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Reaching New Heights: How Growth Improves Sitcoms

by Jenna Sundel

I have watched “New Girl” 15 times from start to finish.

I nearly had a heart attack two weeks ago when it was pulled off of Netflix. Don’t worry, I’m better now. It’s on Hulu.

For anyone who has not seen it yet, “New Girl” is about a quirky teacher named Jessica Day or Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who moves in with three guys after finding out that her boyfriend of six years cheated on her.

For seven incredible seasons, this show delivered laugh after laugh and its legacy lives on to this day.

“New Girl” quickly became my comfort show for a multitude of reasons, but one of the main ones is the well-executed character development that ultimately makes the show even better.

I know the knee-jerk reaction, especially Avery Nixon‘s, is to say that shows get worse when the characters are no longer the chaotic people we know and love. “Parks and Recreation,” I’m a big fan, but I’m looking at you. However, “New Girl” proves that characters can grow and still be entertaining.

Let’s start with my occasionally problematic fave, Schmidt (Max Greenfield). At the beginning of the series, Schmidt is the womanizer of the group, known for making offensive jokes and avoiding commitment at all costs. While early Schmidt is funny, he is also incredibly cringeworthy at times and you just wish you could shake some sense into him.

His lowest point comes in season three when he tries to date two women at once. He handles it terribly and refuses to take accountability for his actions. I do not claim this Schmidt at all, and if he had remained this way throughout the series, he would not be my favorite sitcom character of all time.

The character arc he undergoes completely redeems this character for me. By season seven he settles down and becomes a stay-at-home dad. The scenes where he is interacting with his daughter, Ruth, are a highlight of the final season. Greenfield shines comedically toward the end of the show’s run and he could not have gotten there without a positive trajectory.

The benefits of character development can also be seen through Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess. They start dating for the first time in season three after a slow buildup throughout the first two seasons.

While many fans were eagerly waiting for Nick and Jess to get together, they hypocritically turned on the writers once season three started. People complained that it ruined the show, then complained some more when the writers broke Nick and Jess up later in the season.

From my point of view, Nick and Jess were inevitably going to get together. I also believe that they would inevitably break up. Was it a little rushed? Yes, but both characters were not in a space to commit to one another forever just yet.

Jess was very rigid throughout their time together, demanding Nick open a bank account and pushing him to express an interest in settling down and having children.

While not unreasonable requests, Jess goes about it all wrong, which she admits in season five. After several failed relationships, Jess realizes that even the “perfect” guy isn’t perfect and that you need to be patient with the people you love.

Nick also needed to grow up, gain some ambition and believe in himself.

He is fairly childish in his relationship with Jess, but if you look beneath the surface, it comes from a place of insecurity, not complacency. He puts in the work during his time away from Jess, becoming part-owner of a bar and a published author. He expresses a desire to grow up and finally believes that he can do it for the first time in his life.

When they finally get back together, the viewer can take comfort in knowing that both Nick and Jess put in the work to resolve their past issues and their relationship is stronger than ever.

Finally, let’s examine America’s favorite goofball, Winston Bishop (Lamorne Morris). Winston starts out as an ex-basketball player who has no idea what he wants to do with his life. He works a variety of odd jobs until he finds his passion: law enforcement.

As Winston finds himself career-wise, he also begins to embrace his wacky personality, from being a cat dad to pulling pranks. These integral pieces of his personality are built up throughout the show and the payoff in the final season is so satisfying. He is even able to find someone who loves and understands him for who he is, after many seasons of trying to conceal his personality to find love.

I am a very regimented start-to-finish binge-watcher and I hate skipping around, but I firmly believe that many standout episodes in the final seasons can be watched independently. Many of these are actually plot-heavy episodes, like “Clean Break” in season four, “Five Stars for Beezus” in season six and “Engram Pattersky” in season seven.

On the flip side, the later seasons also have plenty of comedic triumphs, including “Road Trip” and “A Chill Day In” in season five, “Jaipur Aviv” and “James Wonder” in season six and “Tuesday Meeting” in season seven.

“New Girl” shows characters can grow and change and still have zany adventures because that’s how life truly is. Part of why “New Girl” is so realistic is that it does not expect too much from its characters, but it never allows them to stagnate.

I understand that the job of a TV writer is difficult.

It’s impossible to know whether a show will make it past season one, or if it will still be going strong at season 10. I also know that the easiest thing to do is to keep the characters in one spot to preserve comedic quality, but there’s something to be said for a beautifully executed character arc. Watching your favorite characters overcome adversity and change for the better is the sincerest form of comfort.

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