New Girl and the Adorkability Conundrum
When it picked up the sitcom New Girl, Fox made a risky gamble: It pinned the success of a freshman series on the polarizing cultural figure known as Zooey Deschanel. A member of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Club since her star turn in (500) Days Of Summer, Deschanel has a very specific celebrity brand: She’s a ModCloth-wearing, signature bangs-rocking, ukulele-playing quirk factory — not that there’s anything wrong with that. And Fox’s marketing campaign played up Deschanel’s appeal by promoting New Girl with a made-up word: “adorkable.”
The challenge in building a show around a character with so many idiosyncratic attributes, though, is that in order for the characters around her to seem recognizably human, they must occasionally react to Deschanel’s character, Jess, with recognizably human confusion, exasperation, and even contempt. In fact, tertiary characters’ disgust at Jess has now been the topic of not one but two episodes. Last month, the episode “Jess & Julia” revolved around a clash between Jess and — you guessed it — Julia (Lizzy Caplan), girlfriend to Jess’s roommate Nick (Jake Johnson). Julia, a lawyer, agrees to help Jess deal with a traffic ticket; in the process, Julia notes that a judge may be susceptible to Jess’s “whole thing”: “Your whole thing with the cupcakes and the braking for birds and the bluebirds come and help me dress in the morning. It’s a great thing. The big beautiful eyes, like a scared baby. I’m sure that gets you out of all kinds of stuff.” After responding more or less as a scared baby would, Jess sticks up for herself, insisting that her affinity for all things girly doesn’t mean she isn’t “smart and tough and strong.”
In her recap of the episode, Vulture’s Willa Paskin comments, “She may seem like a childlike weirdo to adults, but this makes her a great teacher.” Or so it would have seemed before the world saw last night’s episode, “Bully,” in which Jess’ attempt to defend one of her underdog students from his peers’ abuse puts her in conflict with another. Brianna (Joey King) secretly tapes Jess performing an anti-bullying anthem and animates it NMA TV-style; when Jess gently confronts her, Brianna essentially tells her she doesn’t buy Jess’ “whole thing.” Jess then lashes out in a way that won’t stop anyone from thinking of her as a petulant child: She breaks Brianna’s science fair project. Not only that; when she has to confess the result of her temper tantrum to Brianna and her mother, Jess’s roommate Winston (Lamorne Morris) turns it around on Brianna — an actual child — by calling her “the spawn of Satan.” Which is maybe a little excessive? I don’t know, I’m not a parent.
The producers of New Girl may not have figured out precisely why Jess acts the way she does, but evidently they’re going to keep creating situations that require her to try to defend her interests/behavior/wardrobe — in short, her “whole thing.” So in case said producers are running low on ideas, here are a few they can have for free!
“French Bonnet”: When Jess celebrates Bastille Day by wearing an elaborate, whimsical 18th-century hat to a sold-out movie, she runs afoul of the patron behind her. Fortunately, she can appeal to him as a fellow history buff!
“Express Lane”: Jess doesn’t see why it’s a big deal to take one or two or seven more items in the supermarket express lane than is specifically mandated by a very visible sign. Fortunately, when they see the adorable groceries Jess is buying — including starfruit, bubble gum, and baby aspirin — they can’t stay mad!
“Thrift Store”: Jess stands her ground when she and a fellow thrifter (guest star Alexa Chung) both reach for the same vintage housedress. Fortunately, she and Jess are able to share the cost of the dress and work out a time-share arrangement!
“Stray Dog”: It seems like a good idea when Jess rescues a stray dog that wanders into her classroom, until he turns out to be feral and eats all of Schmidt’s shoes. Fortunately, the landlord is looking for a dog to train as a seeing-eye dog (which Jess believes even though her roommates are convinced that he’s going to use it for dogfighting)!
“Bad Cupcakes”: Jess refuses to believe that a batch of her special birthday cupcakes, accidentally baked with rancid butter, have given all the guests at Winston’s party food poisoning. Fortunately, they all lose three to 12 pounds each as a result! Schmidt has never looked so cut, and Jess is a hero!
“Mildred’s Spill”: Jess finds it hard to make amends when, out for her daily skip, she runs into an old lady, knocking her over and breaking her hip. Fortunately, when Jess comes by for a visit/apology, she meets the woman’s grandson (Joe Manganiello) and he’s totally hot!
“Jess Anonymous”: Tanya asks Jess to come along for moral support when Tanya attends her first AA meeting, but Jess doesn’t make any friends by suggesting the other attendees really just need a more positive attitude. Fortunately, Jess doesn’t have to attend future meetings because Tanya starts drinking again!
Tara Ariano also has blue eyes, bangs, and a lovely singing voice. But it’s not a competition.