Fox and everybody else is overusing the term "adorable" to describe Zooey Deschanel in New Girl (Fox, Sept. 20, 9 p.m.), but then again, she's pretty damn adorable. And that might be the ticket (and the magic) for this mostly romantic comedy. Fox has taken to calling Deschanel "adorkable" -- and that works, too, because she plays a dorky but lovable optimist whose cad of a boyfriend cheats on her and sends her reeling out into the world, needing a new apartment and a lot of coddling/coaching.
Deschanel's Jess is possibly the sweetest and most naive person you'll meet, who loves to sing and see the good in the world. After the split, she moves in with three guys -- two of whom believe it's a terrible idea, but one, Schmidt (Max Greenfield), overrides everyone because Jess' friends are models. Once in the apartment, mopey post-breakup Jess is tutored not only by Schmidt but also by Nick (Jake M. Johnson), who had his own horrible breakup six months ago and is not over it, and Coach (Damon Wayans Jr., who will be replaced in the second episode). Also helping Jess is Cece (Hannah Simone), one of her model friends.
Viewers will want Jess to make it in life because, well, you'd have to be pretty jaded not to. This might seem like a thin premise, but creator Elizabeth Meriwether manages to make the situations funny and lets Deschanel channel her charm -- a winning combination. Although the pilot is centered on Jess watching Dirty Dancing multiple times to get over her split and the guys suffering her existence, there are more than enough laughs and enough potential to wager that future episodes will build on this little world.
Meriwether has a knack for shaking up the phrasing of jokes so they don't feel rote. And she mixes the easier jokes (the guys call Schmidt a "douche" and make him put a dollar in a jar whenever he does anything to confirm this) with more subtle elements. For example, Jess' social awkwardness is endearing when she gets a compliment like, "I like your glasses," and her reply is, "They help me see" -- without dropping an anvil on the line. You really do believe that Jess doesn't understand come-ons or the sordid ideas of men, which is why her new roomies need to help her out.
Like most shows this fall, it's difficult to judge where it is going based on the pilot, so every positive must be accorded an asterisk denoting that the whole thing could go sideways in the next few episodes. But a series like New Girl has that It factor -- Deschanel -- which makes it something to let grow.
One of NBC's comedy entries, Up All Night (Sept. 14, 10 p.m.), could also break out this year. Starring Will Arnett and Christina Applegate as a married couple with a newborn, Night manages to cleverly play on the hardships and joy of a new addition without being so sappy you want to hang yourself. Credit creator and writer Emily Spivey (Parks and Recreation) for getting the tone right, from jokes about the couple finding out they're pregnant ("Stop saying, 'There's a baby in there,' like it's a baby in a closet with a knife") to their astonishment and horror that they now have to care for it. Arnett and Applegate get mileage out of talking about how cute their baby is -- much of it bleeped.
The series also stars Maya Rudolph as Ava, a talk show host who's needy and emotional and wants her producer, Reagan (Applegate), to come back to work. Rudolph and her co-host, Nick Cannon, allow Night to veer away from being just 30 minutes of parenting and baby jokes, but the show is funniest when it focuses there. Arnett plays Chris, a stay-at-home dad trying to handle the situation (getting lost in the supermarket while trying to find cheese is one of his random bits that really works) and maintain his manhood. He is exceptional in this capacity, able to ratchet down the manic absurdism he does so brilliantly and play the comedy at a quieter level. Applegate is also excellent and might have finally found the sitcom that has the writing to showcase her comic timing.
Less successful out of the gate for NBC is Free Agents (Sept. 14, 10:30 p.m.), based on the British series of the same name. It revolves around Alex (Hank Azaria), who just got a divorce he didn't want, and Helen (Kathryn Hahn), whose fiance recently died. The PR firm co-workers share an ill-advised tryst and then try to survive the fallout while their colleagues hound them. It's a workplace comedy and a romantic comedy, minus much of the romance.
Part of the problem is that there's no chemistry between Azaria and Hahn, and the Sappy Dad who misses his kids and cries a lot about his life isn't the best role for Azaria. (He would clearly excel as someone mean and sarcastic but finds himself in these emotional-romantic roles that just aren't believable.)
But despite a pilot that couldn't find a rhythm or sense of place, you wonder whether, like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, it might take four or so episodes to really click. And here's why Agents deserves the benefit of the doubt: It was created by John Enbom (Party Down), is directed and executive produced by Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) and has a cast of funny actors including Al Madrigal (The Daily Show) and Anthony Head (Little Britain, Manchild and the U.K. version of Agents), plus Natasha Leggero and Joe Lo Truglio, who could really flesh out the concept.
This fall is full of shows just like this -- shows with potential but uncertain futures. Another case in point: CBS' promising 2 Broke Girls (Sept. 19, 9:30 p.m.), which stars the wonderful Kat Dennings as divey-restaurant waitress Max Black, who tolerates no nonsense, and Beth Behrs, who plays Caroline Channing, daughter of a Bernie Madoff-type father whose arrest and frozen assets have put Upper East Sider Beth into the workforce as a waitress and eventual roommate to the diametrically opposed Max. Broke Girls, created by Whitney Cummings (who has her own decidedly less funny sitcom, Whitney, over at NBC) and Michael Patrick King, has enough of the kind of jokes that work in the CBS-standard sitcom format, so it's worth endorsing. But it still has its troubling minuses. Chief among them is a racist portrayal of Korean restaurant owner Han Lee, whose pidgin English is an easy crutch that CBS brass should have noted and changed. (He also changes his name to Bryce to appear more American, setting up Bryce Lee/Bruce Lee jokes that make you groan.) There also are a number of too-easy sex jokes (including a sex-stained waitress outfit that prompts Behrs' character to say, "I hope that's clam chowder").
It could be that, like a lot of sitcom pilots, Broke Girls is trying too hard. But when the jokes work, they're funny, so there's hope.