End of Season (Series?) Report: New Girl, Season 6

27 Apr

With New Girl having possibly aired its series finale (its ongoing fate is undetermined as of yet), it’s an excellent opportunity to take stock and analyze where the series, six seasons deep, stands as a whole.

Modern  half hour television shows can very, very broadly be divided into three categories. First, on one end, there are shows that aim for pure laughs. These shows tend to be less serial, and for these shows to succeed on their own terms, it’s unimportant whether you care about or relate to the characters or not. There’s a very simple barometer of success for these shows; if you’re laughing, the show works. Bedrock examples of these shows include Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

On the other end are the dramadies, which aren’t particularly concerned with being laugh-out-loud funny. Owing to their half hour heritage, they are generally either light-hearted or filled with humorous moments and situations –  you won’t find a humorless hour-long like AMC’s The Walking Dead or Boardwalk Empire in half hour format. Because these shows are less funny, it’s pretty much essential that viewers become invested in and care about, though not necessarily relate to, the characters. These shows tend to be extremely serial. Examples include Girls and Transparent.

In the middle stands the class of sitcoms which bear the greatest resemblance to the classic sitcoms of old; Cheers in particular is often cited as a major influence for creators. These sitcoms care very much about making us laugh; they’re filled not just with the humorous situations of the second category, but with the jokes and punchlines of the first. They also care, however, passionately, about giving us the feels. They want us emotionally invested in the characters, and unlike many second category shows, they want us not just to care about but to like and root for the characters. They want us to emotionally react to the characters’ personal and professional ups and downs and tend to dot their seasons with episodes that feature major emotional touchstones – new jobs, breakups, weddings, pregnancies. How I Met Your Mother and Parks and Recreation are two perfect examples of this genre.

New Girl fits snugly within the third category; it has aimed, over its six season run, for a combination of laughs and emotions.  It’s been largely successful in pursuit of the former, while being only partly effective in terms of the latter.

New Girl has been, in the whole, quite funny. There have been ups and downs, within episodes  and seasons, and over time, but six seasons in, which is a long time in 20+ episode seasons, for the most part, episodes are still pretty consistently funny. New Girl is funny because the jokes are well-written and smart and it’s funny because the actors who read those jokes are excellent individually as well as having excellent chemistry with one another. The characters, evolved over time, are funny characters and all have developed over time generally consistent personalities which serve as platforms for humorous retorts and interactions. Nick’s luddite conspiracy-minded kookiness, Schmidt’s OCD  and fastidiousness, Winston’s confident silliness, for example, have all built a strong foundation for humorous situations.

More specific recurring quirks and gags can get old quickly, especially when they’re too specific and exaggerated (see, for example, Boyle’s slavish devotion to Jake in Brooklyn Nine-Nine) but the quirks in New Girl have for the most part remained funny and true to character and have, through generally judicious use, avoided being played out. Winston’s love of pranks, forever, could easily have been overused and was briefly before it was tempered and only surfaced occasionally to positive effect. Likewise with Nick’s Pepperwood Chronicles, of which just the right amount of detail and excerpts, but no more, have been provided.

Now, however, we come to the second half of the equation of these types of sitcoms. New Girl wants us very much to care about its characters. It wants us not just to care about its characters but to like its characters, and not just to like its characters but to become emotionally invested in its characters, so that when they have big moments, both high and low, we feel  along with them.

Like many of this category of shows, especially series that focus on people in their twenties and thirties, most episodes contain a couple of self-contained plots filled with hijinks, but also serve as little pieces in a long personal journey for each of the characters as they grow as people, with the outward markers being their changing positions in relationships and careers.

While I very much like and root for the New Girl characters generaly, all five of them, I just don’t feel passionately about their individual story arcs, and in particularly have not been able to invest in the likely single biggest story arc and central relationship of the show – the romance between Nick and Jess. From the way the relationship is treated within the show, particularly within the most recent few episode and the very final scene of the sixth season finale, the writers seem to believe or at least hope that I’d be extremely excited about the final long-awaited reunion of these two star-crossed but destined soulmates. Unfortunately, I remained unmoved. I mostly just felt disappointed that the episode had focused on the sentimental at the expense of the funny.

I sorry that I was unmoved. I like Nick and I like Jess as characters, and it’s less that I hate the two of them together as much as I’m completely uninterested in it, especially after their earlier season-long romance and inextricable break up. Coming in perhaps the worst season of the show, the breakup, which should have been fairly easy to write – there are plenty of well-established reasons why Nick and Jess wouldn’t be right for each – felt unnecessarily forced, considering the investment the show had put in the relationship. But from the moment they broke up, there was a stark inevitability they would get together by the end of the show, and that made every other relationship the two experienced in the intervening seasons feel pointless. And while it’s extremely irritating when a show keeps two characters apart for seasons who have no within show reasons not for being together outside of creating tension, that didn’t seem to be the case for Nick and Jess.

As was evident when they dated the first time, there were plenty of fundamental differences that would easily have explained why they would be long-term incompatible; their relationship never felt fated to me the way it seemed like the show wanted it to feel. It felt like they had to get together, because, well, it’s TV, and that’s what happens. There was language used in the most recent episodes from all of the characters, particularly within conversations between Schmidt and Cece that presented the Nick-Jess relationship as so obvious and so destined but because the relationship didn’t feel that way to me watching the show, and the overemphasis on the they-were-meant-to-be-together aspect felt like forced sentimentality.  I don’t want characters I like not to get together just to punish them, but It would have been more interesting if they didn’t get back together, simply because it would have been different and unexpected in this type of show. No matter how many shows do it again and again, sitcom incest comes home to roost.

My least favorite moments were when New Girl tried to impart How I Met Your Mother-like cheeky lessons about relationships and life. For example, in the latest season, it was apparently a sign that Robbie was too similar to Jess because he liked the same parts of trail mix, while Nick likes the parts of trail mix that Jess hates, so somehow that makes them a good match (we’re just ignoring the whole Jess is related to Robbie part which is just something else entirely). Huh? Apparently New Girl had just told us the revelatory lesson that in relationships, opposites attract. Winston and Ali don’t really seem like opposites though, but I guess that’s beside the fact.

Throughout all of that, New Girl was by and large funny, but less funny when it chose to focus on those very special episodes with big emotional moments. In particular the sixth season finale, which was centered around two emotional bombshells, Cece’s pregnancy and Jess and Nick’s reunion seemed somewhat devoid of jokes, which, well, it’s a comedy.

For New Girl to work at the highest level, it would have to have me fully on board with the sentimental as well as the humor, and it never could quite get there. But New Girl, which has, over the years of Peak TV, gotten buried under more ambitious shows, shouldn’t be. It created memorable characters that deserve to be well-remembered, one of the most important parts of its kind of sitcoms, and enough recurring bits and repeatable jokes and lines to be worthy a place within shouting distance of the canon if not within it.

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