New Girl ends its seven-season run tonight. Although this eight-episode final season has bordered on schmaltzy and unnecessary — the show’s writers didn’t know if it would get renewed, so the season six finale was conclusive enough to have gone either way — it’s been a treat to have the gang back together once more. We’re going to miss curmudgeonly Nick, klutzy Jess, and emotionally unhinged Winston, but perhaps we will miss Jewish poster boy and lover of chutney, Schmidt, most of all.
In the pilot of New Girl, which aired in 2011, Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) needs a new apartment after catching her live-in boyfriend cheating on her. She shows up to interview at an LA loft, thinking the roommates will be women because the Craigslist ad included adjectives like “sun-soaked” and “beige-y.” But these, we learn, are just Schmidt-isms.
Schmidt, perfectly played by Max Greenfield, is a Jewish former fat kid, the self-described “top dog” of the apartment who is anything but: By day, he’s emasculated at an all-women-but-him marketing firm, and he exercises an OCD-like control over the cleanliness of the apartment. The best joke in the pilot, and one that becomes a running joke throughout the series, is the Douchebag Jar, which Schmidt must deposit a dollar into every time he says or does something douchey — like, for instance, taking his shirt off upon meeting Jess.
Schmidt does, indeed, possess many douchey qualities: He pronounces chutney like “chut-uh-nee;” he wears kimonos and driving moccasins; he only agrees to let Jess move in because she mentions that her best friend, Cece, is a model. Schmidt’s greatest flaw as a character at the beginning of the show is his somewhat stereotypical predisposition to objectify women, a byproduct of being a formerly overweight teenager who now has a good job and a nice body.
What saves him is his good heart. Over the course of the show, his evolving friendship with Jess allows him to see women as people, too (one that is almost threatened when he attempts to kiss her later in season one, leading to a $50 jar fee). Schmidt exhibits his ability to move beyond superficiality when, in season three, he chooses to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth, who he dated when he was overweight, and who is not a size four, over his former dream girl, Cece. And his relationships with Nick and Winston are tender and loving, maybe more so than any other male friendships in a contemporary network sitcom. He is mushy in his adoration for them, and Schmidt’s constant goading of Nick to show him more physical affection is one of the cutest and most heart-warming ongoing plot points of the show. (An entirely different think-piece could be written about New Girl’s important portrayal of hetero male love and affection, but I digress.)
Aside from the shedding of his low-key sexism, Schmidt differs from the other characters in that he has remained consistent from the start. Perhaps this is a testament to Greenfield (a Westchester Jew himself; his bar mitzvah was SNL-themed), who seemed to know exactly who Schmidt was from the minute he began playing him, in all of his neuroses and douchebaggery. Schmidt never sheds his OCD-level control over the apartment, nor his fastidiousness over his appearance, nor the most important aspect of his identity: his Jewishness.
The other characters become more dynamic, weirder versions of themselves as the show evolves: Jess becomes less of a manic-pixie prototype and more of an actual woman, embracing her sexuality and rising in the ranks of public school administration; grumpy bartender Nick, Jess’ obvious love interest when the show begins, gets weirder, nursing his love of writing Zombie novels and becoming “best friends” with a mute man he meets on a park bench; Winston, who replaced Coach when Damon Wayans, Jr. returned to a different sitcom, Happy Endings, evolved from token black friend to cat-loving weirdo with a giant heart.
But Schmidt’s identity never changes. His Jewishness, from the start of the show, is always prideful. He peppers his language with Yiddish, posts a heavily edited video of himself on his JDate profile, and proclaims an unabashed love for kosher yogurt. Any time there’s a less-than-complimentary allusion towards his Jewishness, he’s quick to call it out. Case-in-point: in last week’s episode, he worries about Cece getting pregnant again because her anger towards him when her hormones were coursing “could only be described as anti-Semitic” (thus follows a flashback of pregnant Cece in bed, eating take-out and yelling to Schmidt: “Gefilte-face! Quit playing where’s my foreskin and get in here and rub my feet before I divorce your yenta-loving Ashkenazi ass!”).
The Jewish jokes on New Girl have always been in-jokes, sometimes self-deprecating or bordering on offensive — the writers’ room is filled with Jews, Jake Johnson (who plays Nick) has a Jewish dad (birth name: Mark Jake Johnson Weinberger), and Deschanel herself recently converted — but the character of Schmidt is there to diffuse any stereotype of the self-hating Jew. He may have hang-ups about his appearance and scars from being a former fat kid and from having a dad who left him, but this aspect of his identity persists unabashedly.
There’s something quietly revolutionary about Schmidt’s proud Jewishness. It’s a far cry from prototypically Jewish sitcoms of the past, like Seinfeld, where the unease of a being a Jew in America permeated the entire show’s oeuvre. Schmidt may often be anxious, but the show makes it clear that his neuroticism persists in spite of his Judaism, not because of it. We will miss Greenfield’s portrayal of one of the best — and proudest — Jewish characters on television.