Midway through the premiere episode of the new FOX sitcom "New Girl," the show's heroine Jess (Zooey Deschanel) tries to counsel new roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) about a bad break-up. She tells Nick that living with regret isn't good for anyone, and Nick - who, like his other two roommates, has struggled to adjust to Jess's many quirks since she moved in - retorts, "Or I could pretend to be more like you, Jess, and live on a sparkly rainbow and drive a unicorn around and just sing all the time."
With "New Girl," which debuts tonight at 9, there is no middle ground. You either want to live on a sparkly rainbow and drive a unicorn with Zooey Deschanel, or you find her insufferably twee and cringe every time she starts singing her own theme song or dropping "Lord of the Rings" references.
Me, I've been a Deschanel fan going back to one of her first roles, as the hero's sister in "Almost Famous," and especially since she dueted with Will Ferrell on "Baby It's Cold Outside" in "Elf." (I discussed her film and music career with her in an interview back in the summer.) So I'm all in on "New Girl." It's the best new comedy of the fall season, and the only new show I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish, rather than having to squint real hard and try to picture what it might look like once the producers figure out what to do with their stars.
In this case, "New Girl" creator Liz Meriwether and pilot director Jake Kasdan know from the start exactly what to do with Deschanel. She randomly sings, but always to herself, and never in a way designed to show off Deschanel's side job as half of the pop duo She & Him. She pulls off a good range of physical comedy and makes fun of herself with ease. Jess, having just endured her own mortifying break-up, spends large chunks of each day sobbing as she watches "Dirty Dancing," and even the silly moment where Jess puts on a little black dress and the roommates are shocked - shocked! - to realize that she's very attractive gets neatly undercut by Jess busting out an impressively goofy dance routine. Much as I hate ubiquitous advertising for new TV shows, it feels like the only proper word to describe Deschanel in this show is the one that's on all the billboards: adorkable.
It's a wonderful comic performance in a role that's constructed equally out of Deschanel's screen persona and Meriwether's personal history. (Like Jess, Merwether wears oversized dark-rimmed glasses and had some roommate misadventures thanks to Craigslist ads.)
It's also, for the moment, the vast majority of the appeal behind "New Girl." The three actors playing the roommates - Johnson as Nick, Max Greenfield as penitent d-bag Schmidt(*) and Damon Wayans Jr.(**) as macho physical trainer Coach - all bounce nicely off of Deschanel. But the moments where she's not around - particularly quick-cut glimpses of each guy in his life outside the apartment - tend to fall flat.
(*) The smartest idea the show has outside of everything involving Deschanel is that the other guys keep a glass jar in the apartment, and every time Schmidt says or does anything that crosses the d-bag threshold, he has to put a dollar in it. Without the jar, he's a cartoon and a character who's already become a sitcom cliche; with the jar (which Schmidt never objects to), he's just self-aware and apologetic enough to be amusing.
(**) Wayans was cast in the role on the assumption that ABC wouldn't renew "Happy Endings." But "Happy Endings" is coming back, and rather than reshoot a pilot everyone was happy with, producers elected to air it as is, replacing Wayans in the second episode with Lamorne Morris as a new character. As FOX couldn't make that second episode available, I have no idea how or if the chemistry might be affected as a result of the switch.
But getting the supporting characters to stand on their own seems a very minor problem in the grand scheme of things. In a season where almost every other rookie comedy is a work in progress at best, and most of them can't even be said to have the potential to be good one day, "New Girl" has mastered the most important part of the game. It has a funny, likable central character and an actress perfectly cast to play her...
...assuming, that is, you're pre-disposed to liking Zooey Deschanel. But if thoughts of her give you hives, just turn the other way and keep going. It'll be okay.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: Because FOX has made the pilot legally available through a variety of online means over the last few weeks, some discussion of its content in the comments is acceptable. If you're waiting to watch it tonight on TV, read at your own risk.