Brow Beat

What the Decline of New Girl Reveals About How Hard It Is for Sitcom Characters to Evolve

Will Jess ever grow up?


One nice thing about the widespread phenomenon of vanishing ratings for TV shows that are still trying to get ratings (as opposed to TV shows on platforms that don’t care about or don’t have ratings) is that when a show’s ratings vanish, you can’t really blame the show. If a plant is dying in the middle of a drought, something may be wrong with it, but it seems more likely that what is wrong with it is the drought. Fox’s New Girl is that plant (species name: sitcomus adorkabilia), a series that over its four-year run has seen its ratings more than halved, which is commonplace these days, but a commonplace that doesn’t fully explain why it happened to New Girl, a show that frequently loses its way, if it ever had one.

Ten million people watched the first episode of New Girl, and about 8 million of them stuck around to watch Zooey Deschanel and her cadre of male roommates goof around for the rest of the season. New Girl debuted in 2011, TV’s Year of the Girl (along with Girls and Two Broke Girls), but despite its title, its marketing, and its star, New Girl has always been about a bunch of guys. When New Girl premiered, Deschanel’s Jess Day was an odd (and to some, infuriating) mixture of characteristics, a grown woman who couldn’t say the word penis, a leading lady who accidentally broke television sets. Meanwhile her roommates, grumpy manchild Nick (Jake Johnson) and well-groomed wannabe alpha-male Schmidt (Max Greenfield) were fully formed. (Winston, played by Lamorne Morris, took seasons to come into focus.) With Schmidt and Nick leading the way, Jess jettisoned her more childish qualities, and New Girl became a wonderful and hilarious hang-out comedy: five pals goofing around in their apartment, drunkenly screaming about True American.

But New Girl has a complicated relationship with its own status quo. Like its thirtysomething protagonists, it has never been sure what it wants to be when it grows up—what it is or what it isn’t. The show’s interest in change finally, after three seasons of tinkering, led the writing staff to figure out what to do with Winston: make him a stone cold weirdo, who is now regularly the series’ funniest character. It also pushed the show to pursue Nick and Jess’ chemistry all the way into a serious relationship. But having become a relationship show, New Girl got flummoxed by what it had done. It hit the pause button hard, broke up Nick and Jess as well as Schmidt and CeCe (Hannah Simone), and tried to return to being just a good hang.

New Girl’s writers seemed to feel like they couldn’t go forward—but it’s hard to go back, too. Once upon a time, no one on sitcoms ever changed. (“No hugging and no learning,” Larry David famously said about Seinfeld.) But contemporary sitcoms have so thoroughly metabolized the seriality of dramas that now not changing is what feels odd, especially when it comes to romance. On shows from The Office to Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock to Mindy Project, romantic relationships are a signifier of a protagonist’s blossoming maturity. (That the characters tend to mature is why these are sitcoms and not dramas.) By ending its central romances, New Girl left its characters idling, less funny, less vital, trying and failing to recapture their original joie de vivre. Deschanel’s Jess, in particular, suffers when she doesn’t have a larger arc to play with. Unlike Schmidt and Jake, who thrive on doing nothing, when Jess is in flibbertigibbet mode, she seems like a flibbertigibbet. Even the decision to bring back Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), who had appeared in the initial pilot, just added another character the show didn’t quite know what to do with to the mix.

Season 5, which begins tonight, seems committed to trying to move forward, at least a little. Schmidt and CeCe got suddenly engaged at the end of last season and are now going ahead with their marriage, which gives everyone something to do. The gang is still, as far as I’m concerned, good enough company, if not the company they once were. Deschanel was pregnant while the early episodes of the season were filmed and will be off the show for six episodes entirely, while on maternity leave, a forced change if there ever was one. But it might just be too late for this sort of tinkering. Who needs to watch a show trying to recapture the antic glory of its former hangs, when those former hangs are available to be watched on Netflix, right now?