Zooey Deschanel brings her niche sex appeal to the small screen.
Perhaps, taking in the bumble of buzz around the fall TV season, you have gotten the impression that the career of Zooey Deschanel is a matter of national import. It apparently has some kind of meaning distinct from (if dependent upon) her talents as an actress and a singer. The run-up to the network premiere of Deschanel's first sitcom, New Girl (Fox, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), has found media types, post-feminist cutie-pies, and men on the street, all the sad young men, wondering what is up. "Is the American sitcom ready for a hipster sweetheart?" asked the cover of New York last week. Other queries issue from other quarters. Judging by the fuss, you would think that the lead role on Two and a Half Men had been given to Chloë Sevigny.
Perhaps, if you've heard enough of this stuff, you have begun to believe that the show will serve as a referendum on modern womanhood and contemporary taste. Maybe—given Deschanel's position as a niche-market sex symbol and trendsetter, one with a sensitive rock-star husband and an online lifestyle magazine to her name—you even think that there could be implications for the New Hampshire primary, if she found a way to organize all the jeune filles clicking down the brick sidewalks of Portsmouth in their Mary Janes. She is a style icon who—in the commercial that no longer constitutes her broadest brush with small-screen celebrity—buys vinyl while selling cotton. She and I once went to tea for a story. I remember her as unassuming, unaffected, and bright, but mostly I remember that she paid and, wary of her accountant chiding her as a scatterbrain, tucked the receipt away in a vintage purse. "Deschanel doesn't just portray indie culture onscreen," the New York profile sweetly sighed. "She, more than most of her indie-actress peers, seems to live it, too ...." A certain sort of person, feeling possessive about Zooey, is also getting proprietary about her own mode of refinement.
Perhaps none of the above means anything to you. Great. Just know that the girl from Elf has a show now. It's funny and cute.
But not too cute, an obvious risk, given the circumstances. Deschanel plays one Jess Day, described in press materials as "an offbeat and adorable girl in her late 20s who, after a bad breakup, moves in with three single guys .... Although she's dorky and awkward, she's comfortable in her own skin." I know, I know, but stick with me. As created by Liz Meriwether, New Girl privileges quick solid jokes over ornamental quirks. As Jess' roommates might say in their native dude-speak, it's got good fundamentals. If Jess is a hipster sweetheart, then so is Carole Lombard. Nothing in the body of the text is remotely as irksome as its aggressively ingratiating tagline, "Simply adorkable!"
Jess broke it off with her boyfriend after catching him cheating. In Deschanel's first big scene, she surprises the guy with a special-occasion striptease—a bump-and-grind rendered endearing by its bumbling dance attack—and she is in turn surprised to see another woman emerge from the bedroom. Thereafter, Jess wallows in an operetta of self-pity. At one point, she stares at her tear-soaked, snot-moist Kleenex and addresses it with a screaming plea for help, much to the consternation of the guys she's sharing an apartment with.
She loves them like brothers, and they love her like bros. Nick, played by Jake Johnson, is a bartender recently wounded by a breakup. The wound is suppurating horribly, to our enjoyment. (A flashback finds Nick plugging his ears and yelling like a child—"I can't hear you!"—when getting kicked to curb, a nice caricature of a spurned lover's tantrum, with its obstinate desire to stop time and reset reality.) Coach, played by Damon Wayans Jr., is a personal trainer. He doesn't take any B.S.—perhaps to his detriment; isn't a modest intake of B.S. part of a balanced mental diet?—and he rages at his clients as if struggling through some kind of Louis Gossett complex. Don't get too attached; Wayans, having had another show renewed, will be gone next week, but I assume that his replacement's inner emotional conflicts will be just as much in need of a woman's touch as all the other guys'. " 'My name is Nick,' " says Jess, teasing the bartender into self-awareness. " 'I have a penis, and I'm not gonna let my feelings out.' "
The third and best roommate is Schmidt (Max Greenfield). He reads like a fundamentally solid guy who, having been thrust into a particular kind of cultural role—the kind-of-a-dick kind—is now making the most of it. Schmidt flaunts his abs often. He bows and scrapes, yearning for the approving one-armed hugs of alpha jerks. He shares some DNA with the yuppie slickster that Ryan Howard evolved into in the fourth season of The Office. Near the end of the pilot, in a tender moment, Schmidt turns to Jess and tells her that, no matter what, he'd still do her. His friends then fine him for this offense, ordering him to put another dollar in the "douchebag jar"—a receptacle akin to a swear jar. Considering Schmidt's prolific douchebaggery, I'd suggest the roommates either set up an electronic transfer or obtain a 55-gallon oil drum.
The fifth character is Jess' best friend, a professional model named Cici (Hannah Simone). When Cici tells the dudes that they better take good care of Jess, they listen closely, as if the babe is threatening to transform into an angel of vengeance. If they betray Jess, they are betraying all women, especially the sexiest ones, and accordingly will suffer eternally in a fire that burns with the heat of the hotness of 40-score head-turners.
All the while, Jess' character presents sweetness without saccharine, ditziness without duncery, and klutziness with notable grace. In one scene, flirting with a guy in a bar, she accepts a compliment about her eyeglasses by saying, "They help me see." The joy of the line is in the tone of reading: Tipsy and swooning, Jess is earnestly attempting a helpful explanation. I liked the clueless coo of it. Your mileage may vary. There is a notion going around my office that Deschanel's speaking voice—a droll nasal drawl distinct from her full peal in song—might be the most compelling thing about her. Or the most annoying. In any case, it's well-suited to the screwball voice of a show that looks like a commercial hit. We'll know that New Girl has jumped the shark if, in the fifth season, Ellen Page turns up as Jess' young cousin from out of town and begins playing Skipper to America's indie-darling Barbie.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from New Girl by Isabella Vosmikova/FOX ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.