubby from overuse. But we could have lingered a while longer in the old rooms. We liked that shabby armchair and that chipped coffee table. We thought they looked like home.