I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, I really fell in love with New Girl. Before the show even aired, I had a feeling that I’d be attached to the quirky comedy. I was, after all, a fan of Zooey Deschanel. And then the pilot aired, and I was pleased and I went through the entire first season falling pretty hard for the little sitcom and for its characters and also – a lot – for the Nick/Jess angle of the series. To be truthful, Nick Miller and Jessica Day are the only couple on television recently that I have “shipped” from the pilot. I don’t know exactly what it was, and neither do the creators, but something seemed to click at the bar when Nick and Jess were talking to one another. There was some sort of chemistry between Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel, but the writers and producers – as they admitted recently at Paleyfest – were adamently against putting the two together, romantically. Deschanel insisted: “I mean, really really hard you guys [the producers] fought against the chemistry.” Both Johnson and Deschanel then cracked jokes about how they were forbidden to touch or even look at one another during scenes because of their chemistry.
If you flash forward a season, you’ll realize that the same writers and producers who were so hesitant to even place Nick and Jess in the same scene together are running full-speed ahead with the couple. So what changed? What fundamentally changed the mind of these creators, to the point where they are now more than willing to explore the chemistry and tension between these two characters? I don’t think that anything monumental has changed, really. But there was something very noteworthy that Liz Meriwether recently said at Paleyfest when asked why she chose to put Nick and Jess together now – why she chose to have the couple kiss in “Cooler” rather than drag the wait out until the season finale or (perhaps) even LATER.
“If we’d waited any longer,” Meriwether said, “it was going to start to feel, like, not true - like not what would really happen. I feel like they would have attacked each other a year ago, probably.”
So what Nick and Jess boil down to – what ALL couples who have unresolved tension or chemistry boil down to – is the element of timing. Meriwether and her team admit to not exactly writing their characters or show the “right” way. They admit to flying by the seat of their pants for a lot of things. They don’t KNOW where their couples or characters might end up. They’re certain of a few things, but don’t let those few things necessarily dictate the episodes they write now. They kind of let the relationships and characters and stories form organically, rather than forcing them into a preconceived box of ideas and plans. They fought hard against Nick and Jess for a while before realizing that… well, that isn’t how thse characters would behave. Something had to give, and that something was the idea that the writers could control or contain characters and actors that had intense chemistry.
That’s when Meriwether and her team just let them be and watched what happened.
There’s still a dance that exists between Nick and Jess – neither Deschanel nor Johnson (nor Meriwether nor anyone else on the staff) believe that the two roommates are ready to be together in a functional relationship. They’re messy and broken characters who need to figure some aspects of their lives out (and aspects of their relationship out) before they’re ready to be with one another. But, take notice, because that doesn’t mean the writers and producers sweep the pairing under the rug, wipe their hands, and say: “We’ll deal with it later.”
That, as Meriwether noted above, isn’t quite how life works and it’s a disservice to the characters to pretend otherwise. What I’ve always loved about Nick and Jess and the way that the New Girl writers portray them is that they’re honest and real. Yes, Nick and Jess have had numerous relationships on the show, even though they’ve had this thing sort of building between them for the past year but… that’s kind of how life works. People who are perfect together don’t always get together when they’re “supposed” to. Sometimes it takes a while because, as perfect as they may be together, they’re not always READY for one another. Meriwether and these writers have done a fantastic job at taking a couple of characters that are broken and making us, the audience, realize that somehow when they’re together… they’re a little less broken. Maybe they even fix one another.
And really, that’s what I love about the dynamic of New Girl as a whole. From Nick and Schmidt’s relationship, to the one between Jess and Ce Ce, each of these characters is flawed and imperfect and REAL. Yet somehow, when they’re all together, they fix one another. Slowly, but surely, we saw Jess become a bit less cartoon-ish. We saw Winston become more confident. We saw Schmidt become more grounded. We saw Ce Ce become more certain of who she was. We saw Nick become less curmudgeonly. Jess moving into the loft changed the dynamic for better.
Now Nick and Jess are at a point of no return. They kissed in “Cooler” and in “Table 34” attempted to avoid one another at all costs. When they realized that this was futile (because they live together), Winston encouraged Nick to make amends to Jess by apologizing for their kiss. And Nick takes the opportunity to insist that the kiss meant nothing to him but that it must have meant something to Jess. The woman denies it and believes that Sam is the person for her. When she has to confront her boyfriend about the fact that Nick kissed her, Nick ACTUALLY makes amends. He tells Sam that it was all his fault and that the kiss meant absolutely nothing to Jess. Nevertheless, the damage is done and Jess is left, heartbroken, as Sam dumps her.
