Doing end-the-year lists really forces you to evaluate or re-evaluate your opinion on something. Yesterday, I was crafting my initial “top series” list (which of course started out at like 45 series or something ridiculous like that) and I wrote down New Girl pretty quickly in the process. Of course I did, it’s one of the better newbies of the fall season, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite comedies and it has a kind of pace, attitude and vibe that I respond to very easily. But once it came to actually placing New Girl somewhere on the second version of the list (that will surely be revised 11 more times before you see it), I was forced to think about the elements or tendencies I don’t quite like.
And coincidently (and perhaps unfortunately), tonight’s episode “Bells” embodied my biggest problem with New Girl at this early stage in its development (it’s so weird that this is only the seventh episode, right?). This issue is definitely fixable and certain episodes of the series haven’t been plagued by it at all, but it is still worth discussing just a bit before talking about how funny this cast is.
Here’s the most pressing issue New Girl has: It goes too big too quickly. Most comedies fall victim to broad physical humor and unsubtle jokes, but that’s not even it with New Girl. The jokes are still character-based in some regard and oftentimes, they are funny. But good night, people on this series spend a lot of time YELLING THINGS AT EACH OTHER. In tonight’s episode, Schmidt and Nick grew frustrated with one another over the kind of dumb things roommates do (the former hates the latter’s inability to just pay to fix things, the latter hates the former’s desire to pay for things and make everything about money) and their game of one-upmanship was funny at the start.
However, the culmination of their practical jokes and arguments resulted in a 75-second scene with LOTS OF SCREAMING. I know men do yell and Nick seems like an especially angry character (which is something that could be interesting if the series is dedicated to exploring it for real and not just using it for humor purposes), but good grief. I honestly had to turn down the volume on my TV because the decibel level was just too much. The episode almost redeemed the sequence by having the rage and yelling lead to Schmidt slipping in that Nick is a loser, but that moment wasn’t entirely earned – especially because it feels like we’ve been here before. “Thanksgiving” also built to this big yelling match between Jess and Nick and like tonight’s shout-fest, that one tried to use the release of tension as a character-building exercise. It only kind of works and it definitely doesn’t work when you go to that well in two straight episodes.
Like I said, New Girl isn’t alone with its tendency to take the comedy one step (or decibel) further than it probably needs to. Manic energy and absurd cutaway gags are a big part of contemporary comedies, but it can lead to circumstances where writers feel like they need to tell bigger, faster, funnier jokes and not worry about what it means for the characters or the reality of the world. Even though it is a great series, there are times when I feel like 30 Rock is pushing the hysteria and insanity of its admittedly-cartoonish world past any remote sense of believability. In fact, part of the reason the series floundered a few seasons ago is because it took its strengths and pushed them too far until the jokes became a bit insufferable and in-your-face.
It’s weird, because series like Community or Louie have such unique perspectives and elastic environments that they’re able to shift tones, genres and approaches on a week-to-week basis while most comedies are grounded to their comfortable rhythms. Obviously, I’d argue that said elasticity is what makes those two of the best comedies on the air right now, but there’s also nothing wrong with being a series that has comfortable rhythms and characters that exist mostly in the real world. As long as you set up what your world is, how recognizable and comparable to the “real world” it is and tell me how the characters within that world exist, I’m willing to go with you as far as you want to take me.
In that respect, I’m not really surprised that New Girl is struggling with this issue here in the early going. As I’ve trumpeted at least 617 times now, comedies take a lot longer to find their identity and that comfortable rhythm I mentioned. At seven episodes, the series’ creative team should have some idea of what form this world and these characters are going to take, and while I think Elizabeth Merriwether and her team are aware of those things, they’re also still fumbling around in the dark a bit with the tone and what lines to cross. Maybe Merriwether wants her series to be one where people yell at one another each week and then hug it out. I think New Girl is better off when it explores conflicts in a quieter tone and think the issue can be easily fixed, but that’s just my opinion.
And let’s not dwell on that problem completely: “Bells” had a lot of funny moments. New Girl might have the tendency to go big too quickly, but it has quickly figured out that it doesn’t need Zooey to be in the A-story each week. Jess and Winston’s work with the Ensembells was often very funny and continued to hammer home that she’s a hilariously disruptive force in the guys’ lives. I might have had problems with that one scene between Schmidt and Nick, but I appreciate the commitment to exploring the guys as individual characters outside of their obvious roles and particularly like how the series likes dipping back into their histories for tension. This has quickly turned into an ensemble comedy instead of all Zooey, all the time as it is marketed. And frankly, Schmidt and Nick are more interesting than Jess anyway. Let’s just stop the yelling, okay?
- I LOVE cardigans. I see you, Schmidt. Don’t let Nick bring you down.
- The cutaways to Winston at work were nice. I do like how the series is at least committed to examining how the character’s biggest issues (Winston: competitiveness; Nick: anger; Schmidt: Douchiness and Jess: Awkwardness) are all byproducts of their fairly obvious and severe lack of confidence and self-esteem. New Girl is a deep comedy guys.
- I gotta admit: I did not miss Justin Long’s character this week. And I like Justin Long.