BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 1, 2011
I’ve been trying for years to figure out why I don’t like Zooey Deschanel. I’ve always known I’m not alone: A quick Google search will reveal plenty of female writers who take issue with the indie actress, known for her roles in hit movies and—perhaps even more—for her long dark hair, wide blue eyes, and flirty, flouncy style. Their beefs tend to be feminist ones. There’s the acting critique: that she plays hollow characters whose chief characteristics are their beauty and ability to attract men. Critics in this camp often point to the film (500) Days of Summer. Then, there’s the real-life critique: that she is troublingly girlish, even childish. These critics often lambast her website, HelloGiggles, or her Twitter feed, where she once wrote, “I wish everyone looked like a kitten.”
But, after watching the first few episodes of her well-reviewed new sitcom “New Girl,” which debuted this fall to more than 10 million viewers and returns tonight on Fox, and reading the recent New York cover story about Deschanel, I realized I don’t fit neatly into one of these critical cadres (though I don’t necessarily disagree with them). Rather, my problem with the actress du jour has to do with a message “New Girl” pushes implicitly, but incessantly: that the measure of a person’s character—the test of what makes him or her nuanced and compelling—is the magnitude of endearing personality quirks.
The show presents Deschanel’s character, Jess, much like Deschanel presents herself. The reason we should like her, even admire her, is because she is kooky, slapstick, and “Simply Adorkable” (to borrow the show’s tagline). It’s a painfully shallow presentation, and yet, we’re told there’s no real need to dig further. Indeed, Deschanel and “New Girl” don’t sacrifice substance for shtick—they tell audiences the shtick is the substance.
“I DIDN’T THINK I could find someone as weird as I am,” Liz Meriwether, the creator of “New Girl” and inspiration for Jess’s character, said thankfully of Deschanel in the New York profile of the actress. This, I think, points to the show’s chief problem: Jess is weird for weird’s sake. (Another large problem is that, with its lame jokes and plotlines, the show simply isn’t funny—but we’ll let that go for now.)
We can catch some glimpses of what might be deeper qualities through the fog of Jess’s tics. It seems she’s confident, though confidence is defined largely as wearing fake buck teeth to a wedding and picking up a guy with the line “Hey Sailor.” And I guess you could say she’s passionate, though our only clues are that she sobs over Dirty Dancing after her boyfriend cheats on her and sings to herself—even making up personal theme songs—anytime, anywhere. And it’s possible she’s creative, but the only evidence we have are things like her personally concocted version of the Chicken Dance.
So central is her sweet weirdness to the show that the characters of Jess’s new roommates were constructed, it seems, largely to reinforce its importance. There is a consistent narrative arc in each episode: Jess behaves like Jess, her roommates are annoyed and tell her to stop or try to help her change her ways, but, by the end, they’ve come around and even adopted a bit of her quirkiness themselves. Case in point: In the third episode, as the whole gang prepares to attend a wedding, the roomies tell Jess, “We aren’t trying to be mean, we just don’t want you to be yourself, in any way” (admittedly, a pretty awful thing to say). Fast-forward to the concluding scene, and you’ll find Jess and the guys doing a slow, goofy version of the Chicken Dance—Jess’s version, of course. There is a similar story line in the first episode, which ends with her roommates singing a terrible version of “Time of My Life” in a restaurant after Jess, on a rebound date at the guys’ urging, has been stood up. Unfortunately, this sort of narrative arc—which, in better hands and with a much better script, might provide some genuine character development—mostly just delivers the message that, so long as weirdness prevails, all is right with the world.
And so, I’m bothered when fans of this show, which includes legions of TV critics, fall over themselves talking about how Jess is such a strong and exciting new character. She’s “a giddy bundle of zany vulnerability,” coos Matt Rouche of TV Guide. “[Deschanel] and show creator Liz Meriwether are clearly trying something different: a portrait of an eccentric as the lively center of a series,” writes Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker. “In another, less imaginative show, Deschanel’s Jess would be the wacky sidekick, the comedy-boosting help for the glammier star of the sitcom.” There is truth to this idea of sidekick-becoming-star, but why is wackiness enough to qualify a character as great? Jess spins her eccentric wheels constantly, but … so what? She is a two-dimensional illusion of a three-dimensional person. Shouldn’t the great characters have a bit more depth?
