In Fox’s “New Girl,” premiering tonight, indie queen Zooey Deschanel packs up her cutesy hipster act and takes it to the small screen. The success of that move will likely depend on how well her “adorkable” character manages to balance the line between endearing eccentric and irritating nutjob.
Deschanel plays the recently dumped Jess, another variation on the aggressively quirky, retro-clothed character the singer-actress portrayed in “(500) Days of Summer,” “Weeds” and almost everything else she’s ever been in (except for “Almost Famous” – she was pretty awesome in that). After a humiliating breakup, Jess moves in with Schmidt (Max Greenfield), Nick (Jake Johnson) and Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), three amigos who are broad composites of every single sitcom guy that has ever flickered across your TV. Schmidt is a wannabe lothario whose inherent douchiness gives the pilot its funniest joke: every time Schmidt does or says something the others consider awful, he’s forced to put a couple bucks in the douchebag jar. Nick is a sensitive bartender still smarting after his own breakup and seems like a prime candidate for an inevitable will-they-won’t-they romance as the Ross to Jess’s Rachel. (Though nothing’s likely to happen soon – Justin Long’s just signed on as a potential love interest for Jess.)
Coach brings in the most guffaws as a no-bullshit trainer who splits his time between putting Schmidt in his place and struggling to interact with the opposite sex. However, that’s bad news for the “New Girl” folks – thanks to the unexpected second-season renewal of “Happy Endings,” Wayans Jr. is out after the pilot and will be replaced by Lamorne Morris as a similar character, named Winston Bishop, from the second episode on.
Deschanel’s Jess is a mix of Liz Lemon-esque awkwardness (good!) and trite attempts at quirkiness (bad!), which include spastic dances, off-key singing, Zooey’s trademark vacuous stares and a good number of other “aw shucks, aren’t I the cutest?” moves. All things considered, Jess is just kind of annoying. There’s no irrational Zooey hate here – for the record, this is coming from someone who owns everything She & Him has ever released.
To put it simply, the pilot tries too hard. But to be fair, most pilots are bad, particularly with sitcoms. They’re held back by the need to introduce characters, explain the setup and fit in a couple of good zingers all in a little over 20 minutes of actual screen time. “New Girl” starts off a bit clunky but does pick up by the end. There’s a lot of potential in “New Girl” and a lot of kinks it needs to smooth out, too. Luckily, its heavy ad campaign suggests Fox will give the show the time it needs to find its footing. “New Girl” has a set of promising characters, and it’d do best to focus on the cast as a whole and less on Jess’s wide-eyed self-discovery. “Adorkable” can only take you so far.