When I reviewed the New Girl pilot, I was very skeptical/curious about what the series would look like post-pilot. The departure of Damon Wayans Jr. and the entrance of Lamorne Lewis had a great deal to do with my skepticism and curiosity, but I also had trouble really figuring out what New Girl would be on a weekly basis. Last week’s second episode did absolutely nothing for me. Lewis wasn’t effective, but also wasn’t given enough to do either and although certain moments with Jess dominating the attention were enjoyable, “Kryptonite” didn’t convince me that New Girl had much more up its sleeve.
After this week’s episode “Wedding,” it has become clear to me that New Girl is basically going to be one of those sitcoms based purely on the characters hanging out with one another. That’s a tricky route to take. If the chemistry clicks and the writing is sharp, “people hanging out” can take a comedy pretty far (sup, Cheers and Friends?). Once the writing caught up to Happy Endings’ cast, it became a successful series based on this simple concept. But if things go wrong with the cast or the writing, things can go very wrong very quickly. Bringing together no chemistry, no laughs and no plot is, as you might guess, a disaster.
The good news for New Girl? “Wedding” is a damn funny 22-minute little jolt of television comedy. This episode is dramatically better than “Kryptonite” and even funnier and more enjoyable than the rock-solid pilot effort. It is the first episode where I can not only see what kind of series New Girl is going to be, but also the first where I actually feel like I’m interested in watching it become that series. The premise is bare-bones simple (the gang goes to a wedding) and at least this week, that’s a good thing. Each character has their little story within the wedding setting and all three create a whole bunch of substantial laughs.
Most impressively, “Wedding” flips the focus just a bit and is better off for it. Instead of dominating the action like she did in the first two episodes, Jess is more of a supporting player and foil to the three guys’ conflicts. She assists Nick in trying to make Caroline jealous and of course that goes terribly, but Jess’ destruction doesn’t stop there. She also screws up Schmidt’s (admittedly false and manufactured) chemistry with his crush (played by the way-too-good-for-this Katie Cassidy) and finds a little time to get in the middle of Winston’s childish, petty showdown with the wedding’s other, younger usher.
I appreciated how the episode allowed for this slight reversal for a few reasons. Obviously it allows the series to spend more time with the three guys so that the audience can get to know them better, which is important. Schmidt is quickly becoming a fun and wonderfully odd character and both Nick and Winston were given sufficient time to become more fully-formed as well. Lamorne Morris still doesn’t pop like Damon Wayans Jr. did, but he’s a fine fit and I actually like that Coach’s absence provides more time for Schmidt and Nick to act like fools.
Clearly the series is built around Zooey Deschannel and Jess and that’s just fine, but the character’s quirks can be somewhat grating and this shifted perspective is actually a great way to show how much of an impact Jess is having on Nick, Schmidt and Winston. The three of them have been warm and welcoming, but the best moments of the series thus far have come when Jess has screwed something up for them. I don’t want to suggest that Jess shouldn’t be the focus or that she’s too annoying to be a sympathetic lead. However, I do believe that the series can use her as an inadvertent foil to the guys as a solid reprieve from the adorkable vibes, especially early on when things are still developing and the character hasn’t had her more grating features sanded down if you will.
Plus, what I am actually kind of surprised about with the series and the characters is that they are all kind of miserable people with major identity crises. Jess is extremely socially awkward and weird, but Nick is just as broken emotionally, Schmidt has similar confidence problems and Winston shares her somewhat displaced and discombobulated feelings. Each of the guys can relate to Jess’ problems and that puts everyone on a similar level, both emotionally and so that they can the butt of the joke without it seeming rote or mean. Three episodes in and it already makes some sense what these guys see in Jess and what she sees in them. A lot of that feeling comes from the actor chemistry, but the writing is quickly catching up with them. And I’m actually very interested (in a good way) to see how New Girl has the characters grow and change without losing the proverbial funny.
New Girl’s namesake will always be the lead character who gets most of the screentime and I’m fine with that. However, episodes like “Wedding” are needed not only so Jess can disrupt the guys’ lives even more, but so that the male characters are shaped and developed. The more we know about all four of these people, not just Jess, the more likely we will be to accept New Girl’s lightweight premise. But if the series continues to be this funny and be this dedicated to showing us more than just Jess being quirky and adorkable, New Girl could quickly become a big player in comedy’s second tier.*
*I can’t picture a world where New Girl is on the same level as Parks and Recreation, Community and Louie, but it can certainly join Happy Endings, Cougar Town and Raising Hope in the less thematically dense, but still very enjoyable pantheon. Nothing wrong with that at all.