This is the kind of thing history teachers think of when they can’t go back to sleep in the middle of the night.
New Girl, I’m reasonably sure, is a kind of Wizard of Oz for the Millennial Generation. Zooey Deschanel is less Judy Garland and more Audrey Hepburn on runaway roller skates, but I think there’s something to this.
Early on in the series, Jess loses her Kansas, her emotional home, and one reason why this teacher loves this show is that it’s the middle-school classroom. When she’s pink-slipped, it’s as if the tornado has come and carried off the Gayle farmhouse. The series, which had its moments of wonderful zaniness but was a little uneven, really began to take off at this point, when, on announcing her firing, Jess’s vice principal, in a wickedly poignant comment on the status of American teachers, tries to soften the blow by letting her choose two items from the goodie box she keeps in her office. (One of them is a miniature top hat, the other a goofy pair of glasses. Dorothy was made to wear green-tinted glasses on her visit to the Emerald City in Baum’s novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
If you accept that premise, which I’m not forcing on you—all of this is voluntary—then Jess’s three male roommates fall into place. Nick, the law-school dropout/bartender, is insistent, despite multiple emotional inhibitions, that he is a Wild Man; in one episode, to capture his Hemingway Persona as a potential novelist, he goes to the zoo—since big-game hunting in Kilimanjaro’s shadow isn’t affordable on a bartender’s budget—and gets hammered. As he does consistently, Nick succeeds only in making a fool of himself, because, in reality, like most of us, he is thoroughly conventional (like Edgar Lee Masters’ George Gray in Spoon River Anthology: “… Like a boat longing for the sea/Yet afraid … ”). He’s our Cowardly Lion, even though the parallel with the film doesn’t hold here because, in the television series, it’s with Nick that Jess strikes the most emotional sparks, and Garland’s Dorothy is closest to the Scarecrow. But, like the lion in both the book and in Bert Lahr’s wonderful film portrayal, Nick will always come through for Jess when she needs it. Underneath his posturing and discomfort with living in his own skin, Nick is bedrock. He’s a good human being.
The breakout character in the series may be the second roommate, Schmidt. I think he’s the Tin Woodsman, and Schmidt, despite his Schmidtness, is also a good human being; he and Nick have a history that goes back to high school, when the now-svelte and self-diagnosed Love Machine Schmidt was Morbidly Obese Schmidt. This character is completely self-absorbed, totally insensitive to others, yet so incredibly earnest that he’s as guileless as a troop of Campfire Girls on the first day of Cookie Season. In a recent episode, for example, in a sincere attempt to help Winston connect with his “blackness,” Schmidt accepted Winston’s mock dare to go down to the Projects and buy some crack cocaine (what Winston really wanted was frozen yogurt). Like the Tin Woodsman, Schmidt’s deepest desire is love; the original character had his Heart all along, and Schmidt has true love all along, as well, in the character of the lovely model and friend-of-Jess, Cece. Cece and Schmidt had a torrid affair, which they broke off, but both also know, instinctively, what they at least want to be: in love with each other. (Cece, who thinks she’s bad, really isn’t. Potential witch parallels here.)
The final roommate, Winston, ended his basketball career in Latvia, ended a long relationship with the emotionally lukewarm Shelby, and has launched a new career as a late-shift host of a call-in sports talk show; you imagine Winston’s show has about five listeners, four of them long-haul truck drivers. So far, he’s the least-developed of the character in the show. Winston has formidable Scarecrow possibilities: Like his counterpart in Baum, it’s Winston who’s often the voice of reason who can talk either Nick or Schmidt (less successfully with Schmidt) down from some emotional, romantic, or career-path cliff over which they’re about to leap. But, like Ray Bolger’s rubber-legged scarecrow, wonderfully uninhibited by a human skeleton, Winston can launch himself into delightful little bits of anarchy; in one episode, Nick makes him a fruity rum cocktail with an umbrella, the kind of drink Winston has an unhappy history with, and Winston, singing squeaky snatches of R&B in the middle of a crowded party, and to no one in particular, becomes as charmingly goofy as Ray Bolger did when trying to get his legs underneath him on the Yellow Brick Road.
There are those who say—and I’m not sure I agree with them, either—that Oz wasn’t just a children’s book, but an extended allegory grounded in the American Populist movement of the late 19th Century. L. Frank Baum, a Midwesterner, may have shared the frustration of American farmers who were, along with industrial workers, being left far behind the wake of the Panic of 1893—second perhaps only to the Great Depression in its severity—and the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor that typified the American economy both then and now.
The Populist movement—they would nominate William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896, but would make significant, if temporary gains, in state legislatures and governorships—had as its cornerstone bimetallism: the idea that the United States should base its currency on both gold and silver. This would dramatically increase the money supply, which would in turn inflate farm prices and, even more important, give farmers cheap money with which they could pay off their debts, now heavy because of the cost of mechanization. In Baum’s allegory, then, the Gold Standard is represented by the Yellow Brick Road; the Emerald City is colored the same color as paper currency—greenbacks—and, in Baum’s version, Dorothy Gayle’s slippers were silver, not ruby.
Jess and her roommates are adrift in a strange land, too: Post-Bush, Great Recession America is very much like the America of Baum’s time: There is an enormous gap between rich and poor, an even more brutal disproportionality of power, an unnerving surplus of Flying Monkeys—the Tea Party and the NRA being just two examples—and the people we’ve left to pick up the pieces are the Millennials like those in New Girl: They’re quirky and flawed, and each character in his or her own way is more than a little bit lost. Because they’re so lost, they’re also all charmingly unaware of their true identities and maybe more than a little afraid of actually finding their true destinies. Yet all of them—Jess, Nick, Schmidt, Cece, and Winston—are graced with an innate decency whose highest expression is their devotion to each other, and that’s a redemption at least as sweet as Dorothy coming home at last.
Jim Gregory is a Baby Boomer and a history teacher at Arroyo Grande High School. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Jim Gregory - History teacher, Arroyo Grande High School