Fox is trying to inject a little testosterone into its Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Last year, women were the public faces of Fox’s prime-time Tuesdays: Elizabeth Meriwether created the Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl; and Mindy Kaling is the creator and star of her namesake show, The Mindy Project.
But after Fox’s ratings dropped 18% in the key 18-to-49 demographic last year, they decided to green-light shows that would “balance out” the lineup.
The new additions, Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, are both clearly targeted at young men. The Dads pilot (brought to you by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane) features two video-game developers persuading a female employee to wear a revealing costume to a client meeting. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, starring Andy Samberg as a detective, throws former NFL player Terry Crews — who has previously starred in action movies like The Expendables — into its cast. Both comedies have been dubbed “edgy” in hopes of pulling in the male demographic. (Reviews are in: Dads has been almost universally assailed as being racist and sexist — and not funny — while critics have been much kinder to Brooklyn Nine-Nine.)
But did Fox really need to add two hypermasculine shows on Tuesday night? Why not actively court a male audience for the shows it already had? While I won’t argue that men can be enlisted to watch The Mindy Project (which is a little girly even for my tastes, with its constant references to rom-coms and celebrity gossip), I think Fox can easily find male fans for New Girl.
Because here’s the big secret: New Girl — despite its girly title — isn’t actually about girls. It’s a show about three guys who happen to have a girl roommate. The show addresses just as many “male” issues as it does “female” ones.
Perhaps men can’t relate to the panic that ensues when a 30-something woman hears from her doctor that she has less time to have kids than expected, as Jess’s friend Cece discovers in a Season 2 story line. But in that same episode, Schmidt describes to a gynecologist in hilarious metaphors how he makes love to women in hopes of getting tips from the doctor on how to improve his performance in the bedroom.
Since the show’s premiere in 2011, Meriwether and her writing staff have wisely toned down Jess’s “adorkable” behavior and focused more on the male characters in the show. At this point, Schmidt, Nick and Winston probably get as much individual screen time as Jess — and maybe even more laughs.
But, by Fox’s own devising, New Girl has been heavily marketed to women. Watch any early ad for the show and you might think it’s a half hour of Deschanel singing all the time. (Thankfully, the singing has ceased.) That marketing strategy has done long-term damage to the show’s ability to recruit male viewers.
New Girl has been lumped in with shows that men steer away from, like Girls, rather than shows like Friends, a more accurate comparison. Not that men shouldn’t watch female comedies. If the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, an ensemble show with an overwhelmingly female cast, proved anything this summer, it’s that men will watch shows about women. Make good TV and people will watch.
But that isn’t the way it plays out at Fox. According to Nielsen, Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine drew 5.8 million and 6.2 million viewers, respectively, during their Sept. 17 premieres. An equal number of men and women watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine, while Dads, shockingly, brought in more women than men despite being — or perhaps because it was — panned by critics. New Girl, on the other hand, had far more female viewers than male — 3.3 million compared with 2.2 million.
Meriwether has expressed her frustrations with New Girl being categorized as a girly TV show in an interview with Salon.
“Half our writing staff is guys; the show has three amazing guy characters. Just because it has the word girl in it, it has forever been branded as a girl show. I never thought of it that way; I always thought of it as an ensemble comedy … I do wish more guys felt like they could watch it. There’s marketing and everything else, and for one reason or another, there was a sense that it was not a show for them, and I think it is.”
So while similar shows with gender-neutral names, like Parks and Recreation — a comedy ensemble featuring a female lead who espouses a feminist agenda — attract an equal number of male and female viewers, New Girl is doomed to the girly column because of its title and Fox’s marketing scheme.
But maybe there’s hope. On a recent trip to visit my boyfriend, I found his (male) roommate marathon watching New Girl on Netflix. He had started watching the show when a girl at school showed it to him. At first, he was hesitant; he thought she might be talking about Girls, but once he watched, he was hooked. “Initially, there was a little doubt in my mind. But it’s actually more ‘bro’ than you would think,” he told me. “I find the banter between the guys hilarious.”
“And I guess the girls are attractive on the show as well,” he added. “That doesn’t hurt.”
So maybe the Nielsen ratings aren’t so accurate after all, and guys are just now coming to the show through streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
It’s a good sign that Fox reportedly plans to air an episode of New Girl after the Super Bowl this year, suggesting that the network hasn’t given up on the idea of courting a potential male audience. Who knows? There may be a future time in which guys won’t have to erase the show from their DVRs before their buddies come over and catch them watching a “girly” show.