Zooey Deschanel is too adorkable in ‘New Girl’

Aleksander Chan

Fox’s new hit comedy “New Girl” is weird. The show, centered on a woman (Zooey Deschanel) who moves in with a trio of single guys she found on Craigslist and created by Liz Meriwether (“No Strings Attached”), has a shaggy comedy sensibility to it. It’s quirky and offbeat and loves itself wholeheartedly for it. It’s like an indie film, but one that’s middling and difficult to like.

The new girl in question is Jess (Deschanel), who comes home early one day to find her boyfriend with another woman. Hurt, she leaves him and takes up with a group of guys who have the camaraderie of a buddy comedy: the sensitive slacker Nick (Jake Johnson), the superficial pretty boy Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and wiseguy Winston (Lamorne Morris) come together for great scenes of male friendship. They’re full of ribbing jokes and have an easiness to them that feels genuine.

Together they make a three-person straight man for the oddball Jess, who sings-narrates through scenes, breaks into uncoordinated dances and speaks in stilted, infantilized speech. Their interactions are growing more winsome with each episode, even if Jess’ antics are becoming more intolerable; one episode was about her overcoming her inability to say “penis.”

It all comes down to its divisive star, Zooey Deschanel, whose image as a manic, pixie-dream girl is taken for full force: Jess is like the dorky, yet impossibly hip little sister of a Disney princess. Whether you find her ratcheted sense of twee endearing or insufferable, it does not make up for Jess’ inhuman, cartoonish characterization. Jess behaves so bizarrely sometimes, she seems unreal.

Deschanel herself is a puzzle here, because it’s difficult to parse just what she’s aiming for with her performance: Is she cleverly playing up a fictionalized, audience-projection version of herself, or is she just using her spacey demeanor and bright, expressive eyes to phone it in? You could just as easily argue that it’s this inexactness in her performance that makes it a failure.

At the same time, “New Girl” flirts with the edges of some fascinating pop-psychology. The joke would normally be that Jess’ moving in with total strangers is risky because they might turn out to be crazy; here, it’s the opposite, and she’s made to be the loony one. It would be something clever of “New Girl” to sketch a comedy about how women entering male-dominated spaces are conveyed as unknowable freaks, but the show lacks any sort of strong focus that those insights seem more like coincidence. It also makes Jess’ strangeness all the more alienating.

“New Girl” may not be a creative success, but its ratings upswing could ironically pave the way for future shows with its indie auteur styling and a better grip on themselves to see the light of day. The show is early into its run and could find its way. Right now, it’s too “adorkable” for its own good.

Printed on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 as: Zooey Deschanel plays spacey 'New Girl' on Fox