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Ignore the 'New Girl': much-hyped sitcom disappoints

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

September 23, 2011

If you happened to mosey onto the Internet at any point in the last month, you were guaranteed to encounter an ad for “New Girl,” the new FOX sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel. A barrage of ads also cropped up on TV as the show’s Sept. 20 debut approached, and FOX even took the unusual approach of putting the premiere episode online a full two weeks early. In other words, FOX really, really wanted people to check it out.

Normally, that kind of insistence would be grounds for a restraining order. Instead, I caved and watched the premiere of “New Girl” with high hopes.

I was sorely disappointed.

Deschanel plays the titular new girl, Jess Day, a bubbly 20-something who enjoys singing to herself and making goofy faces. After she discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her, she moves out of their apartment and finds a new place courtesy of Craigslist. It’s a beautifully furnished apartment complete with three male roommates: lovelorn bartender Nick (Jake Johnson), self-involved “douchebag” Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and stoic, socially-inept Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.).

In the first episode, the three men attempt to get Jess out of her post break-up rut—a rut which involves alternately bawling and watching “Dirty Dancing” on repeat.

The premise of “New Girl” isn’t anything revelatory. Its formula differs little from past comedies like “Friends” or “Three’s Company,” which also focused on friendships. That means the show has to rely on its cast and humor to sell the show to its audience.

Unfortunately, the show simply isn’t very funny, choosing to regurgitate the kinds of jokes you’ve heard on countless network sitcoms rather than conjuring anything original. Considering how much critics have hyped the show, it proves surprisingly generic, with Deschanel’s presence being the only thing that distinguishes it from other raunchy comedies.

As a character, Jess is all over the place—there’s little consistency in how she’s portrayed. One moment she’s calm and collected, and you catch glimmers of a woman who could conceivably be a schoolteacher, albeit a very silly one. The next moment she’s camped out in front of the TV, watching Patrick Swayze dance for the umpteenth time as her face comically mimics tears. Granted she’s recovering from a break-up but does she need to be so cloyingly over-the-top? And, considering that she’s supposed to be something like a contemporary Marlo Thomas or Mary Tyler Moore, why does it take the intervention of her male roommates to convince her to get her act together?

Prior to “New Girl,” I’d been a fan of Deschanel, the quintessential hipster-indie girl, even enjoying her work in films that otherwise left me unsatisfied, like “500 Days of Summer.” Since this show rests almost entirely on her shoulders—it may as well be titled “The Zooey Deschanel Show”—I expected to like her here even if I didn’t like the show as a whole. But she’s part of the problem, as she does nothing to rein in the insufferable cutesy-ness of the character, mugging too often for the camera. Some of the cringe-worthy ads for the show tout Jess as being “simply adorkable,” but it’s possible to make a character too precious.

The series gives the supporting cast even less to work with. Of the bunch, Johnson—as Nick, a bartender who was similarly dumped by his long-time girlfriend—is easily the most enjoyable. He possesses a genuine everyman quality and shares the most comedic chemistry with Deschanel, with Nick serving as Jess’ straight man. Unfortunately, he doesn’t leave a huge impression with the material he’s given.

Greenfield’s Schmidt—a man who eagerly takes off his shirt for every woman who enters their apartment—is supposed to be a lovable cad, but he just comes across as unfunny and irritating.

Wayans, as temperamental Coach, has a few funny bits in which he tries to calm down Jess but instead yells at her; as he later tells her, he has no idea how to interact with women. Wayans, however, only appears in the pilot episode, as he’s contractually-bound to resume his role in the unexpectedly renewed ABC comedy “Happy Endings.” Lamorne Morris will make his debut in second episode as Coach’s replacement.

Of course, it’s difficult to judge a series based solely on its first episode. Many of this decade’s best comedies—think “The Office” and “30 Rock”—had weak openings but quickly roared to life.

Between the tired premise and thinly-sketched characters, “New Girl” doesn’t have much going for it aside from Deschanel’s name. There are a few good bits—the men keep a Douchebag Jar to which they give a dollar for every douchey thing said—but they’re few and far between. Fans of Deschanel may be able to look past the show’s many shortcomings but, devotees aside, it’s best that you avoid this “New Girl.”

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