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Television reviews: 'New Girl,' 'Unforgettable'

Zooey Deschanel's charm along with sharp writing make Fox's "New Girl" something special, while CBS' "Unforgettable" with Poppy Montgomery proves anything but that in the pilot episode.

September 20, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Max Greenfield, right, and Zooey Deschanel star in the Fox sitcom "New Girl."
Max Greenfield, right, and Zooey Deschanel star in the Fox sitcom "New… (Isabella Vosmikova / Fox )

Tuesday night, two actresses use their considerable talents to freshen up a pair of shows drawn from the "tried-and-true" pile of network programming, one with much more success than the other.

Zooey Deschanel joins sister Emily ("Bones") on the Fox lot, starring in Elizabeth Meriwether's "New Girl," a roommate comedy with a surprisingly satisfying twist.

After an ugly breakup, Jess (Deschanel) decides she's tired of being the dorky duckling in a bevy of swans — her roommate Cece (Hannah Simone) is a model, all her friends are models — and moves in with a trio of men who take her because, well, her former roommate is a model and all her friends are models. While this might seem counterintuitive — if she's tired of feeling odd and unattractive then moving in with men might not be the first thing a girl would consider doing — that's just Jess, and it's as good a way as any to set up the Pygmalion meets "Friends" dynamics that Meriwether is going for.

The men are disparate, and desperate, versions of your Modern Comedy Guy — Nick (Jake M. Johnson), a heartbroken bartender; Schmidt (Max Greenfield), a suit-wearing self-imagined player; and Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), a personal trainer with communications issues. (Don't get too fond of Coach, though; he will be replaced by the basketball-playing Winston [Lamorne Morris] in the second episode because Wayans returned to "Happy Endings" when it was unexpectedly renewed.) They don't talk so much as banter, but with a level of self-awareness — make an overly testosterone-fueled remark and you must put a dollar in the "douche jar" — that shines bright amid the fug of male cluelessness that hangs over so many comedies these days.

But Jess is the keystone of the show and Deschanel, with her impossibly blue eyes peeking out from behind her horn rims and up from under unkempt bangs, fills her with the charming and willful childishness usually reserved for characters played by male comedians — Will Ferrell in "Elf," Adam Sandler in, well, just about anything. Deschanel's essential sexiness is impossible to eradicate, but she uses all its elements — the eyes, that voice, those curves — to fine comedic effect, playing dorky the way Judy Holliday, Carole Lombard or even Lucille Ball played dumb.

Which is to say, with the occasional sensual growl and knowing twinkle in her eye, letting everyone know that Jess is in on the joke. Like the men around her, she has a level of self-awareness that belies her often clumsy actions, which makes their little experiment in gender studies much more intriguing than a simple "male friends help dowdy girl become a Real Woman" plot line.

Viewers will come to see Deschanel but they'll stay for the whole package because smart writing, confident timing and characters that are both familiar yet surprisingly fresh make "New Girl" the most promising comedy, and one of the most promising shows, of the season.

If only the same could be said of the new crime drama "Unforgettable" on CBS. As terrific as it is to see "Without a Trace's" Poppy Montgomery back in action, her timing is not great. Coming in at the tail end of the "detective with something special" that is currently in vogue, Montgomery got gypped.

As former detective Carrie Wells, her special power is her memory — she literally cannot forget anything she's seen, heard or experienced. Except, apparently, the murder of her older sister when the two were children. This one forgotten day is what drove her to, and from, the police force. Then, after witnessing a murder, she is drawn back in when her ex-partner (and former lover) Det. Al Burns (Dylan Walsh) arrives on the scene. He knows what Carrie is capable of and soon we are watching as she revisits the scenes of her memory, teasing out clues from the shadows of her own mental downloads.

Based on a J. Robert Lennon story called "The Rememberer," it isn't the worst conceit every imagined. But it isn't the best either, and what with all those con men/novelists/lie experts/anthropologists out there using their specialized skills to solve crimes, "Unforgettable" creators Ed Redlich and John Bellucci will need more than a rare disorder to separate itself from the pack.

The dead little sister is haunting, but Montgomery is not. Carrie is sad to the point of mopey; she takes no joy in her talent nor does it torture her, as one imagines it would. She, like Walsh, is solid, but she needs to be driven, by something, by anything. Even their romantic chemistry is flat; they treat each other more like siblings than old flames.

Unfortunately, if you name a show "Unforgettable" you really need to deliver, and the pilot just doesn't.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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