Much of what’s trying about the character of Jess can apply equally to Deschanel—who has called the character a “perfect fit”—in her public, off-screen life. (I won’t comment on her personal life because, well, I don’t know her.) In interviews, she seems programmed to talk and behave exclusively as an adorable oddball. The New York profile describes her replying to a journalist who asks her about her cuteness by covering her ears because that’s what “my mom told me [to do] when I get compliments.” She plays the ukulele and is apparently learning circus tumbling. In an April appearance on Craig Ferguson’s late-night show, she talked about why she doesn’t consider Scotland a part of Europe (because it’s an island, more or less) and the challenges of mini-golf, and she played the harmonica. On HelloGiggles, she regularly posts videos of herself looking doe-eyed at the camera while performing retro karaoke for adoring fans. (To be fair, she has a lovely voice, which she features in the indie-pop duo She & Him. Their music, while nothing earth-shattering, is much more interesting and honest than Deschanel’s acting.) Also on HelloGiggles, Deschanel recently posted a doodle she drew of a robot that gardens. “He rolls around and finds all of those cherry tomato bushes you planted and kohlrabi seed rows you forgot about and actually cultivates them.”
TO BE SURE, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being weird: with singing spontaneously, wearing fake teeth for fun, or dreaming up robots. Quite the opposite, I say more power to those who embrace their eccentricities (and I would include myself in the spontaneous singing camp). What I am saying is that charming quirks don’t add up to a whole person. Being oneself, something fans of Deschanel and “New Girl” praise both the actress and the show for doing, doesn’t just mean being comfortably zany. To suggest otherwise is to diminish the complexity that actually makes people interesting. Those who disagree with my take will doubtless charge that I’m being too hard on Deschanel and her new show. Deschanel is an actress—so why does it matter what figure she cuts? And “New Girl” is a sitcom, which is not exactly the standard-bearer of deep, interesting characters—so what can we really expect from it?
With regard to Deschanel, I would argue that her persona not only wears thin very quickly, but her contentedness to present herself as so funky and thus harmless makes the actress herself seem vapid and bland. I suspect that she is neither, so I am troubled by the idea that she would be comfortable having her sharpness blunted—as both a woman and an artist. With regard to “New Girl,” it’s worth comparing Jess to Tina Fey’s character on the show “30 Rock.” Fey’s Liz Lemon is another quirky oddball, but she’s defined by much more than eccentricities—by her smarts, her career, and her relationships, for instance. With Jess, in contrast, we know little about her life outside of her breakup, apartment, roommates (all of which are new) and, most importantly, her kooky behavior. It doesn’t much matter why she loves being a teacher (her job, we’re told, which involves bringing home lots of popsicle sticks), or what she thinks about things other than, say, bubbles and unicorns (she loves them, of course). And heaven forbid we learn what she really hates—perhaps cheating boyfriends, although it’s not clear she thinks her ex is really such a bad guy.
The only moment of real depth I’ve witnessed on the show thus far has been when Jess gives heartfelt dating advice to one of her new roommates; his ex has been leading him on, prompting him to drink heavily and bemoan his life, and Jess, also recently single, steps in with genuine compassion. “She shouldn’t have been flirting with you all night. You can’t be her backup plan,” she says, without the affected cadence or awkward verbal tics she uses in the rest of the show. I would like to see this sort of moment multiply. Given the “adorkable” frame fastened securely around “New Girl” and Deschanel herself, I fear substance will never take precedence over the merits of a personalized Chicken Dance.
Seyward Darby is a former online editor of The New Republic and a freelance writer living in Connecticut.