Last year, I turned thirty with great trepidation. Turning twenty or twenty-one is one thing, because in ten years, you’ll still be young; but when you turn thirty, there’s no more youth to look forward to, just old age and the yawning abyss beyond. Turning thirty is an epochal event because you’ve definitively and irreversibly transitioned into adulthood, and people expect all sorts of things from you, especially in India: you should be settled in a cushy job, you should be married or planning to get married, and so on. Women in India, as always, face even more expectations; by the time they’re thirty, they’re expected to already be married and have a babe or two on each arm.
Even popular sitcoms like Friends or How I Met Your Mother promote this notion by showing their characters achieving success in their thirties after various experiments and ups and downs in their twenties. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) from Friends goes from being a coffee shop waitress to a successful executive in a fashion company. Ted (Josh Radnor) from HIMYM designs an entire building in New York. Shows like these put a lot of pressure on their viewers, so it is refreshing to occasionally encounter a show that goes in the opposite direction and reassures you that no, you’re not a loser if you’re not a hotshot in your thirties. One such show is Fox’s New Girl (2011–2018).
New Girl debuted in 2011 with (at the time) indie film darling Zooey Deschanel as the titular new girl who moves into a loft flat in Los Angeles with three other guys after she catches her boyfriend cheating on her. The show started as a Friends rip-off for the millennial generation, with a sprinkling of Deschanel’s signature quirkiness to keep things fresh. Indeed, the earliest episodes rip off Friends almost directly, with one plot line depicting Jess (Deschanel) walking in on Nick (Jake Johnson) naked, similar to how Chandler (Matthew Perry) walked in on Rachel in an episode of Friends. However, as time went on, the show started to drift away from being a vehicle for Deschanel to a true ensemble comedy with a cast of characters who were often living cartoons.
There’s Schmidt (Max Greenfield), the formerly fat and currently buff douchebag, who overenunciates every second word and is ordered by his friends to put a dollar in the ‘Douchebag Jar’ every time he says something like “Have you seen my sharkskin laptop sleeve?” or (in reference to his abs) “This is LLS: Ladies love Schmitt“. Winston (Lamorne Morris), meanwhile, is introduced as a failed basketball player with no idea what to do with his life before evolving into a puzzle-loving, cat-owning, prank-playing lunatic police officer. And then there’s Nick.
Among all the characters, Nick’s journey is the most interesting. Because God forbid that a show not have a will-they-won’t-they relationship arc, Nick falls in love with Jess the moment he sets eyes on her. However, the two don’t get together until the third season, which is to the show’s advantage because this allows Nick to develop into a fully realized character over the course of two seasons. Although all the characters are thirty-something when New Girl begins, Nick has the unique distinction of mentally being a petulant eight-year-old and an irascible sixty-year-old at the same time. He works as a barman in a pub even though he’s a qualified lawyer. The show initially hints that Nick is just too lazy to put in the hard work that a lawyer’s profession requires, but as time goes on we learn that Nick’s motivation for being a barman goes much deeper.
In ‘Clavado En Un Bar’, Nick reveals that he passed the Bar exam and was qualified to practise law, but he only gave the exam in the first place because he wanted to know he could do it. “I actually like working in a bar“, he says, and no further explanation is given for his career choice. His friends simply accept that this is what Nick wants to do with his life, at least for now. It’s a refreshing take on life expectations in your thirties. So many people are obsessed with earning titles and fat paycheques that they work their hindquarters off in their twenties and end up being too jaded or exhausted to enjoy these ‘rewards’ in their thirties. Nick, however, is perfectly content earning less money in return for doing a job he loves and that he’s quite good at.
In ‘Eggs’, we learn that Nick wrote a detective novel that he never finished. He is mocked mercilessly by his friends for calling himself a writer, and Winston correctly informs Nick that he’s “not a finisher. You don’t finish things.” Nick realises that Winston is right and is determined to finish writing the novel in a twenty-four-hour marathon session. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he actually manages the feat. Predictably, Winston finds the novel to be “the worst thing I’ve ever read“, but he’s proud of Nick for finishing something at last. Nick catches the writing bug and decides to become a serious writer. More important, his realisation that he is indeed not a ‘finisher’ motivates him to take the initiative for once, proving that even in his thirties, he can change and grow as a person.
In ‘Mars Landing’, widely considered one of the show’s best episodes, Nick and Jess (by now a couple) break up after they realise they want different things in life. After a long of partying, Nick and Jess have to get ready to attend a friend’s baby shower, but Nick still hasn’t assembled the gift that Jess bought weeks ago. What starts as an argument escalates into a fight before turning into a frank and open discussion about the state of Nick and Jess’s relationship. Jess confesses that she wants Nick to be the kind of partner who has his life together, and Nick is smart enough and candid enough to know and admit that he does not. Even more candidly, he says that he’s never going to be the “guy who’s gonna put the toy together… I’m the kind of guy who’s gonna leave it in the box.” Nick’s attitude flies in the face of the established notion that people should grow in certain socially acceptable ways to be considered successful in life. Nick does want to grow, but he wants to do it on his on terms—this is again a perspective that we rarely get to see in any medium.
By the end of the series, Nick does grow and find success on his terms. He ends up co-owning the very bar he works at, which gives him enough free time to develop his writing skills. Eventually, he publishes two detective novels. In keeping with the show’s message that financial and career advancement are not true measures of success, Nick does not become a millionaire rockstar author. He remains a moderately successful small-business owner with a few books to his credit. And while he does end up marrying Jess, their romance is not depicted as the ultimate triumph of a manic pixie dream girl over a man child; instead, the two learn to reconcile their differences and simply absorb and live with their individual quirks and habits, again reinforcing the show’s perspective that there’s no template for successful relationships, just as there isn’t one for a successful life.
And did I mention that Nick is also probably the show’s funniest character? His mixture of childish and elderly tendencies means that he acts like a raging, seething lunatic at the best of times, like in this scene where he accidentally walks into a couple of helium balloons:
In another scene, after a PMSing Jess threatens to “kick the testicles clean off” the boys’ bodies if they cross her, promising that “you’ll look like Ken dolls down there“, Nick complains it’s not fair that women get a free ticket to be irrationally angry once a month. Jess responds that Nick is irrationally angry three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, and we immediately cut to Nick yelling “I hate doors!” after a ‘pull’ door refuses to be ‘pushed’ open:
And for good measure, here’s another scene where, after Schmidt threats to break Jess and Nick up, the two quickly go over the things that are likely to annoy them about each other (Nick thinks that the moon landing was faked, and Jess votes for the Green Party [cue Nick: ‘Grr, that makes me so angry!]):
New Girl is neither a pathbreaking nor genre-defining show; it started as a zany sitcom about thirty-somethings in a big city and largely remained so for its entire run. However, the show is culturally significant in its own way because, in the post-Great Recession era, it was probably the first sitcom to depict older adults who were not very successful in their careers or lives and were mostly just trying to get by. Nick epitomises the generation that came of age in the sobering 2000s, when the unbridled consumerism and capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s led to war and destruction, first materially and then economically, leaving him and his brethren to pick up the pieces. However, as Nick’s journey shows, so long as they remain true to themselves, they still have hope.