|Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs in 2 Broke Girls; Zooey Deschanel in New Girl. Photos courtesy of poptower.com and ew.com.|
2 Broke Girls and New Girl, which both had their premieres this week, are two very different shows featuring female protagonists. One is shot in the decidedly un-hip multi-camera format, complete with laugh track, while the other takes advantage of the single-camera style that distinguishes shows like 30 Rock and Community. One airs on CBS, which is widely regarded as a network that caters to middle-aged people with a focus on procedurals, while the other airs on FOX, a network that prides itself on being the home of Family Guy. And one of these shows is trying to present a different portrayal of women as independent, smart, foul-mouthed and tough even in their vulnerability, while the other trades in tired cliches and substitutes quirks for actual personality. Oddly enough, the clever, transgressive one is CBS' new multi-camera sitcom 2 Broke Girls. The other one is FOX's New Girl.
2 Broke Girls is the story of Max (the phenomenal Kat Dennings), a tough, streetwise waitress, and Caroline (Beth Behrs), a trust-fund baby who loses her fortune to her father's ponzi scheme and ends up waiting tables with Max. The description may sound unoriginal - it certainly did to me when I first heard about the show - but the somewhat clunky premise is redeemed by writing that is mostly sharp and outstanding performances by the two lead actresses, as well as a fairly realistic portrayal of a social class that doesn't often show up on television.
The great thing about 2 Broke Girls is the way that the writers, Dennings and Behrs refuse to let Max and Caroline slide into cliche. Yes, Max may be a sardonic, streetwise chick, but she is also able to drop her prejudices long enough to see that Caroline really needs her help. Her dialogue is sometimes overwrought - a few too many casual uses of the word "vagina" come off as desperate rather than hip, and an unfortunate pun about Coldplay nearly derails a magnificent takedown of some hipsters - but Dennings imbues the character with a likability that complements, rather than contradicting, her smart sarcasm. It's also nice to see Dennings - a real woman with a real woman's body - playing a character for whom body type is a complete non-issue.
Caroline's character is slightly more schizophrenic, although this seems to be the fault of the writing rather than Behrs' sharp, nuanced performance. Caroline starts the hour as a stereotypical, Paris Hilton-type rich girl who has never worked a day in her life, but Behrs imbues the character with a shrewdness and intelligence that belies this initial impression and makes you believe that yes, this character probably did attend the Wharton School of Business. By the end of the episode, Caroline has demonstrated that, while she isn't the most street-smart person in the world (which she obviously wouldn't be) she is far from the vapid heirhead that the earlier scenes made her out to be. Similarly, Max and Caroline become friends by the end of the episode, and while their playful mockery of each other continues, it's clear that they like and respect each other.
The supporting cast, however, never makes it out of the realm of stereotype. It's only the first episode, and things could easily change for the better, but the parade of cliches in the supporting cast is baffling, particularly when compared to the well-rounded leads. In particular, the Park Avenue matron for whom Max nannies during the day is so one-dimensional that her lines made me wince.
Along with its two immensely talented leads, the most impressive part of 2 Broke Girls is the honest but not depressing way the show portrays the life of the working poor. Max and Caroline aren't the cast of Friends, living in spacious apartments and dining out every night - they're both working menial jobs (Max works two of them) and living paycheck to paycheck. The reality of their situation is all too prevalent, given the current state of economy, but it's also a reality that is only rarely seen on TV, and hardly ever in a half-hour sitcom.
New Girl, on the other hand, has hardly a shred of reality to call its own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - 30 Rock and Community are hardly realistic, and they're two of the funniest shows on TV - but the show really needs something to ground it, particularly since none of the characters are anything more than a collection of quirks. While watching Zooey Deschanel's over-the-top, "adorable" antics, I found myself thinking of a line from the excellent Doctor Who episode "Amy's Choice:" "If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk factory." Well, not only has Deschanel's Jess opened the factory, she's produced enough product for a lifetime of sales.
I'm not a Zooey Deschanel hater. I enjoyed her performances in Elf and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and I didn't even hate her that much in (500) Days of Summer. The difference between her roles in those films and her role in New Girl, however, is that in those roles she was actually playing a character. New Girl's Jess, however, isn't a character; she's a collection of eccentricities and insecurities that never coheres into an actual human being. When your character's defining trait is cutely singing at random moments, it might be time to evaluate your performance. Not to mention that Deschanel is trying to so hard to be adorable and quirky that it's exhausting to watch. Dial it down a notch, Zooey; stop and take a breath once and a while.
None of the other characters are really any better. The three guys that Jess moves in with after a nasty break-up are barely sketched caricatures - the sadsack, the jock, and the douchebag. Of these three, the sadsack, who goes by the name of Nick (Jake M. Johnson) is the most relatable, largely because he is the only character who doesn't exist solely for the purpose of being funny. Nick's conversation with an ex-girlfriend outside a party is one of a few moments that seems to be grounded in any kind of reality, and it's a nice break from the forced cutesiness that plagues the rest of the episode. Of the other two guys, Max Greenfield's Schmidt spends most of the episode taking his shirt off at random moments and being forced to put money in a "douchebag jar," while Damon Wayans Jr.'s Coach was written off the show after the pilot episode, and is thus completely irrelevant.
New Girl will probably stick around for a while, based on a confounding number of good reviews and the love that many critics and viewers have for Deschanel. I'm hoping that 2 Broke Girls also manages to stick around long enough to iron out the kinks and present the honest, funny portrayal of female friendship and financial worries that is waiting to get out. I personally hope that New Girl sticks around long enough to do a crossover episode with 2 Broke Girls, because I would love to see what Max would have to say about Jess' hipster glasses and general lack of self-awareness, not to mention her complete lack of common sense. I bet that even Caroline could come up with a few choice words.