02 December 2011

New Girl's Jess: The Best New Female Character on Television



I didn't want to like it. I watched the pilot with a degree of negative prejudgment usually reserved for a Lars von Trier film, and that episode of New Girl really didn't do much to assuage my predisposition. Zooey Deschanel played a twee TV character appropriating tropes from both the stereotypical television female (post-breakup she sobs all day while repeatedly watching Dirty Dancing) and the unconventional kind of woman I relate to (her idea of flirting is lifting her glasses up while hooting "hubba hubba"), which just made me angry. I'd rather have her be a two-dimensional "girlfriend" character than one adopting some more relatable attributes, but in a way that feels tacked on and inorganic. This happened with Deschanel's character in (500) Days of Summeras Lindy West puts it: "(500) Days of Summer feels like it was written by a bunch of marketing executives who just took a class on indie quirkiness at the Learning Annex." Ugh. I did not want to enjoy this show. But the other castmembers were funny enough, so I watched another episode, and… I've found myself starting to get excited for it to be Tuesday just for the evening's New Girl.

Yes, Jess has a "quirky" TV/movie-job (elementary school teacher), an expansive wardrobe no one could afford on that salary (sponsored by Cotton), and looks like Zooey Deschanel, but she also obnoxiously sings at inappropriate moments, laughs at her own corny jokes, and is very uncomfortable with expressing herself sexually. Jess is far too flawed to be a male fantasy, and has too many interests outside of relations with men to be grouped with other "adorkable" characters Zooey Deschanel has played. Instead, she is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for awkward women; the pinnacle of what they could be with their off-putting personalities still intact, like an "everywoman" Liz Lemon lacking that unpopular girl dream-job that makes her somehow a less attainable female fantasy. Obviously there is still the appearance factor—Tina Fey and Zooey Deschanel have magazine-cover good looks—which could be even more detrimental for unpopular women than the MPDG: "If men are even turned off by Zooey Deschanel when she acts like that, then no one is going to like me!" However, I find this to make all the more empowering the times when Jess succeeds in the dating realm: "He obviously does not just like her for her looks! There is hope for me after all!"

Erik Adams of The AV Club recently did not at all enjoy a New Girl episode I quite fancied, "CeCe Crashes." Adams took umbrage with how New Girl has begun to introduce something of a "will they/won't they" between Jess and one of her three male roommates, Nick (Jake M. Johnson). Yes, this is an irritating television trope, but as Adams writes, "a show about platonic friends just doesn't have enough sizzle for modern television." New Girl is in no way something that I expect to be "groundbreaking television," eschewing the regular plot devices that assure viewership, so as Unresolved Sexual Tension has become inevitable in the sitcom universe, how this is introduced is what is important. And episode writer Rachel Axler (who also worked on Parks and Rec) has done so in a brilliantly awkward girl manner.

Jess does not pick up on anything but friendship between her and Nick until her friend CeCe stays for a few days, and hints that she thinks he's interested. The beginning of the episode parallels this later conversation—Jess (pyjama-clad) rescues a drunken CeCe from a club; as they walk to Jess's car, some men catcall CeCe, who giggles, "Jess, I think these guys are into you." Jess shrugs it off. This is furthered in a flashback in which a high school Jess cannot accept the advances of her classmate Eduardo, assuming he must mean to hit on CeCe. Jess does not perceive herself as a sexual object desirable to men. She does not pick up on any possibility with Nick until CeCe uses her tricky "mind games." Adams critiques CeCe as "less a character and more a dispenser of the worst romantic-comedy tropes," but I would say more that CeCe is the connection Jess has to the sitcom world in which she inhabits. "You can't be friends with guys," CeCe asserts. "No, you just think that everyone wants to sleep with everyone all the time," Jess retorts. Jess is an original character in that she does not understand the "sitcom logic" which governs most primetime romantic relationships, yet the show itself is not novel enough to do away with a reliance on that underlying structure, and so hence: CeCe as the introducer of this unavoidable UST.

This episode does have its flaws, with other roommates Schmidt and Winston regressing to douchey stereotypes in a clich├ęd competition to "get with" CeCe, but New Girl especially knows how to use Max Greenberg humorously in this context. (The best—Ben Kingsley is one of Schmidt's favourite things about India; Greenberg's reading of the word "chutney.") And this plot gave us Schmidt telling Jess on the roof, "I guess I'll always just be the fat kid with the big dreams." New Girl presents a somewhat hopeful, sitcom-realistic version of the future for those fat girls and boys. They won't be CeCe or her male counterparts, but they could be Jess or Schmidt. Also the way in which the budding romantic tension between Jess and Nick plays out resonated with the awkward romantic in me without feeling contrived. Jess's dream man: "Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men and I could be Girl Jack Lemmon." (She later lambastes Nick – "Why do you have to wear old man clothes all the time?!") She assesses Nick's potential attraction to her by checking in what direction his feet point, a technique seemingly developed by a gawky middle schooler. Their storyline concludes with Jess apologizing for being weird, and then them just silently brushing their teeth, side-by-side. This is a wonderful, quiet little moment, reminiscent of my favourite scene from Let the Right One In.

"I like moving slow," Jess tells CeCe. "I like being weird and taking my time. I'm not like you. I don't just jump into the potato sack with the first potato that I meet with diabetes." And thus I propose that Jess is the best new thing to happen to female characters on primetime television this season. Sure, we have Leslie Knope and April Ludgate*, but until Liz Lemon gets back on the air, it's really refreshing to have a lady character lacking complete self-confidence in terms of her sexual desirability. So yes, New Girl falls prey to classic sitcom UST, but Jess does not respond like other characters on TV right now. And thank god for that.


*Happy Endings is an interesting case in how terrible Jane has proved to be at flirting, but she is happily married, and the single characters appear to have no difficulty whatsoever in acquiring new bedfellows. And don't even mention Whitney or Two Broke Girls.