Smart, pretty and talented, Zooey Deschanel spent much of the past decade charming audiences with a parade of “quirky girlfriend” movie roles (interspersed with an unfortunate turn in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening).
But her days serving as droll eye candy opposite Will Ferrell (Elf), Jim Carrey (Yes Man) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer) come to an end when she moves front and center to star in witty Fox sitcom New Girl.
The nerd-out-of-water comedy, debuting Tuesday, casts the doe-eyed Deschanel as recently dumped Los Angeles slacker Jess who moves in with three guys. It’s a fairly familiar set-up, but instead of coarse sex farce — Four’s Company anyone? — New Girl floats along, bouyed by sharp writing.
Urged to hit the bars, know-it-all Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield) offers to be her guide. Deschanel replies, “Like Gandalf through Middle-earth?” and is promptly skewered. “OK first thing let’s take the Lord of the Rings references and put them in a deep dark cave where nobody’s going to find them ever,” he says.
Best of all, Deschanel shows off heretofore unexploited gifts as a physical comedienne. Flashing back to her traumatic betrayal, for example, Jess surprises her boyfriend with a strip tease. Instead of going for a cheap thrill, Deschanel plays the scene in hilariously clumsy fashion.
Likewise, Jess’ post-breakup obsession with Dirty Dancing baffles her new roommates, and show creator Liz Meriwether mines a rich lode of comedic gold from the disconnect between the trio of no-nonsense males and Deschanel’s flibbertigibbet interloper.
As one of several female-driven series debuting this fall, including Kat Denning’s promising 2 Broke Girls sitcom for CBS, New Girl marks a fresh take on the tried and true by daring to let its smart lead look genuinely dopey.
In the pilot episode, Deschanel belts sappy ballad “The Time of My Life” many times, and badly, but in real life, the 31-year-old actress takes her singing seriously as half of critically acclaimed retro-pop duo She & Him.
Given her showbiz pedigree, Deschanel could have taken the “cool-kids-now-grown-up” route by soft-pedaling her character’s clumsy ways. Instead, she ditches the sarcasm to play New Girl as an over-the-top emotional mess who can’t carry a tune.
It’s a smart choice for Deschanel. Her Jess may not be hip, but she sure is funny.
New Girl debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m./8 p.m. Central on Fox.