If you haven’t already read Mo Ryan’s excellently reported feature about the declining number of female writers and producers in Hollywood, you really should.
Ryan was writing in response to the annual study from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film indicating a significant drop in the percentage of women writing for broadcast television.
That study and its discouraging words pointed to the 2010-2011 TV season and while it’s too soon to project how next year’s study will pan out, I suspect there’s cause for at least guarded optimism.
I made my list of Fall TV Season’s 10 Least Bad New Network Shows last night and of the 10 pilots I picked, seven were created or co-created by a female writer and the percentage of those standout shows to feature a female character or female characters in lead roles was even higher. You’d have to be a dreamer to think that in one year, there’d been a meaningful sea change in the industry, but I’m equally hesitant to think of it as a total aberration.
I’m so darned peppy about this possible new semi-trend that I’m not going to quibble that three of the shows in my Top 5 — “New Girl,” “Hart of Dixie” and “Suburgatory” — are mighty similar female-driven fish-out-of-water stories. Hollywood’s creative laziness very rarely benefits women and it isn’t really creative laziness if all three shows are also clever and likable, is it?
First out of the gates for this trio is “New Girl” — No “The” no matter how many times I type it and have to delete it — in which creator Liz Meriwether and star Zooey Deschanel fuse seamlessly in a way that sometimes even the best of showrunners and stars take years to achieve. If you like Zooey Deschanel, this is Zooey Deschanel at her best.
And if you don’t like Zooey Deschanel? Well, you probably hate puppies, rainbows and unicorns as well.
[I kid. I understand as well as anybody does that Zooey Deschanel is a polarizing figure. I can imagine “New Girl” converting a few doubters, but Zooey fandom and its antithesis are pretty entrenched positions. I’d add that this is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl performance/character, but like so many good ideas Manic Pixie Dream Girl has lost enough meaning that detractors have decided that “Zooey = Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is a worthy formula, which it didn’t used to be. But that’s an entirely different article/review/meditation and I’m not going to get into it here.]
Full review after the break…
In “New Girl,” Zooey Deschanel plays Jess, a quirky young lady who moves out on her long-term boyfriend after she catches him cheating and moves into a loft apartment with three guys (Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. for the pilot, but Lamorne Morris for all subsequent episodes). Johnson’s Nick is a bartender smarting from his own difficult breakup. Greenfield’s Schmidt means well, but he’s so prone to douchebaggery that the apartment has a Douchebag Jar collecting money from his myriad infractions. And Wayans’ Coach is irrelevant, because he’s going to be replaced in Episode 2 by an entirely different African-American roommate who critics haven’t seen yet.
Since this is a season for “What if the fairy tales were real?” premises, you can think of “New Girl” as “What if Goldilocks moved in with the Three Bears and forced them to watch ‘Dirty Dancing.'”
It’s hard to exactly put a finger on how to describe Jess, other than that if Zooey Deschanel played an actress in a movie, that character would probably play a character like Jess on the sitcom-within-the-movie. It’s a concentrated dose of Zooey and, if her TCA press tour appearance was any indication, there’s a lot of Liz Meriwether in the character as well. [Side note: Why has Zooey Deschanel never played a character named “Liz Merryweather” in a movie? It seems almost too on-the-nose, doesn’t it?] Jess is eccentric and flighty and sheltered, but in the context of the show, there’s no indication that any of the negative connotations of these words apply. You could wonder how a woman who looks like Zooey Deschanel could go through life with so little idea of how to flirt or merely interact with others, but the corresponding alternative would be that if you go through life looking like Zooey Deschanel, you get enough leeway that most people would never think to judge you for “Lord of the Rings” references, gloriously awkward dance moves or occasionally mimicking (possibly intentionally, but possibly not) Jerry Lewis in “The Nutty Professor.” What I’m saying is that you may find this character to be disingenuous given what she looks like — I mean, she takes off her glasses and puts on a little black dress and… omigod… she’s gorgeous! — but I think the character is developed around the notion that it’s possible to create and grow up within a Jess Bubble that’s practically impossible to penetrate and some people are just like that.
As I mentioned on the podcast, though, it’s not like this is Deschanel coasting on the ease with which she inhabits the role. There are punchlines that she’s selling the heck out of, whether attempting to justify her difficulties with sexual role-playing, singing to herself, floundering at a singles meat market or reacting to key moments in “Dirty Dancing.” This isn’t a Zooey Rehash. It’s a dextrous comedic performance, though it isn’t effortless. What I’m counting as a hard-working lead performance, detractors will file under “Trying too hard.” [Side Note: If you can find somebody in Vegas to take the action, here’s something to put money on: Unless “New Girl” is an utter disaster, Zooey Deschanel is an iron-clad lock to win a Golden Globe in January. Forget just a nomination. She’s a lock to win.]
Most of the “New Girl” pilot involves the other three guys looking at Jess like she’s an alien (looks that Jess would never, ever notice), which places some restrictions on how much Greenfield, Johnson and Wayans get to do. I think the pilot over-plays the “douchebag” card with Greenfield, a trait that will be hard to sustain in subsequent episodes, but at least it cements the character. Johnson is working with more of a blurry “nice guy” thing that suggests that somewhere down the road we’re going to have to deal with awkwardness when his character is the one who first realizes he’s in love with Jess.
Wayans, who did “New Girl” just in case “Happy Endings” wasn’t renewed, has some funny moments and, like Greenfield, he at least establishes a character, exactly in time to be pushed out the door. I haven’t seen Morris in “New Girl” action, so we’ll see what his character brings to the table. [As it stands, this goes down as one of those confusing and awkward realities of race-blind casting. There was no reason at all why Wayans’ character had to be played by a minority actor originally, but once the writers knew Wayans was departing the show, that role (or any replacement role) ceased to be race-blind, because you know the show would have been pilloried if Wayans had been replaced by… I dunno… Nick Swardson or something. So instead, the producers decided that it would be better/easier to just give the impression that these people have a system of interchangeable African-American roommates and move on from there. Yup. This apparently only interests me as a piece of Hollywood sociology.]
“New Girl” has a thin premise, but Deschanel, Meriwether and director Jake Kasdan deliver a solid enough execution that viewers will know that they’re returning next week because the characters are funny and not because they necessarily care what adventures they’re going to get into next. There’s also a certain warmness in the pilot that will keep some viewers engaged as well. And while “New Girl” isn’t fantastically compatible with “Raising Hope” in the 9:30 half-hour, this has the makings of the best live-action comedy block FOX has had in a long time.
FOX’s “New Girl” premieres on Tuesday, September 20 at 9 p.m.