Critic's Notebook: Megan Fox Smoothly Steps In for Zooey Deschanel on 'New Girl'

New Girl S05E06 Megan Fox Still - H 2016
Ray Mickshaw/FOX

New Girl S05E06 Megan Fox Still - H 2016

When New Girl premiered, every promo was "adorkable" this and "Zooey Deschanel" that, and the main character's new roommates were so interchangeable that parts played by Damon Wayans Jr. and Lamorne Morris were swapped out in the early episodes with only minimal discourse. When the show evolved, as central as Jess often continued to be, her integrality to the storylines became so tenuous that when Deschanel became pregnant, rather than trimming the order to only the episodes its star would be able to film, the writers contrived a few episodes in which Jess was bed-ridden or standing behind things and then stuck her on a lengthy sequestered jury trial. 
Such is the state of New Girl that the absence of its title character has had essentially no impact on the series. 
It isn't that the writers have found ways to make Nick, Winston, Schmidt and Cece into the core of the story. Rather, New Girl has continued along the path it began when the Nick-Jess relationship, all that anybody wanted to buzz about in the early-going, went from "will-they/won't-they" to "they did" to "they really shouldn't have" between the third and fourth seasons. With nothing ever replacing the Nick-Jess dynamic, New Girl has become a show without a center, which doesn't detract from the amusement that the adroit goofballs on the fringes provide, but it has turned a once terrific show into an erratic meshing of interchangeable parts, none actually contributing to structural integrity.
The ultimate test or proof of New Girl's hollow center comes this week with the arrival of Megan Fox, as a character who isn't exactly taking over for Jess — but she's moving into Jess' vacated bedroom, dealing with the strangeness of suddenly living with a trio of men she's never met before and generating sparks with Nick, so if you can suss out the dramatic purpose she's serving that's different from the one Jess initially served, you're a wise person.
Jess' absence began two episodes ago, and the impact has been entirely contrived rather than generic. One week, Nick decided he needed extra money for Schmidt's bachelor party and began leasing out the room in the loft, and Fred Armisen was around for a half-hour. The next week, Nick's cousins arrived in need of his sperm, and whether or not they actually crashed in Jess' room, they filled the seven to nine minutes Jess' A-story probably would have filled. Winston and Cece, never characters prone to interaction, have been spending a lot of time together, mostly because Cece was a character who only had scenes with Jess and Schmidt and is finally, after four-plus seasons, discovering that she bickers with Nick and can relate to Winnie the Bish as almost a girlfriend. Jess has sometimes been mentioned, but she seems as unmissed as Coach, which makes it feel absurd when the characters pay lip service to Jess' importance. In one episode, they read a lot of nurturing/sanity-enhancing notes that Jess left for them, even though Jess hasn't really filled that role in years. In another episode, they go and yell at Jess' silhouette in the window of whatever hotel she's holed up in, even though the shadow was presumably played by a stand-in.
Since Jess wasn't doing anything important when she was featured at the end of last season or this season -- her job and her occasional relationships are fungible to the extreme -- little has changed other than Winston joining Cece in her wedding dress shopping, a task that once upon a time Jess would have found a way to participate in regardless of isolation. No storylines have been put on hold. Nobody has truly been adrift without Jess. Imagine a first- or second-season episode of New Girl functioning without Deschanel. You can't. Now it's a shrug. New Girl can still get laughs from an esoteric pronunciation or cadence from Max Greenfield, a slightly manic Jake Johnson improv or line reading, Morris' gung-ho enthusiasm with whatever personality oddity Winston has been assigned this week, or Hannah Simone's underrated reactions to the above, but all of those tics are disconnected from whatever those characters do for work or outside friends or significant others they might have. New Girl is often just talented people yelling at each other in a desperate attempt to find humor.
Fox enters this rarely connected chaos, and the absolutely kindest thing I can say is that she's been given something resembling a real character, and the show becomes neither better nor worse with her presence. Fox's Reagan is a pharma girl with a varied romantic past, but even though it's universally acknowledged that she's attractive, she doesn't get a slo-mo, wind machine-aided intro set to an '80s hair rock anthem, which may be the most restraint ever exhibited on a network sitcom. She's also given a semi-romantic backstory with Cece -- five people will notice it's the same storyline Mom did last week with Allison Janney and Rosie O'Donnell -- but that past isn't played for prurient titillation, but rather to showcase Schmidt's insecurity, which may be the second-biggest amount of restraint ever exhibited on a network sitcom. And adding to the restraint, nobody has costumed Reagan like a newly arrived bombshell. Reagan and Fox aren't being treated like the stunt-casting Jess fill-in that they are, and I guess that's admirable.
And it shouldn't be surprising that Fox slides into this world without any difficulty. She cut her teeth in multi-cam on ABC's Hope & Faith, she wasn't out of place delivering Diablo Cody's quippiest dialogue in Jennifer's Body, and she hit her punch lines in This Is 40. No matter how much money she's made acting opposite robots, turtles and Shia LaBeouf, Fox's New Girl purpose isn't as straight-woman to the regular hijinks, nor to be condescended to as a "good sport" brunt of comedy. When she's given good dialogue, Fox is funny, and her character has an accurate and reductive perspective on how predictable the flatmates have become that the writers would be wise to heed. She doesn't have much chemistry with Johnson, but giving Nick new flailing to do also yields some amusement. 
Fox isn't distracting, for good or for ill. The show wouldn't benefit, obviously, from Fox coming in and throwing off timing or interfering with character dynamics, but once the writers determined she wouldn't be a speed bump for Schmidt and Cece, the show ceased to have any dynamics that could be harmed. But the show also wouldn't benefit from Fox coming in and being such a fantastic change of pace that casual fans were rooting for her to replace Deschanel permanently. She's living in the loft for no good reason, but she's already said she's only in town for a month. Nick is flirting with her, but nobody's likely to feel drawn to this as a relationship. When the Fox arc is completed and Deschanel is ready to return, the show will be intact.
If you're a big fan of New Girl as it currently stands, this is a best-case scenario. Chances are good that fans who think New Girl was top-notch last season and the start of this season don't like Deschanel/Jess all that much anyway, and they would rather have a show in which Nick and Schmidt plot different businesses each week and Winston admits to a new phobia or obsession each episode and nothing actually happens.
If you remember the second New Girl season fondly and still watch for the characters but miss caring about what those characters are doing, you know that in order for the show to return to its heights, there have to be stakes greater than an upcoming wedding involving a character whose first name has never been revealed. If your show is called New Girl, the removal of that new girl should matter somehow; the good news for Megan Fox and the bad news for the show is that it doesn't.
New Girl airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.