With each successive installment in the 100-plus-episode run of the Fox sitcom New Girl, the show's title has become increasingly inaccurate. Sure, when the pilot introduced the new girl Jess (played by Zooey Deschanel), she was actually new — both to the audience and her three roommates. But by the very next episode, she wasn't even the new one anymore; one of her roommates had already bolted, and an even newer roommate took his place. True, for four episodes this season, Jess left, temporarily replaced by an actual new girl, briefly making the show's title accurate once again. But now that new girl is gone, and Jess, our old "new girl," has returned.
If that summary made your head spin, you've approximated the experience of tracing New Girl from its premiere in 2011 to the quietly impressive five-season veteran it's become. New Girl hasn't just weathered the instability of its central cast; it has thrived on it. That's especially true this season, which has replaced the stale retreads of the disappointing fourth season and re-established the show as one of TV's funniest comedies.
What's made this season so terrific? The brutally tight network production schedule forces the show's staff to construct episodes that reflect their manic, likely overworked state, which suits the show's capable cast. The negligible long-term plot developments let the writers focus on putting funny lines in their characters' mouths without worrying about those pesky long-term repercussions on the narrative. Perhaps most importantly, the show has reinvented itself several times over, and with each iteration, the show emerged refreshed.
New Girl's first reinvention occurred at the earliest possible moment: between the pilot and the second episode. In the pilot, Damon Wayans Jr.'s character Coach was the best defined of the three roommates. But Wayans' other sitcom, Happy Endings, earned a surprise renewal from ABC after Wayans shot his New Girl scenes, which meant he had to exit after just one episode. Instead of recasting the role and reshooting portions of the pilot — as countless network shows have done in the past — New Girl forged ahead, explaining away Coach's unceremonious exit with a few lines of dialogue in episode two before replacing him with Winston (played by Lamorne Morris). The optics of replacing one black cast member with another were less than ideal, but Winston quickly proved a worthy and idiosyncratic addition to the show's ensemble.
The first half of New Girl's first season committed wholeheartedly to the idea of Jess as the center around which the show's other characters orbited. But when it became clear to creator Liz Meriwether that Jess' antics alone couldn't generate enough material to fill a season, she slowly fleshed out the other roommates' plot lines, transforming them from foils into full-fledged human beings. As the actors grew more comfortable with their characters and each other, the storytelling potential exploded. The escalating courtship of Jess and her roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) and the barbed flirtations of Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Cece (Hannah Simone) offered great ways to explore these characters' unique foibles and insecurities.
The height of the show's shift into rom-com territory came during the second season, when Nick and Jess finally consummated their long-simmering attraction — a storyline that highlighted Johnson's rakish charms. But the series quickly ran aground. As with many TV couples before them, Nick and Jess turned out to be less charismatic and compelling as a couple than they were as friends. So Meriwether and her team ended the relationship, restoring Nick and Jess to their ideal state — sparring roommates with abundant sexual chemistry.
At this point, New Girl fell into a bit of a rut, having played out the string of its central couple. Coach returned, proving a slightly awkward fit after his long absence, and eventually left again. It was beginning to look like the show had run out of ways to generate comedy from the fairly thin premise of three or four guys and one girl sharing a loft in Los Angeles.
But as it had already done several times before, New Girl recaptured its mojo yet again by embracing the possibilities of an unexpected complication. Late in production on season four, Deschanel became pregnant. The show's production team and the network decided to produce three season five episodes immediately after wrapping season four, followed by several episodes without Jess, whose absence was explained as sequestration for a month-long jury duty. Taking Jess' place was Reagan, the no-nonsense pharmaceutical representative played by Megan Fox.
This idea sounded terrible at first. Though Fox had played comedic roles before, her leaden performances in blockbusters like Transformers offered no confidence that she could fill Deschanel's shoes. But surprisingly, Fox's episodes were among the show's most satisfying in ages. The ensemble cast seemed to come alive at the prospect of the new character's fresh, unbiased perspective on the existing characters, and Fox proved admirably game for the hijinks that define quintessential New Girl episodes. Once again, the series turned a potential hurdle — the kind that would totally derail other network sitcoms — into an opportunity to improve.
New Girl began with a gimmick, and even the most durable sitcom premises eventually wear thin. But New Girl should serve as an inspiration to its fellow network sitcoms by proving that behind-the-scenes complications can be a hidden opportunity to let a show's full range of assets shine. Five seasons deep, New Girl knows exactly what it is: a series that isn't afraid to change.