New Girl’s relationship with race had a pretty rough beginning. In the Fox comedy’s pilot, Damon Wayans, Jr. played Coach, a personal trainer with a fondness for yelling. But in episode two, Coach mysteriously “moved to Santa Monica” and was replaced by another black guy, Winston (Lamorne Morris), who had just returned from a basketball career in Latvia. There was a legitimate excuse for Coach’s departure, of course: Wayans’ show Happy Endings got renewed, not canceled as expected, and he was contractually banned from further appearances on New Girl. Contract woes affect the television universe all the time, forcing characters to come and go (I still miss Henry Ian Cusick from Scandal’s first season), but this black-guy swap felt like New Girl‘s creators were trying to pull one over on us. A show many people were dismissing as twee and contrived wasn’t off to a great start.
But then, some interesting things started to happen. The turning point came in the Season 2 episode “Cabin” — the one where Schmidt (Max Greenfield) worries he and the other roommates aren’t “allowing” Winston to be “his blackest self.” Winston, taking advantage of Schmidt’s racist ignorance, waxes poetic about his days in the ‘hood smoking crack with his enormous, poor family. In a game of chicken that goes too far (as all of Winston’s pranks do), the two end up in the projects in search of crack cocaine. They invite a suspicious-acting black man into the car who initially thinks they need directions, then worries Winston and Schmidt want to rob him. A comedic mishap ensues when he reaches for his wallet, they think he’s reaching for his gun, and everyone is terrified… until they realize what’s actually happening, laugh it off, and cordially shake hands. Back at the loft, Winston lectures Schmidt about his denseness, telling him, “Being black means whatever I want it to mean.”
Some viewers accused this episode of allowing New Girl to “get away with racism,” but that’s completely missing the point. Just because a character (Schmidt) is racist doesn’t mean the entire show is promoting racism. This misreading recalls the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, in which the writer became the target of a fatwa because people couldn’t understand that creating a despicable character doesn’t mean the creator shares those despicable opinions himself. We’re meant to laugh, yes, but also to be kind of disgusted at Schmidt’s stupidity.
Winston constantly bucks racial (and gender) stereotypes — from not being that great at sports (the other characters call his hands “shrimp forks” because he can’t palm a basketball), to being a fantastic babysitter, to winning a girl back by hanging out with her and her friends on Girls’ Night. And when he and his girlfriend Shelby break up, it’s not because he can’t resist cheating — they just lose the spark.
In fact, Winston loves sex as much as the next human, but by no means is he controlled by desire. He takes a turn in Season 3 as a veritable cat gentleman, adopting and becoming obsessed with his feline, Ferguson. Then, in “The Captain,” Winston gets so wrapped up in his mission to get Ferguson laid before his neutering, he fails to realize the attractive woman in his apartment actually wanted to go out with him and had no interest in pimping out her own cat (… obviously).
Because Winston is so strange, his storylines stand out and become extra memorable. When Ferguson first comes to the loft, it’s because Winston is cat-sitting for a girlfriend (Brenda Song) he’s just realized is cheating on him. Throughout the episode, he tries to murder the cat for revenge, but his plans keep getting foiled. Finally, he stands up for himself, breaks up with the girl, and keeps Ferguson.
New Girl was making strides, or at least steps, with Winston alone — his outlandish storylines and neurotic issues became the ones to look forward to, especially with Jess and Nick’s stable relationship reaching a painfully boring stage, and Schmidt and Cece’s tired dance seemingly put to rest.
Then, midway through Season 3, Coach returned to the show, and the elephant that had been lingering in the room for two-and-a-half years finally walked out. Instead of a show that casually swaps out tokens, New Girl has become a primetime comedy with two prominent black characters. And now Coach is bucking stereotypes, too, but without being a Winston clone. He’s decidedly more of a confident alpha male, but even his machismo wavers. He gets so nervous on a date with Cece that he’s unable to talk to her without adopting a sleazy, player persona, then texts his mom for advice. He cries about being dumped by an ex. In a recent episode, he and Winston compete to see who can make a better birthday cake for Jess (lacking an apron of his own, Winston tapes one together out of printer paper). Coach constantly adopts a silly falsetto voice in the middle of conversations, which, like a blaring siren, reminds viewers to pay attention to him.
New Girl’s treatment of race is far from perfect. Winston needs more storylines specifically focused on his personal growth and mishaps — especially since he’s the wackiest and most intriguing character on a show that otherwise might be losing some steam. Outside the realms of sports and women, we still don’t really know much about Coach, either, so it would behoove the writers to make him more dynamic. And there isn’t space here to begin discussing the way the show exoticizes Cece. But for now, it’s worth recognizing that New Girl has made considerable strides since Season 1, breaking out of its own expected box, and chipping away at others in the process.