Fresh from the winter break with a brand new time slot (Tuesday, 8 pm, ET), New Girl continues to rack up the glowing reviews; this is a rare achievement for such a longstanding sitcom. The show is now in its sixth season and shows no signs of slowing down!
A key to the long-lasting popularity of New Girl has been the show’s unwillingness to bow to typical sitcom stereotypes. Whether binging on Netflix or catching rerun blocks on cable, the show’s legion of fans has always appreciated their beloved gang of characters’ refusal to fall prey to the mapped-out rules that seem to govern the characters of most other shows.
Breaking from accepted societal norms in this way has worked to the show’s advantage. Hopefully, other sitcoms will take notice and be more inclined to follow New Girl’s lead by going against the grain.
In the hands of lesser writers, New Girl’s basic premise would be a nearly intolerable parade of masculine vs. feminine clichés. We have Jess, the kooky teacher with the lovably messed-up life, rooming with three males, Nick, Schmidt, and Wilson. And they’re in a massive Los Angeles apartment. I know – like what could go wrong, right?
Those unfamiliar with the show might most likely envision Jess having to struggle with your run of the mill stereotypical guy behavior.
Pick your poison: uncleanliness, sports marathons on the television, and a steady stream of disgusting male antics. However, in a clever twist, the writer—Elizabeth Meriwether—and the entire cast turn these outdated ideas on their head, subverting stock pitfalls and embracing a more hip, modern outlook that connects with younger viewers.
So, what we have with New Girl is a trio of sensitive, hip urban males who are more inclined to give Jess dating advice than to try to climb into bed with her at the closest opportunity. Hence, instead of the typical “girl living with a bunch of guys” easy punchlines and slapstick gags, the comedy revolves around the day-to-day lives of the four main characters and their banter around the apartment.
In essence, New Girl is a modern character staging where men and women are on equal footing. As such, they can hang out on the same level without the clashing interests or sexual undertones that may have been incorporated into a “girl tossed in with a bunch of guys” show just ten years, or even five years, previous.
Portraying Race on Prime Time
Although the show got off to a bit of a rocky start on the race angle, suffering much criticism for switching out Damon Wayans Jr. with Lamorne Morris’s Winston as the “token” black roommate early on. However, the show quickly rebounded and began portraying race in ways that knocked the doors off your standard sitcom narrative.
First, there was the notorious, and hilarious, episode where Schmidt takes Winston’s joke about smoking ‘crack’ seriously and ventures into the projects to score some. The misunderstanding sets up a series of hijinks which include mistaking a kind stranger offering directions for a robber, a wallet for a gun, and a turn-of-the-tables accusation on Schmidt himself.
Granted, it was risky territory to venture into, and Schmidt’s scolding of his wayward character was done with a tongue-in-cheek élan that stood in direct contrast to the politically correct dogma that could have easily been written for the situation in most other modern sitcoms. Nonetheless, they managed to pull it off.
As a matter of fact, Winston manages to buck racial stereotypes right from the introduction of his character. Here is a black man who isn’t that good at sports, who wins over a woman’s affection by hanging with her at a girl’s night, and who turns out to be a trustworthy and skilled babysitter. He never cheats on his girlfriends, and loves cats. Think back to the sitcoms you watched as a child, or even to any other sitcom currently running. Has there ever been a less stereotypical black character than Winston?
The real kicker here is when Wayans came back to the cast. Unlike what shows would have done in the past, i.e. “replace one black guy with another one,” New Girl boldly broke the mold and took on two prominent black characters. This breach of the “only one member of an ethical group allowed per white sitcom” code further pushed New Girl into unchartered territory as far as racial identity is concerned.
A Brave New World
It isn’t often that a cable sitcom comes around and challenges age-old formulas and unwritten rules that most writers and directors would just assume their audiences want.
In fact, shows that cannot fit into any category are often left by the wayside, dying quick one-season deaths, or never even making it beyond the pilot phase. New Girl managed to dodge this fate through strong writing, a likable cast, and an immediate following that has remained loyal to the show for the duration of its run.
Hopefully, other sitcom writers, directors, and producers can take up this charge and step forward with smart, challenging, and non-stereotypical fare for the TV viewing public. As a rapidly changing society fueled by recent leaps in ethnic advances and LGBT awareness, the viewing public no longer needs to the stale, formulaic fare win.
The message is simple: To win the hearts of today’s viewers, shows must be willing to push the envelope.
Featured photo credit: Caitlyn Wilson via unsplash.com