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Zooey Deschanel, Not Just Another Pretty Face: Why 'New Girl' Works

by Stephanie Earp, posted Nov 15th 2011 5:15PM
Undeniably one of the big hits of the season, 'New Girl' is quite lovely. It makes me laugh, which I always appreciate, but it makes me laugh when I'm not expecting it, which is rare since so many of my favorite comedies are deep into multiple seasons.

But series star Zooey Deschanel has become a bit of a lightning rod for pop culture criticism and I'm always curious to know how others are interpreting what I see as 22 minutes of light entertainment. Sometimes seeing fiction through an insistently critical lens can ruin all the fun, but with 'New Girl,' the ideas being tossed around by writers at blogs like Jezebel make the show that much more interesting. Here's a quick guide to some of the themes the show is exploring, and how they're being discussed by critics.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl:
This trope was identified by critic Nathan Rabin in a review of Cameron Crowe's 'Elizabethtown.' He says Kirsten Dunst's character is the type that "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." He also mentions Natalie Portman's role in 'Garden State,' natch.

Rabin came up with the wording, but the archetype has existed for ages -- think Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' or Barbra Streisand in 'What's Up, Doc.' Most of the time, the MPDG is cheery, quirky and oddly innocent, like Kate Hudson's Penny Lane (another Cameron Crowe creation), but some critics have extended the designation to dark avenger Lisbeth Salander of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.' What these fictional women have in common is that they seem to have a mute inner life, no discernible motivations, and they don't change or grow up.

Zooey Deschanel has already played MPDGs a few times, in 'Elf' and in sleeper hit '500 Days of Summer,' but the real criticism has come from her tendency to play this character in real life -- from tweeting about kittens, launching a website called HelloGiggles.com, and being relentlessly adorable.

Nerd Culture:
At this point, you can't be successful (especially in Hollywood) without confessing that you were once a 90-pound weakling who suffered from chronic carsickness or an unhealthy obsession with books. And of course, you need to admit that you were, are and always will be a ginormous nerd. The idea of what makes up a nerd has changed though. it used to be the exclusive arena of computer and math whizzes. Now it seems to mean anyone who didn't play competitive soccer or have a date for prom. Liked Nancy Drew? Hall & Oates? 'Sesame Street'? Congratulations, you are a nerd. But so are Tina Fey and 'The Office' star Mindy Kaling, so you're in good company.

Liz Meriwether, the creator of 'New Girl,' has said in most shows Jess would be the second lead, and CeCe would be the star. The rise of the geek has turned this on its head. Not only is CeCe not a nerd, she's the only regular character who isn't.

The New Sincerity:
Blogger and radio host Jesse Thorn re-purposed this term to describe a semi-joking philosophy he said was emerging after the 'Death of Irony' proclaimed after 9/11. Maybe semi-joking isn't a fair way to describe Thorn's attitude, since even his approach to popularizing the idea reeks of The New Sincerity. Basically, it's a lack of irony or sincerity -- it is just plain ol' loving all the things we used to love ironically (see Hall & Oates, above). Thorn used Evil Kneivel to illustrate his point, but I see it more as the subtle shift in attitude towards how we enjoy pop culture. We no longer have to qualify our enjoyment of Britney Spears singles, 'Better Off Dead' or playing violent first-person shooter games. Fun is a good enough reason.

Deschanel embodies this idea perfectly with her oversized glasses, constant singing and odd DVD collection ('Curly Sue'?).

In the 1950s, the idea of adolescence was invented as high school became standard, and adulthood was pushed back to reaching our 20s. Author Kay S. Hymowitz argues that now the responsibilities of adulthood have been delayed even further, into our late 20s and early 30s, leaving a vacuum era she calls 'Pre-Adulthood.' She makes this argument in a book called 'Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys,' and the book is causing some pretty heated debate. However you feel about the feminist aspects of her work, there's no denying North Americans, both male and female, are delaying marriage and children and filling the time with video games and shopping. Comic and writer Julie Klausner described the phenomenon thusly: "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is to hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends."

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory in light of the freak-out Nick had over the busted TV. While we've seen shows about single young adults in the big city before -- 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld' -- 'New Girl' nails the centrality of games to the modern American male idea of a good time.

Nice Guy ®:
You've heard the line: women only date jerks, they don't like nice guys. Thanks to books, blogs and web memes devoted to this old chestnut, Moderate Left blogger Jeff Fecke brilliantly unpacked the ideas behind it in his Nice Guy ® post at Shakesville. Basically, he points out that these are fellows who think they are owed sex or a relationship simply because they aren't actively abusive, mean or demeaning to women -- yet their very sense of entitlement and willingness to manipulate women unmasks them as not nice at all.

I thought about the Nice Guy ® post when Schmidt was holding hands with CeCe in last week's episode. You know, the one where he let her have his bed, then claimed the couch was uncomfortable so he could climb in with her. I like Schmidt, but I didn't like that scene. Not one bit.

Room Invasion on 'New Girl'

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I think New Gril is good, not great as so many AOL critics seem to proclaim. The show might work better if it only consists of Jess, Cece, and Schmidt. There are times it tries too hard to be edgy like Happy Endings which I think is the best comedy on TV right now.

November 17 2011 at 2:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

show got much better after they toned down zooeys 'singtalking;

November 16 2011 at 12:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David Venable

I gave up after the pilot episode. I liked Zooey but the rest of the cast irritated me too much.

November 15 2011 at 8:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

four times i've tried to like this show. four times i've come away without as much as a chuckle. it tries way too damn hard to sell just how wonderfully quirky zooey is and all that and in the process just winds up mediocre and boring.

if this is the new standard for TV comedy, then said standard is beyond low.

November 15 2011 at 6:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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