Some writers, and some showrunners, get it.
It’s about the characters. If you allow the characters you create to come to life, whether on the page or on the screen, the stories that develop from them will be more engaging, on one hand, and less important, on the other.
Character-driven stories are the best kind, in my opinion. If I don’t like the characters involved—or, if not like, at least am concerned about—I could care less if there is a tornado formed of ravenous man-eating sharks headed for a roadside carnival with a class of kindergarten students trapped on a Ferris wheel. Okay, maybe I care, a little, about the kiddies, but it’s just superficial.
As I watched the second season of New Girl, I realized that it was casting that particular spell on me. I genuinely liked all of the main characters and the very real chemistry they seemed to have with each other. The plots of the individual episodes became mostly secondary. I was concerned with the things that happened on the show only in relation to how they affected the characters and relationships on the series.
The best sitcoms have achieved this over the years. Sure, we may have talked with our friends and co-workers about the Soup Nazi or the Contest or a girl possibly named Mulva, but we were really talking about Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. Likewise, during the best seasons, with the gang on Friends, at Cheers, or in the newsroom on Mary Tyler Moore. At the end of the day, when the lights are turned off above the sets for the last time, it’s the characters who we miss.
Zooey Deschanel, who as Jessica “Jess” Day, the “new girl” of the show title, is undoubtedly the star of the series. Through much of the first season, the premise seemed to be about how this zany, quirky, dorky young woman would affect the lives of the three single men she moved in with in Los Angeles after finding her new apartment on Craigslist. The three men were little more than stereotypes. Schmidt was a douchebag marketing professional. Nick Miller was a law school dropout who earned his living as a bartender. Winston Bishop was a former basketball player, who had played professionally in Latvia. And then there was Jess’ best friend, CeCe, a professional model.
As the show continued, all of the actors rose above their stereotypes, and proved themselves to be just as zany, quirky, dorky—and/or damaged—as Jess. I believe it would be redundant to call Deschanel the “breakout” star, because she had already broken out before this series began. The true breakout star of this series is Jake Johnson, whose character Nick Miller appeared to be the one most easily sidelined during the pilot (other than Coach, of course, who was, in fact, sidelined). But, Nick became the most interesting character early on. He’s also the character who seems to be the nexus of all the relationships on the show. He and Schmidt were college roommates, back in the days when Schmidt was fat (a well we love to return to in flashbacks). Nick and Winston grew up together, and have been friends since childhood. Inevitably, Nick and Jess become romantically involved. Draw a giant Venn diagram. Who’s at the center of those overlapping circles?
Okay, I hear what you’re saying. What about CeCe?
She complicates the Venn diagram. That’s why I didn’t bring her up. She’s what Jess and Schmidt have in common.
I’m not going to recount all of the individual episodes in this season. I’ve already said that the “situations” in this “comedy” are always secondary to the characters. There are more than the usual number of sexual hijinks, but perhaps about as many as you would expect in a series that originally had the working title of Chicks & Dicks. There are the hookups and the breakups you have learned to expect in this sort of ensemble show. But, the show doesn’t shy away from drama either.
Dennis Farina appears as Nick Miller’s con man father, and then passes away a half-dozen episodes later in the same season, which means the entire gang has to go to Chicago for the funeral. Margo Martindale, an actress who seems to have been in every series I’ve watched for at least a decade, plays Nick’s mother. Nick Kroll and Bill Burr are Nick’s brother and cousin, respectively, and are hilarious.
I love the fact that Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner play Jess Day’s parents. Rob Riggle, another busy actor, makes an appearance as Schmidt’s cousin, and they have a ridiculous contest to determine who wins the right to be called “Schmidt.” The always lovely Carla Gugino makes a guest-appearance as Schmidt’s new boss, who forces him to sign a sex contract with her.
After playing with the “Will They or Won’t They?” trope for two seasons, the question seems to be answered in the affirmative at the end of this season, when Jess and Nick begin a romantic relationship. Since we’re invested in the characters, this is a satisfying development. But, since we all know how these things go on television series, is the course of their relationship likely to run smoothly? Come on. How often did you fall for the Ross-Rachel thing?
If I haven’t made it clear before now, I’ll state that this series is meant for mature audiences. Each episode seems to be only one full-frontal nude shot and a couple of f-bombs away from being an HBO series. This series is what family-friendly sitcoms become when they grow up, but not necessarily reach maturity.
If you prefer the setup-punchline-laugh track formula to sitcoms, this one’s probably not for you.
For my tastes, Season 2 was even better than Season 1. Personally, I don’t really care what happens next. I just plan to be there when it does.
Season 2 Report Card: A