A recent debate held by Intelligence Squared argued a motion called “Millenials Don’t Stand a Chance.” In it, the usual charges were lobbed at millennials—defined by the debate as Americans born between the years 1980 and 1999, which seemed an awfully wide gap to me, but they’re the experts—charges such as Millenials are shiftless, Millenials don’t know what they want, Millenials are apathetic, Millenials lack a sense of morality or ethics, Millenials are irresponsible. Unsurprisingly, the team arguing for the motion weren’t millenials themselves—they were members of Generation X and the Baby Boom, respectively—and seemed to suggest that millenials had absorbed every negative trait from their preceding generations but none of the positive ones. We are as detached as Gen X and as broke as the Silent Generation; we are as self-absorbed as the Baby Boomers, and find ourselves in just as dismal global circumstances as the Greatest Generation did. The debaters against the motion, both actual millenials, argued that in fact we’re not given credit for the things we do best, because the things we do best are things that previous generations don’t value. Sure, a huge number of us still live with our parents, but that’s because we’re more conscious of going into debt by paying needless rent costs. Sure, few of us own cars, but that’s because we’re more environmentally conscious than previous generations, and more often opt to bike or take public transportation. Sure, few of us attend church, but that’s because most of us disapprove of the church’s stance on social issues like gay rights and abortion, not because we’re lacking in moral fabric.
It was a great debate, and you really were rooting for those millenials to pull it off for the home team. Our generation is made cruel sport of by the elder ones, if not baselessly then at least hypocritically (Baby Boomers calling us, or anyone else, self-absorbed is too literally incredible to even entertain). But ultimately the motion passed: it turns out that the audience believed that Millenials Do Not in fact Stand a Chance, and I spent a few weeks angry at the results, vehemently disagreeing.
Then I watched two straight seasons of New Girl this past week.
I’m a late-comer to the party, I know (is ‘party’ the right word?). True confession is that I’ve never really seen the draw of Zooey Deschanel. She seems like a nice enough person, so I think it might just come down to the fact that if my own sensibilities and her sensibilities met at a party, they’d have little to talk about. Mine would be on a couch, drinking a whiskey and asking people questions about themselves. Hers would be doing a tap dance in the middle of the room and wearing a miniature plastic hat and a hula skirt. I was never a huge fan of 500 Days of Summer, largely because the lesson of that movie seemed to be that Tom was supposed to recapture what he had with Summer, only with someone who actually loves him back—when I think the real lesson is that it’s fucking lame to love a girl because she runs around Ikea with you and vaguely recognizes a Smiths song on your headset.
Still though, enough people that I like and respect have told me they enjoy the show, and Jake Johnson’s performance in Drinking Buddies was more than enough to convince me to at the very least give it a try. And I finally got a Netflix account. It seemed churlish not to check it out.
The thing that strikes you immediately about New Girl is what a complete manifestation it is of the above complaints about millenials. This is a show of, for, and by our generation, except unlike Girls, for instance, New Girl doesn’t send our generation up for being shiftless and narcissistic—it revels in those qualities. Indeed, the entire premise of the show is that Jess (Deschanel) has been dumped by her boyfriend and moves in with three guys who I would say still act like children if I thought children were completely devoid of basic human social skills. The people she moves in with are romantic interest Nick (Johnson), token Jewish friend Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and token black friend Winston (Lamorne Morris). The plot more or less ends there.
It’s tough to say whether the theme here—that a group of friends hanging out in an apartment serves as a surrogate family for otherwise lonely people—is a case of Art Imitating Art or Art Imitating Life. As was correctly stated in the aforementioned debate, millenials do in fact spend a large portion of their lives unmarried, without houses or cars or steady jobs, and so it’s easy to suggest that perhaps Fox is simply reining in this new demographic by reflecting who they (the demographic) are. At the same time, though, you can’t help but wonder whether a lot of our generation is like this because of the Seinfeld-, Frasier-, and especially Friendsification of our culture in the nineties; we were all but told that the ideal life is one wherein you essentially never leave college and just live with your friends for the rest of your life.
Sitcoms—whether New Girl itself or the shows of the ‘90’s—are not entirely at fault for pushing this sensibility. The sitcom by definition sort of insists on characters who live like this. The most profitable age group to both watch and star in a show is 18-35 year olds (says Nielsen), and unless the sitcom in question is a workplace sitcom—like The Office, say, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show—you’re going to have to make your characters do little more than hang out all the time. And unless you want every single scene of your show to take place between five and, like, ten at night, you need to make these same characters jobless and shiftless to get any kind of narrative momentum going.
That said, though, New Girl is insidious in ways that aren’t merely attributable to its sitcom format. It panders to millenials in shameless ways. For one, it insists on an attitude of “realness”: while the dialogue isn’t improvised, Arrested Development-style, the characters are always talking over each other as though they are improvising. And their speech is likewise studded with the mumblecoreish tics of um’s and uh’s.
Nick: I, I came up with, um, an idea for a screenplay. Did- did I tell you that?
Jess’s Dad: No. No. What’s it about?
Nick: It’s like, it’s like vampires, and they can fight, like, they can fight each other, but, um, they’re also in love—
Jess’s Dad: So it’s like Twiligh—
Nick: It’s—no! It’s not like Twilight!
These feels-like-improv-even-though-they’re-not snippets of dialogue would be merely irritating if they weren’t also coupled with the fact that the show is so slickly produced and every inch a product. Like Friends before it, everyone on this show looks like a model (Cece, Jess’s best friend, literally is a model)—but again, at least Friends never pretended to be anything besides setup-punch line corporate branding (“Must See TV!”). New Girl, like its protagonist, pretends to be shy and awkward and unassuming when in reality, like its protagonist, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and only affects that persona to draw people in.
New Girl also panders to its millennial viewers by evidently agreeing that living in a loft and having food fights is not only a passable lifestyle but a desirable one. The conflict of the series is not that Jess’s life was on track before the pilot and now she’s found herself regressing into the safety of a bachelor pad; conflict doesn’t even exist in this show. Jess has found her happy ending in episode one, because all of the guys already love her, and she them. Sometimes the characters sleep together, but even when that happens they are at first inarticulate and then nonchalant, happy to stay together, or happy to break up (and continue living in the same apartment!) without incident.
And if you love Zooey Deschanel, well, that’s fine for you, but then at least love her for her business savvy (she also executive produces the show) or her sense of humor (she was great hosting SNL) or even for her actual acting chops, when she feels like baring them (check out All the Real Girls)—please don’t love her for her quirkiness. It’s about as genuine as Miley Cyrus’s rebellion, micromanaged personality that borders on caricature, and when the actress and the character meet—when, for instance, Jess tries to be a shot girl at Nick’s bar and instead dresses like a ‘40’s cigarette girl, it’s grating (she’s made fun of for not dressing sexy enough, but we’re quite obviously supposed to get that Jess is way cool and vintage—she owns a cigarette girl outfit!—because she looks so much better than the actual slutty shot girl, played by Parker Posey).
Are we shiftless? Narcissistic? Broke? Devoid of traditional morals? Yes, to all of the above. But as the millenials in that debate correctly argued, some of those attributes have surprising directions to go; as Lena Dunham argues in every episode of Girls, our self-awareness of those attributes allows us to outgrow them. New Girl, in that light, is actually kind of dangerous. It’s not the opiate of the masses, but it’s certainly the opiate of a very important demographic that urgently needs not opiates, but stimulants.