As I was watching last night’s New Girl, which contained the highly-anticipated return of Damon Wayans Jr. as one of the original members of the loft crew, one thing kept popping into my mind:
“This isn’t the Coach that I remember.”
A similar thought crossed my mind when I watched Wayans’ Happy Endings co-star, Adam Pally, playing the bro-tastic OB-GYN Peter Prentice on New Girl’s FOX schedule-mate, The Mindy Project. Only, the thought is something like this: “Why is Peter not as funny as Max?”, Max being Pally’s Kramer-esque role on the canceled ABC sitcom.
Unfortunately, watching both of them on FOX’s Tuesday night comedy bloc makes me wish they were both still being funny on Happy Endings, where it seemed like their talents were put to better use.
It almost never happens that a character like Coach, who moved out of the New Girl loft after the pilot because Wayans was committed to Happy Endings after it got an unexpected second season pickup, sticks in the minds of a show’s fans. Mainly, it’s because when something like that happens, the role either gets cut out of the pilot or gets recast (The Millers, for instance, replaced Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Michael Rappaport with Jayma Mays and — of all people — Nathan Franklin).
But even from the audition phase, Wayans embodied the super-aggressive Coach so well that the producers decided to create a whole new role — Winston (Lamorne Morris) — and simply say Coach moved out, rather than reshoot the pilot, as creator Elizabeth Meriwether told The New York Times. “The thought of reshooting the pilot with someone else, after we felt like we exhausted everybody in town, was so daunting,” she said.
And Wayans was memorable as Coach. To this day, I still remember laughing at Wayans’ inappropriate yelling and super-macho behavior. But when you think back to the pilot, how much screen time did Coach get? Maybe 7 minutes out of 22? As well-developed as Coach was in that small amount of time — Morris’ character took more than two seasons to reach the same point — there was still a lot of room to get to know what was poised to be a funny breakout character.
That version of New Girl, however, was completely different than the one we’re seeing now. That version was completely dependent on the (ugh) adorkability of Jess (Zooey Deschanel), and leaned heavily on her quirkiness. Max Greenfield had yet to break out as Schmidt, and the burgeoning relationship between Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson) was only being hinted at. The show Wayans re-entered has established characters and relationships, and a rhythm that has made it into one of the best comedies on TV. Because of this, the super-manly aspect of his character felt more wedged into the show than I imagined it would be, and it felt like Coach just wasn’t as funny as he was when the show was just starting out.
Maybe it’s because we now see what Wayans can do. On Happy Endings, he played Brad, a guy who tried to be manly but also had a weakness for nice things. For three seasons, we got to see Wayans try to be tough but also comedically fold in the face of the person who really wears the pants in his marriage, his wife Jane (Eliza Coupe). There were two sides to the character; on New Girl we’re only seeing one side… at least so far.
We’ve had more episodes to figure out what Pally’s character on Mindy is all about, and right now it feels like Mindy Kaling and her writers have decided that Pally is so good at playing douchebags, that that’s all he’s been given to do. But Max from Happy Endings was more than just a douchebag; he was a sensitive douchebag, which made his character all the funnier. Maybe it was because Max was gay, and the unexpected nature of that character brought some extra oomph to the role. But right now, Pally’s new role is one-dimensional and not nearly as funny.
But we need to give the writers of both shows time. We know that Wayans will be on New Girl for five more episodes, and he’ll possibly become more permanent down the line, if the shows he’s got in development don’t work out (UPDATE: Looks like Wayans will be around New Girl for the rest of the season). Pally was recently made a series regular on Mindy, so we know he’ll be on for the rest of the season. Both shows have expert writers, so hopefully they’ll find the right tone for both characters.
Right now, though? The prevailing thought is , “Fuck! They canceled Happy Endings!” Hopefully soon, they’ll both be so good in their new roles that I’ll stop thinking that.