New Girl (Tuesdays at 9:00 on Fox; premieres September 20)
Fox has made the pilot of its highly anticipated (and extremely well-received) new sitcom New Girl available via several outlets, including iTunes, Hulu and On Demand services. Because of the early raves from several sources and a general curiousity, I decided to check it out.
New Girl is a 25 minute version of any random romantic comedy film you've seen in the past ten years. It stars Zooey Deschanel as Jess, an awkward 20-something who was recently dumped by her boyfriend and is in search of a new roommate. She has plenty of friends, but they're all models (how did that happen?) and she doesn't want to live with them. So she answers a Craigslist ad from who she thinks are three women, but turns out to be three single men. There's Coach (Damon Wayans, who left the show due to a previous commitment to surprise renewal Happy Endings), an abrasive personal trainer who can't talk to women; Nick (Jake M. Johnson), a bartender who is still upset over a break-up that happened six months ago; and Schmidt (Max Greenfield), an awkward "ladies man" who constantly feels the need to impress everyone around him. When Schmidt hears that all Jess's friends are models, he invites her to live with him.
So that's the central conceit of this off-beat little show. It's not exactly a plot-driven affair, but then again neither are most half-hour sitcoms. The comedy relies mostly on Jess's character quirks, such as her inability to stop singing her thoughts rather than speaking them. This would probably come off as more comedic if her three roommates weren't quite as quirky as well: Coach has a tendency to yell for no reason, Nick randomly speaks in accents, and Schmidt adopts the characteristics of a drunken frat boy around anyone other than the three roomies. If Jess were the only awkward character, it would feel more realistic and the comedy would read better. I mean, there are only so many times you can laugh at someone telling Schmidt to put a dollar in the "Douchebag Jar" everytime he acts like a tool, and that gag is played out by the end of this episode.
Zooey Deschanel is charming as Jess, even if the character sometimes feels false. Max Greenfield's Schmidt is the most entertaining of the guys, and I often found his character funnier than Jess. The writing only half works, with most of the jokes falling flat in my eyes (Is it supposed to be funny that Jess steps out of the shower completely dry and dressed? Is it funny to sing "Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing totally off-key at the top of your lungs in a crowded restaurant?) If you've seen the preview or any commercials, you've seen every amusing part of the episode. There was hardly any interaction between Jess and the men, which is where the comedy should really lie. It's funnier to see how three straight, single men would react to suddenly living with a neurotic, strange woman whom none of them know. Instead of honest interactions, the pilot gives us these three men seeking out advice about the opposite from Jess, a girl who can't even curl her hair without burning it and composes her own theme song. It doesn't quite fit that any man would take her advice, let alone seek her out for it. Situational comedy aside, Jess's character also needs some definition, because right now she's just a weird girl with no discernible personality. In one scene she is sobbing out loud over her breakup, the next she is out with her new buddies finding a rebound guy. In one scene she's humping a houseplant and the next she's telling Coach that what he really needs to do is listen to women. Jess is a messy amalgamation of pieces that never quite fit together.
My issues with this first episode could easily be abated by future installments. Zooey Deschanel is already comfortable in Jess's skin, so working on pinning down who she is will only make the performance better. But New Girl not only needs some logistical work, it also needs to be funnier.