“I’m doing sexy things with the pilloooow!”: Zooey Deschanel and “New Girl”

Heaven help me, I liked this show.

Sep 21, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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New Girl” is Fox’s new Tuesday-night followup to “Glee,” and stars Zooey Deschanel as Jess, a socially inept woman who’s been recently (and embarrassingly) dumped. Heartbroken Jess moves in with three dudes she found on Craigslist, all of whom immediately take to her with a big-brotherly concern, and so we have our situation for this comedy.

Fox has been billing the show as “simply adorkable” -- seriously -- and while titular Girl Jess is certainly a dork, I think the character deserves a more nuanced assessment than can be found in such a halfhearted pun.

I broke my usual rule of not watching broadcast TV -- OK, it’s not really a “rule,” exactly, so much as it is a function of my inability to remember when shows are on and what day it is and whether I set the DVR -- to catch “New Girl” because I was interested in what a show centered on a nerdy lady as its star would look like.

While male geeks are easy to find on television, dorky women are almost nonexistent, or are at least relegated to wacky-neighbor status so they only appear sporadically, lest their distinctive personalities turn off the audience. When they do appear, they are typically portrayed as sexless, clueless caricatures for the "real" characters to laugh at.

However, the quirktastic Jess is the central figure of “New Girl,” and our introduction to her takes the form of the most absurd striptease ever, in which Jess does “sexy things” with a sofa cushion and a potted plant. I found it difficult not to be charmed by the character, although that’s likely because she reminds me of so many people I know, people who make up silly songs to describe the most banal activites, who watch certain movies with alarming frequency, and who take to awkward dance moves in situations totally inappropriate for dancing. (And by “people I know” I may also mean “me.”)

That said, I’m sure some people will find Jess unbearably irritating. I’ve never really understood the appeal of that other nerd show, “The Big Bang Theory,” because I find the characters’ stereotypicalness annoying (although I will admit on the few occasions I’ve watched it, I did enjoy the more obscure geek humor).

“New Girl” Jess doesn’t rely overmuch on the usual stereotypes, and what stereotypes she does employ are used sparingly. When roommate Schmidt offers to serve as Jess’ “guide” to locating some rebound sex, Jess asks, “Like Gandalf through Middle-earth?” As the only overtly self-aware reference in the pilot, this comment feels forced.

Jess doesn’t need to remind us all of her nerd status by namedropping geek culture. Jess’s dorkyness is fully organic and intact whether she’s dressing for a date in overalls (for a sexy “I’m going to milk my cows! With my bucket!” look) or in a traditional LBD; it comes from her personality, not her ability to fittingly reference Sméagol, and not her appearance.

The critical response to “New Girl” has been mixed, but leaning toward the positive, depending on the reviewer’s level of immunity to Zooey Deschanel’s peculiar charm. One of the points that seems to be a sticking point for many critics is the idea that Deschanel is too pretty to be so awkward, and subsequently this makes it unbelieveable that such a cute lady could possibly have trouble talking to dudes. (One interaction goes: Guy: “I like your glasses.” Jess: “Thanks, they help me see!”)

If there was a single moment in the pilot when anyone calls Jess unattractive, I missed it. Is the character portrayed as hopelessly clumsy? Sure. Quirky and bizarre? Certainly. Ugly? I don’t think so. The expectation that the socially inept must also be painfully unattractive is a stereotype that this series does not feel compelled to heed, and that is downright refreshing.

Nerds, geeks, dorks and their various permutations and combinations are no more likely to be ugly than anyone else. They may be awkward. They may dress in a manner that is strange or off-putting, depending on the beholder. They may not be particularly invested in the usual gender markers. But ugliness is not an inherently nerdly quality. (Of course, I'm one of those suckers who thinks of ugliness as a quality reflected in a person's behavior, not their face, so make of that what you will.)

Deschanel’s natural charisma is probably a big reason why this show can exist at all. She makes Jess relatable, or at least likeable, without quite venturing into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, although whether this will hold true for subsequent episodes remains to be seen. My problem with the MPDG trope is not with the offending character’s over-the-top wackiness, which I rather like in a person, but with her position exclusively as helpmeet to improve the men in her life.

Will Jess turn into her roommates’ savior, with no other motivations of her own? I hope not. She’s far too interesting to waste like that. But I will probably stick around to see, assuming I can both remember when Tuesday happens and to check what time it is.