New Girl is a good show because it is, as they say in academia, liminal. To wit, it dramatizes a meeting of two worlds that up until now have almost always been segregated: the twee-hipster world and the bro world. Both of these, on their own, have become threadbare clichés, which is why New Girl generated such a volume of hatred well before it aired. I don’t understand exactly why hipsters on the internet hate Zooey Deschanel so vehemently — maybe she reminds them a little too much of themselves — but I will allow that a show consisting solely of “adorable” twee-girl Zooey doing her adorable twee thing would have been unbearable. But, to be fair, probably no more unbearable than one more show about three bro roommates.
To be precise, they would have been unbearable because both are stereotypes whose comedic potential has been exhausted. What rescues New Girl from the trashcan to which the blogosphere prematurely consigned it is their juxtaposition. Instead of carrying on in their own insular, insipid little worlds as usual, the two stereotypes are brought forcibly into contact with each other, made to live together under the same roof, negotiate their differences and learn from each other. And this negotiation transforms the stereotypes into something far fresher and more complex — and ultimately, perhaps, something genuinely human.
New Girl humanizes its stereotypes in the same way that Community does: by giving its characters (and its viewers) an uncomfortable awareness of the stereotypical roles they fill despite themselves. Jess (Zooey Deschanel) is not merely a stereotypical adorable twee-girl — she is a human being who acts like an adorable twee-girl because that’s the only way she knows how to deal with life. Speaking as an armchair psychotherapist I’d say she (Jess, that is — although this may well apply to Zooey in real life as well) acts out the way she does because, natch, she’s insecure. She acts silly because she’s afraid people won’t take her seriously, and would rather preemptively give them a reason not to than try to win their respect and face rejection. And her silliness is twee-inflected simply because twee is the most readily available cultural form.
We don’t know much yet about Jess’s past, but I would guess that, before her unexpected move, she lived in an environment in which her explosive quirkiness went unchallenged. If her creepily affectless best friend Cece is any indication, Jess’s friends are probably as hopelessly addicted to hipster apathy — another emotional crutch I’m sure you know all too well — as she is to twee silliness. She comes from a world in which externality is everything and crafted personas must be defended at all costs. If Jess’s friends were to call her out on hers, they would risk putting theirs in jeopardy as well. Not for nothing are they all models.
A shell as calcified as Jess’s cannot be punctured; it must be smashed by some trauma, in Jess’s case the trauma of catching her boyfriend with another woman. Cut loose from the hipster world that created her, she finds herself — via the aleatory magic of Craigslist — in a different world with a different set of rules: the bro world. The three bros — led by Schmidt, the broiest of the bunch — let her move in after she tells them her friends are all models. The crucial move that sets the whole show in motion arises directly from the stereotypical bro impulse to bang hot chicks at all costs. But this is no ordinary bro community, in which bros cling slavishly to every phrase of Man Law as if their masculinity were as fragile as glass. These bros have progressed: they have developed a self-critical awareness of their stereotypical posturing, and have even begun taking steps to correct it. The two dickbags they encounter at the bar serve as their foils, grim reminders of the ugly face of broism left untreated.
It isn’t clear what sort of people our recovering-bro heroes would like to be instead of bros, and that’s kind of the point. The show’s implicit philosophy seems to be that, the moment you try to be a certain way, you have imprisoned yourself once more in rote self-caricature. There is no “real you” waiting inside you like some Promised Land — authentic selfhood is to be found only in the constant struggle against the gravitational pull of those stereotypes that can swallow us whole if we let them. This struggle powers the comic motor in some of the best sitcoms on TV — Community, Modern Family and 30 Rock in particular.
What gives the fight against involuntary self-stereotyping its infinite comic potential is the way it always leads to overcorrection. Characters who want to escape their stereotypical identities always end up plunging headfirst into others: Annie Edison and Shirley Bennett, the two sweetest people in the study group, fight over who gets to be the “bad cop” when they form a cop duo; Phil Dunphy goes nuts trying to show his daughters that he’s be a “tough parent” while Claire is out making her son sick proving to him what a “fun parent” she can be; Liz Lemon tries again and again to be buddies with her subordinates by letting them walk all over her. In the end we are reminded that, no matter how hard we try to seize control, the messiness of life always wins.
I’m sure New Girl has such comedy of overcorrection in its future. But what makes its take on the struggle-against-stereotypes motif so fresh even in the pilot is its timeliness. In the pop-culture landscape of 2011 the twee-hipster and the bro are stereotypes of towering, almost hegemonic stature — and yet, unless I’m forgetting something, they haven’t encountered one another on TV until now, probably because they represent such different target audiences. And in their isolation, both had become lifeless caricatures of themselves.
If New Girl delivers on the promise of its pilot, and avoids turning into just the sort of cute twee schlock that its haters said it would be (which is still a danger), it could well breathe new life into not just TV stereotypes but real-life ones as well. Hipsters and bros alike are trapped in their roles, no longer wanting to be what they’ve become but not knowing how to be anything else. New Girl promises to show us that, if they want to escape the prisons they’ve locked themselves in, all hipsters and bros need is each other.