New Girl – The first true Sitcom Voltron
I was talking to a friend the other day (my The Glory, The Glory podcast co-host Aidan) and realized that New Girl is really something special on modern television. To really dig into why, though, we need to glance back at Sitcom Eras Past.
In the 50s and 60s (and please remember that decades and their trends don’t generally start until partway through. The 80s didn’t really start until 83/84) sitcoms often featured a lot of physical humor and exaggerated scenarios. I Love Lucy and Bewitched, I Dream of Genie and The Flying Nun. The sort of exaggerated event that made for broader comedy while still being nominally relatable – though at a remove because these were often blown out of proportion for comedy.
In the 70s the sitcom turned and we had shows like Taxi and Cheers who found comedy at the bottom of a well of depression. They would feature characters that felt stuck in their lives and sought humor from the base ridiculousness of existence in American society at the time. They loved a situation where they could get you to laugh with a character because you’d been there.
As we started to enter the cultural sinkhole of the 80s we found ourselves lashed at by sitcoms such as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and Facts of Life which wanted us to remember that family was important and that good people came together to laugh and solve problems.
Bursting out of that, sitcoms in the 90s offered us Seinfeld and Friends, what I like to think of as the “It’s all right to be an ass” years. Characters could suddenly be truly unlikable and find their funny moments based off of us laughing directly at them instead of with them. We loved to dislike them, and they enjoyed our attention.
Which brings us back to New Girl:
Jess Day: The 50’s template, always living her life as if the world was brighter, sillier and bigger than it is. She can be as broad as a situation requires, without ever feeling out of place.
Nick: Reppin’ the 70s with is resignation that his life will be what it is. His personality being at least 40 years older than he is often helps ground him fully in the quagmire that is his imagined existence.
Winston: Though the writers seemed to struggle initially with Winston’s character he quickly became the quiet heart of the show from the 80s. You would think it was Jess, and yet Winston is often the glue that holds everyone together. He champions a sense of family, though not out loud often, that allows the others to work collectively though they might never realize it is his character and not themselves enabling it.
Schmidt: The 90s douche at its finest, complete with easy Douche Jar! We get to laugh at Schmidt, even though we know he isn’t a bad guy. He’s every character we loved to hate all wrapped up in one meta-textual, self-aware package.
And so New Girl becomes something on television that we haven’t quite seen before – a sitcom Voltron. It takes from every major era of the sitcom and combines them all to mix and match scenes and plots and find truly new ways to attack the old form.
It isn’t what I expected from the show back when I first started watching it, but with the alchemy in place and working and growing it is certainly what I watch now. From Cece shifting between the 90s and 50s with grace, to Julia Cleary being a quiet 90s character with the initial trappings of a 70s character being used to explore both Nick and, by a strange extension, his relationship with Schmidt, New Girl has found the ability to turn elements we knew into bursting unknowns, revealing their contents twenty-four minutes at a time.