May 9, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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It’s not all that unusual for a TV comedy to improve during the course of its first season, as it discovers its distinctive comic voice (that was the case with Happy Endings, and The Office as well).  What’s less typical is a sitcom finding its soul.  Parks & Recreation comes to mind, and now, so does NEW GIRL, which ended its first season tonight.  (The show’s been renewed for next year, with ratings that are still above average, although just a shadow of where they started last fall.) 


New Girl started with a not unfamiliar premise:  Jess (Zooey Deschanel) was the kooky girl who, through misadventure, found herself sharing an apartment with 3 guys, namely Nick (Jake M. Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Winston (Lamorne Morris).  (In the pilot, the 3rd guy was Coach, played by Damon Wayans, Jr, but when Happy Endings was picked up for a 2d season, his contractual obligations were there.)  Nick was the sensitive guy who worked as a bartender and was just getting over a break-up (as was Jess), the better to be a potential romantic interest down the road; Schmidt was the hunky douchebag (he even put money into a Douchebag Jar when he frequently said things that went over the line); Winston was newly back from playing basketball in Europe and re-learning American pop culture.  Jess herself was a suitcase full of quirks, someone who would burst into song for no reason, invent flaky substitutes for sexual terms, and only be soothed out of depression by watching Dirty Dancing.  The network’s word for all this was “adorkable,” and indeed there was charm and plenty of laughs to be had.

But a funny thing happened during the course of the season:  every one of the characters deepened.  In the real world, there were almost instant attacks on Jess and her eccentricities (some of it baggage from Deschanel’s movie roles), with the result that the issue was dealt with directly in the show, as various characters assailed Jess for exactly the same reasons.  By the later episodes, Jess was still flaky and idiosyncratic, but her wackiness had been toned down, and she also came across as smarter and more determined than she’d initially been.  Schmidt traveled even farther as a character, from the go-to guy for douche jokes to someone fully as crazy and neurotic as anyone else in the apartment, and a believable romantic mate for Jess’ model friend Cece (Hannah Simone).

The season finale, written by Executive Producers Dave Finkel & Brett Baer, from a story by series creator Elizabeth Meriwether, and directed by Michael Spiller, flirted with making some real changes in the show’s dynamic for next season, but ultimately decided to leave things more or less as they were.  Nick, seemingly about to move out so he could try again with his ex, came back to the apartment (to everyone’s dancing joy), and the relationship between Schmidt and Cece remained unresolved, having moved past meaningless sex but not quite to an official romance.  Nick and Jess had more of those moments when it seemed like they were about to kiss… but didn’t.  Most of the episode took place in the desert, where Nick had impulsively driven with Schmidt and Winston instead of unpacking at his new place, and where Nick and Jess had to face down a coyote (making Road Runner noises not being an ideal move), while Schmidt invoked “White Fang” as the way to dump a woman, and Winston faced his fear of the dark.  The episode didn’t stint on the gags, but the jokes were grounded in character.

It’s probably not coincidental that as New Girl became less formulaic and more emotionally complicated and indie-movie in its tone, its ratings started to slide.  (It didn’t help that its lead-in Glee was collapsing.)  Smash hit ratings in the 4s became decent numbers in the 2s, probably more of a niche than FOX would like, but still a success.  (Parks & Recreation, too, has a loyal but not massive audience.)   New Girl, as it’s come to define itself, still has charm and laughs, but it insists on being more than a joke machine and enriching its characters.  That may not be the way to achieve top ratings, but it’s making the show one of the best comedies on the air.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."