Later, in the loft, the woman is sitting and listening to Taylor Swift while Nick is doing his best to cheer her up. After saying the absolute WRONG thing to say (that he was actually pretty thrilled that Sam was threatened by him), he apologizes for kissing Jess, genuinely. Once he sees her crying over her break-up, nothing prideful remains in him. The two part, each to their separate rooms, but not before an awkward embrace.
And it WAS awkward because their relationship has changed. They can’t go back to the way things were, pre-kiss and to assume otherwise is insanity. In “Parking Spot,” they admit this to one another. Both Jess and Nick insist that they need to talk – to figure out a long-term solution, in Jess’ words – about what happened, what it means, and where to go from there. Therein lies the reason that I have a lot of respect of the way that the writers have handled this relationship. They’re not pretending the kiss didn’t happen (though the characters may be), because they realize that life doesn’t quite work that way. They’re not throwing Nick and Jess together because, again, they realize life doesn’t quite work that way. And they’re not dismissing the potential for a relationship entirely.
Because the fact is this: Nick and Jess have a lot of chemistry, a lot of emotions and feelings toward one another, and a lot of complexities preventing them from going from Point A to Point B in their relationship with one another. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t EVER get there. It just means it will take time. And it will be messy. It will be real.
I couldn’t help but contrast the way I feel about the writers of New Girl to the way I feel about the writers of Community in their treatment of Jeff Winger and Annie Edison, especially after listening to Meriwether and her team discuss their show’s relationship at Paleyfest. The quote that I noted above from the creator really resonated with me, especially the bit about how if she didn’t get Nick and Jess together “it wouldn’t feel real.”
I love a lot of things that the Community writers do. I think they are immensely talented, funny, gifted individuals. I think that Dan Harmon was a genius and steered his show in a direction that exemplified growth and development for his characters.
But I think Community writers handle the relationship aspect of the show rather poorly. I won’t say who, but I was talking to someone recently about the difference between how New Girl handles a romantic tension-filled relationship versus how Community handles the Jeff and Annie (equally tension-filled) relationship, and we noted the differences in the creators of the show. Elizabeth Meriwether, this person explained, is not an emotionally repressed human being when it comes to relationships while Harmon… well, Harmon, they explained, rather is.
And don’t get me wrong – I love Dan Harmon. I truly and honestly do. I’ll always be grateful to him for creating a show that I love and cherish. But the way that relationships, in particular the Jeff and Annie relationship, are handled on the series is messy at best and painful at worst. And it’s not the New Girl-style of mess, where characters seem to acknowledge and grow from their relationships. No, it’s rather… well, it’s the kind of mess where characters have chemistry, then act on said chemistry, then back off on said chemistry, then bury said chemistry, then the writers attempt to brush off and bury said chemistry that… shocking… STILL EXISTS.
Joel McHale and Alison Brie have amazing chemistry together. They click, on-screen, much like Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel do. And for a long time, writers and producers of both shows decided to back away from the chemistry. Alison’s character, Annie, was too young for Jeff. She was fresh out of high school and he was an ex-lawyer. They had already set Britta up as his love interest, so they shied away from playing with that fire. As I mentioned earlier, Meriwether and her team did the same. Johnson noted that Meriwether saw the chemistry between himself and Deschanel in the pilot episode while the two were sitting, in their characters, at the bar. She knew there was something there, but wasn’t willing or ready to pursue it.
But then the Community team did something crazy that set an entire shipper fanbase into motion: they made Jeff and Annie kiss. After the now-infamous debate episode, Jeff/Annie shippers emerged pretty strongly. And then, after an entire season of seemingly no movement, Jeff and Annie kissed again in the season finale. But it wasn’t for school or to prove a point – Annie and Jeff kissed because they WANTED to; because there was something there that needed to be explored. (And then, to the shippers’ embitterment – and mine as well, mind you – “Anthropology 101” happened and Jeff insisted the kiss was a mistake and everything basically fell apart from there, including what could have been a beautiful Britta/Annie friendship.)
