Jess (Zooey Deschanel) is “adorkable.” Quirky and socially awkward, accidentally sexy, she croons her own theme song to bolster her courage, and has terrible luck with men. Forced to find a new place to live after a painfully embarrassing breakup, Jess answers a Craigslist add and ends up moving in with three single men: Nick (Jake M. Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Coach (Damon Wayans, Jr., who only appears in the pilot).
The promos for New Girl suggest that it’s something new or at least mildly unusual. But its first episode looks like more of the same. The men are certainly familiar, variations on the thoroughly worn out perpetual adolescent type. And as charming as Deschanel may be, in her wool socks and patterned skirts, isn’t Jess just as another version of Lisa Kudrow’s child-woman Phoebe? “Recycled Girl” seems a more descriptive title.
To be fair, a pilot episode is burdened with all the set up, and in 30 minutes, that tends to be reduced to blunt-force character introductions: Coach, a personal trainer, yells a lot, hides his feelings, and doesn’t know how to talk to women. Schmidt is constantly fined by his roommates for being a “douche bag” and doesn’t know how to talk to women. Nick is a bartender and therefore somewhat wise, and though he is the least foolish of the three, he also—surprise, surprise—doesn’t know how to talk to women. Despite her goofiness, Jess tries to help in this department, handing out sage bits of wisdom, like telling Coach to yell less and Nick to ask his ask ex-girlfriend why she broke up with him.
The three guys are simultaneously horrified by Jess and compelled to help her get over her depression over her breakup. They are motivated less by compassion than their own discomfort at being forced to share space with a sobbing girl constantly watching Dirty Dancing. Schmidt takes charge, ready to coach her on the fine art of the rebound hook-up at Nick’s bar. That Jess will make a mess of this is a foregone conclusion, so the question is how her three roommates will respond to her.
Of course, the answer to that question is equally predictable, since the point is that this mess of a woman is here to teach them to be better men. To that end, they must befriend and champion Jess. And so, here’s the bright spot: while New Girl may offer yet another serving of ridiculous men, at least their improvement does not come by way of the equally tiresome overbearing woman.
Jess’ lessons are straightforward because she is incapable of cunning or manipulation. And they are honest because she has no filter. Her instructiveness, like her attractiveness, is mostly accidental, because she doesn’t seem to notice the flaws she unwittingly helps correct. Still, it’s an obvious problem that the show suggests that men are more open to a woman’s insights if she’s both beautiful (and no amount of “dorky” accessories is going to hide this in Deschanel) and vacuous.
It’s worth noting that the tiny bit of backstory we get on Schmidt is a scene in which he’s doing a presentation at his workplace in a conference room full of women who are mocking him to the point that he’s near tears. This is offered as one excuse for his sexist behavior. The other contributing factor is hinted at when Jess, during her interview for the apartment, admits she thought a woman wrote the ad describing the place as “sun-soaked” and “beigey.” His response is absurd hyper-masculine posturing (and warrants another fine owed to the douche bag jar). But in both scenarios, women pose some sort of threat to him and are therefore to blame for his bad behavior. Poor Schmidt.
And poor us. While the boys might think Jess is “different” kind of girl, and so, worth listening to, we recognize her all too well. The question the show can’t even ask has to do with how threats posed by women tend to be contained by language—and not only men’s use of language (consider the dust-up last week when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley referred to a reporter as “little girl”). Jess’s task is made twice as hard because she must instruct while not seeming to, while seeming to be instructed.
Jess must also learn her own lessons and grow up herself. Though she can’t make this change too visible, else she loses her appeal and value to the men in her life. As they see it, she has to learn to be a good girl from them. None of this is very new at all.