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How ‘New Girl’ Went From Gratingly ‘Adorkable’ Star Vehicle to Winning Ensemble Comedy

How 'New Girl' Went From Gratingly 'Adorkable' Star Vehicle to Winning Ensemble Comedy

New Girl concluded its first season last night with an episode that continued the freshman series’ late-breaking winning streak — a surge that would have seemed unthinkable several months ago. More than any other major network show this year, Elizabeth Merriwether’s comedy is an object lesson in the virtues of persistence, not only for the creative personnel who took some time to find their groove but also for those viewers who demonstrated similar patience. Which, as it turns out, was roughly half as many people as began the journey — that sound you heard in the weeks after the much-hyped pilot was several million people jumping off the bandwagon at once.

They may have been compelled to leap by the very thing that got them on board in the first place: the star presence of Zooey Deschanel as elementary school teacher/human disaster Jessica Day, who moves in with three male roommates after the dissolution of a long-time relationship. The buzzword in all of the ads and fall-preview puff pieces was “adorkable,” a designation that was supposed to stress Deschanel’s non-threatening, girl-friendly cuteness and place the show in the context of geek chic — call it the Big Bangs Theory.

But you can’t spell “ingratiating” without “grating,” and all of the cues that we were supposed to love Jess not only despite her weird hangups — like an inability to pronounce the word “penis” out loud — but because of them produced the opposite effect. Doggedly fluttering her anime-sized eyes and dropping sotto-voced sing-along asides, Deschanel went all in on her manic-pixie persona and quickly became a walking alienation effect in her own star vehicle.

Her initial incompatibility with the rest of the cast was exacerbated by the writing of the first few episodes, which revolved around the gang’s collective disbelief at, and gradual acceptance of, Jess’ erratic behavior. Given little more to do than subtly modulate rolled eyes into knowing, affectionate smiles, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield and Lamorne Morris (who showed up in episode two to replace Damon Wayans Jr.) seemed like a trio of stiffs, and former Muchmusic VJ Hannah Simone, cast as Jess’ underwear-model best pal, appeared to be a device: a conventionally gorgeous, desirable woman to stand in stark, statuesque contrast to all that rumpled, ukele-slinging adorkability.

But then a funny thing happened — or rather, a surprising number of funny things happened, mostly in the margins of the extremely conventional plots (Jess has to confront her horrible ex-boyfriend to retrieve her stuff, Jess meets a new guy who’s even weirder than she is, etc). Slowly, the alternately tetchy and cozily long-suffering rapport between the male members of the cast began to click. The actors seemed chuffed to be doing more than reaction shots and raised their game accordingly.

The sad-sack shuffling of Johnson’s bartender Nick mutated into a detailed portrait of an emotionally crippled soul so afraid of depending on others that he’s become an amateur plumber; Morris’ ex-basketball pro Winston overcame his perfunctory introduction as “Black Guy 2.0” to become a high-strung foil; and, best of all, Max Greenfield’s Schmidt emerged as the show’s secret-weapon-in-plain-sight — a six-packed sight gag generator with a prissy soul whose pursuit of the imperious Cece attained a plane of tragic yearning before imploding into plausible insecurity upon attaining her.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that New Girl got better in spite of Deschanel, however. The actress’ willingness to share the show with her less famous co-stars shouldn’t be underestimated, nor should the modulations she (and the writers) made to Jess’s character, mostly ditching the infantile (and not-in-a-good-way-creepy) sex-phobic stuff and cutting down on the deer-in-the-headlights confusion as a default response to any situation. Many critics pointed to January’s episode “Jess and Julia,” where Deschanel stared down the formidable Lizzy Caplan as Nick’s judgmental girlfriend, as a turning point for the character and for the show as a whole: the moment when Jess finally displayed some much-needed self-awareness (and in doing so imparted it to everything around her).

I’d actually say things started picking up in the previous episode, “The Story of the 50,” a loose, Schmidt-centric outing with a slightly tricked up structure (it’s told in flashback), an enclosed setting (a beer-soaked party bus) and the first real attempt by Jess to have fun primarily on her friends’ terms (i.e. hiring a stripper) instead of dragging them into her bizarre enthusiasms. It probably wasn’t meant as a metaphor for what New Girl needed to do to to improve, but it played that way all the same, and the scattered high points since then — including a group rap in premature memoriam of a briefly ailing Nick — derive from ensemble breakthrough in “50.”

It’s telling that last night’s finale hinged on Nick’s potential departure from the group’s loft,-a fateful choice that put the character at the center of the show instead of just in glowering counterpoint to Jess. And even if the very ending was a bit of a cop-out — both in story terms and in an unwelcome bit of I-Love-the-90s soundtrack pandering — it also works to preserve those increasingly enjoyable group dynamics. New Girl hasn’t broken any new ground in the increasingly crowded terrain of glossy single-camera sitcoms, but it’s done something that’s arguably equally impressive by digging itself out of the hole.

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