When New Girl debuted back in the fall of 2011, it wasn’t a particularly beloved show. It opened with 10 million viewers because we were all curious about movie star Zooey Deschanel moving to television (it’s hard to remember now that Deschanel was once better known for her movie work), but it had a rough beginning. The Deschanel quirk was in overdrive, and the show could be grating to watch.
Late in the first season, however, the series began to find its footing. Elizabeth Meriwether toned down the Deschanel quirk, and more importantly, it became more of an ensemble. Deschanel was the draw, but it was the supporting cast that kept us around. Jake Johnson was the next coming of Chandler, a dour, sarcastic grump who yelled at doors. Schmidt was the fan favorite for a while, a lovable douchebag with a soft insecure center; CeCe was the beautiful best friend, and her common sense and chemistry with Schmidt kicked her a notch above the average best-friend role in television.
Then there was Lamorne Morris’ Winston, and New Girl had no idea what to do with him. He was the Mark Brendanawicz of New Girl. Having replaced Coach (Damon Wayans) after the pilot, Winston had no real purpose.
Four years later, Winston is the most beloved character on the show. In fact, he’s often the only reason to continue watching the series. The ratings have plummeted. The show has fallen from a high of 10 million viewers to around two million viewers a week (in overnight ratings), and it’s only been renewed for a fifth season by virtue of being on Fox, or the new NBC, a network that has no choice but to keep consistent (if not, low-rated) shows on the air because the alternative is Weird Loners, a sitcom that is seen by fewer people than cable reruns of Family Guy.
It’s easy to pin the blame on the Nick and Jess gas leak season, and the will-they-won’t-they relationship. But other sitcoms have survived that (and in fact, Parks and Rec is the perfect example of a sitcom that could put couples together, keep them together, and continue to thrive).
The bigger problem with New Girl, aside from the fact that Fox spaces first-run episodes weeks apart in the spring, is that it defined its characters early on, and it refuses to budge on those delineations. That’s fine for a show like The Simpsons or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that’s driven by satire or misanthropy. New Girl is character driven, and these characters aren’t going anywhere. Elizabeth Meriwether may rearrange them around the apartment, but they remain static. In fact, they dig into those character traits even deeper. They’re like Joey Tribbianis, a character that got a laugh one time because of his enthusiasm for sandwiches, and five seasons later, he was practically defined by his love of them.
The reason why New Girl lost its mojo is not because Nick and Jess got together. It’s because of the reasons they broke up. They broke up because Nick couldn’t stop being a irresponsible manchild. They broke up because Jess was too Type-A and future conscious. They refused to compromise their characters for each other. They refused to change, and that’s precisely what’s wrong with New Girl. They refuse to change. They’re 35-year-olds who still live in the same damn apartment together. At least Friends played musical chairs with the apartment situation.
That bring us back to Winston, and why he’s now the most beloved character on the show. It’s because they couldn’t figure out how to define him, and he’s been allowed to evolve. He’s still the guy that gets a little to overzealous when it comes to pranks, but he’s changed careers. He dates different kinds of women, and the show seems to change him to suit the narrative instead of revolving the narrative around those static characters. Winston is the only unpredictable force remaining on New Girl.
CeCe and Winston aren’t together now. But they will be. Jess and Nick aren’t together, either. But they should be. The sooner the show figures out how to evolve these characters into a place where it makes sense for Nick and Jess to be together again, the sooner it can move ahead. It shouldn’t avoid the inevitable. It should work past it.
The question is, will there be anyone left to watch if they turn it around?