I know that Community’s primary focus is on the relationship between Jeff and the study group. That will always be the subject of this show – the evolution of Jeff from a sleazy ex-lawyer to a lovable misfit who has learned to grow and change and love other people. And it’s a beautiful story, really, and I don’t want to undercut its significance or importance by insisting that romantic relationships need to be at the forefront. They do not. But… they need to be addressed. They exist. They’re real and complicated, and I think that the Community writers are so afraid of alienating what little fanbase it has by pairing characters together that they presume throwing little Jeff/Britta, Jeff/Annie, Annie/Abed, or Troy/Britta interactions at us every few episodes will somehow keep us satisfied.
(Spoiler alert: it won’t.)
Nick and Jess writers aren’t pandering to their fanbase in the way that they are constructing the relationship between these two characters. Even though 75% of panels and interviews with the cast and crew consist of questions regarding Nick/Jess, if the writers suddenly decided to drop the pairing altogether, I doubt they’d be fearful of losing their audience. They’re confident enough that the ensemble of their show – that the relationship between these roommates and Ce Ce – and its comedy is enough to keep viewers around. So rather than throw us bones – “Oh, look! You like Nick and Jess together? Well… here’s a scene of them being adorable. Hope that satisfies you all!” – without substance, the New Girl writers are taking, what I think, is a pretty heavy risk. They’re essentially acknowledging the fact that these two characters have chemistry, have the potential for a relationship, and they’re trying their hands at writing it the best they know how. It’s not perfect, and the show is not perfect, but it’s REAL. Every Nick and Jess interaction that we have had – especially since The Kiss – has been for a purpose. Nick and Jess being angry at one another and then inadvertently building the strongest table at the Indian marriage convention? That was to exemplify how frustratingly perfect they can be together – and they refuse to acknowledge it, even when the evidence is literally in front of their faces. Nick confessing that he was the reason for The No-Nail Oath? That was to show how long and to the extent that Nick has felt something for Jess. He just couldn’t help himself. Jess running away at the end of “TinFinity”? Well, I think we all know what that scene means.
My point, in this, is to take note of the SIGNIFICANCE behind these “shipper” interactions in terms of character development and Nick/Jess growth. Early on, Meriwether and company had to tell Johnson and Deschanel to tone down their chemistry on set. Rather than a hug at the end of “Injured,” Jess pats Nick’s arm. They simply were not ready to develop the relationship yet.
So then, if writers for Community insist that scenes aren’t meant to be fliratious or tinged with “shipper” moments, why not do the same with McHale and Brie?
I think that my biggest qualm with Jeff/Annie (as they are written) is not that I don’t get moments between them. It’s nice to see the pair interact. It’s sweet to see them flirt with one another. But there’s never any MOVEMENT. These are two grown-up, adult characters. They are capable of making relationship decisions. They are intelligent and independent-minded. They have chemistry and tension and instead of having discussions, instead of figuring out where to head from there… the pair remains stagnant. Nay, this is LESS than remaining stagnant. This is turning a blind eye. The writers have the potential to develop Jeff and Annie into something, either way. They can choose to give their audience moments that further both the individual development of Jeff and Annie as well as their development as a couple. I’m also not making the argument that Jeff and Annie should be together and get married and have babies right now. But what I DO lament is the fact that their relationship – whatever chemistry exists between them – is never explored; it seems to be exploited for the sake of fan involvement and GIFs.
And nothing ever changes or grows for Jeff and Annie.
Instead, when we interpret scenes as romantic, we’re told we are wrong. When we hope that Jeff will admit something about his feelings for Annie TO Annie, we’re told it’d be creepy. But when what we’re seeing on-screen doesn’t correlate with what we’re being told, we’re left in a dizzying state of discontent. What is the alternative, then, to this? Could Community writers develop couples on the show, while still remaining true to the individual characters? Yes. But the writers themselves may need to take a step back from where some of them have been for two or three years and study the characters that entered Greendale against the ones who are soon to be departing. Because (spoiler alert): they’re not the same characters they once were.
What do the New Girl writers and producers have when it comes to developing relationships romantically that the Community writers don’t? A secret formula? A special script? Omnipotent knowledge of how relationships work?
Why Nick and Jess are working and why Jeff and Annie are not boils down to this: what risks are you willing to take for the sake of developing your characters?
For Meriwether and her team, it’s pretty simple. They’re willing to develop Nick and Jess, even if they never end up together, because this relationship cannot be ignored, nor can either party come out of it unchanged. Nick and Jess will grow.
Can we say the same for Jeff and Annie?