Zooey Deschanel of Fox's New Girl plays Jess, the horrible gargoyle who can't get a date.
Zooey Deschanel of Fox's New Girl plays Jess, the horrible gargoyle who can't get a date. Isabella Vosmikova/Fox
Of all the unlikely premises you will be asked to swallow in this fall season — including talking to ghosts, living inside fairy tales (twice!), and interacting with dinosaurs — perhaps none is more of an uphill battle for the show putting it forward than "Zooey Deschanel can't get a date."
Now, it would be facile to call that implausible merely because Zooey Deschanel is very beautiful, although she is. Plenty of very pretty women struggle romantically, and many beautiful actresses have pulled off lonely characters. The problem is that New Girl, Deschanel's new Fox comedy premiering tonight, relies heavily on the idea that her character, Jess, is so surpassingly charming that she instantly becomes beloved by her three male roommates, to the point where they will leave behind all their plans to run to her side and embarrass themselves just trying to make her happy. And yet: She is a nerd, a weirdo, a romantic strikeout artist, shunned and dumped and desperate. She is resoundingly magnetic, but also meant (through a lot of tell-don't-show backwards writing) to be socially inept.
New Girl wants to be the sitcom that understands the misfit woman, the geek girl, the lovable klutz. But it ultimately betrays that aspiration by giving her magical powers of manchantment, seemingly counting on her glasses to make her a believable loser. Well, her glasses and the fact that she's ... stupid.
Jess (Zooey Deschanel) helplessly ponders her life ... as usual.
Jess (Zooey Deschanel) helplessly ponders her life ... as usual. Isabella Vosmikova/Fox
And that's the other problem. "Adorkable," the word that Fox has relentlessly attached to this show to the point of exhaustion, is one thing. "Dumb" is something else. At no time during the pilot does Jess show the slightest glimmer of intelligence. She can't cope with a breakup, she can't curl her hair without setting it on fire, she can't dress herself, her struggles with high heels leave her lying helplessly on the floor, she struggles with basic slang, and she's so totally lacking in self-awareness that she can't smile without help. If you've ever known a misfit or a dork, you know that they're not stupid. They're just odd, and odd is measured on a different axis than dumb. Odd people don't have to be idiots, and they don't have to be constantly in need of coaching and pity.
The show has given Jess a best friend named Cece who's an ultraconfident model, who explains her friendship with Jess by referring to Jess' pure, immaculately good heart, like she's referring to a four-year-old or a puppy. Their relationship seems deeply inauthentic, because ... why are these women friends? What does Jess have to offer her? And don't say pure goodness, because that's not how anyone picks a best friend. What, in fact, does Jess have to offer anyone? Why would anyone date her? Why would three men be instantly drawn to her, other than that they're afraid she will fall face-first into two inches of water in a bathtub and drown because it doesn't occur to her to roll over?
That's the bad news. The good news is that Deschanel can be a very appealing and funny actress when she's not trying quite so hard. She has a couple of great line readings in this pilot that made me want the rest of the show to be better. She badly needs her affectations doled out in small doses, however — the pilot contains too many moments in which she's doing her goggle-eyed routine at a Level 11 (or possibly 18).
But if her character is massively underdeveloped in the pilot, it's only fair to point out that that's not uncommon in a comedy. So was Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory, and after stumbling through several early episodes, Penny has become a deceptively sharp, layered and real female character. These problems, in other words, can probably be fixed.
There's another piece of significant good news, too. The performance of Max Greenfield as horndog roommate Schmidt is nothing special, and Damon Wayans, Jr., who plays "Coach," is out after the pilot (he had to return to ABC's Happy Endings when it was renewed, and producers decided to write Coach out later rather than recast and reshoot the pilot). But Jake Johnson as Nick — the most grounded of Jess' roommates, who's recovering from a breakup — gives a lovely, surprisingly nuanced performance that gives the pilot almost all of its recognizable humanity. He's warm and funny, carrying a torch for his girlfriend but not pathetic, a really good guy surrounded by a bunch of dumb buffoons — including Jess.
The problem with New Girl isn't that it lacks strong elements. It's that the elements are badly out of balance. There is entirely too much of Jess being a dope and not enough of her being legitimately interesting or plausibly likable. There is entirely too much of her being alternately lectured and adored by everyone she knows and meets, but not enough of her offering anything in return that would make anyone want to spend time with her. Right now, Jess is flat and goony, a perfectly acceptable supporting character of the wacky-neighbor variety who's being asked to carry a show that aspires to an actual emotional center (this isn't purely farcical like Seinfeld; it wants to have a beating heart).
There is lots and lots of reason to hold out hope for New Girl. This is exactly the kind of show that will be much easier to judge after, say, five episodes. At the same time, it's very much a work in progress, and its success will depend on whether Jess can be humanized a little and whether Deschanel can give up some of the crutches she's relying on here and develop an actual character. Big eyes and funny noises only take you so far — ask Urkel. Give it a few episodes, and it will be easier to tell where they're going with it. The it-girl hype surrounding isn't being earned yet, but it could be.