The Fox sitcom — starring Zooey Deschanel — quickly became the ratings darling of its freshman class. So why has it been getting conspicuously less cutesy? EW investigates

Adorkable. That’s a real word, thanks in part to Zooey Deschanel, who plays a cupcake-baking, animal-loving, silly-song-singing girl on TV — and, sometimes, in real life. Dressed in a micro-miniskirt that’s about half the length of her false lashes, the 32-year-old actress vamps it up on the roof of the Park Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, where she’s shooting a few scenes for Fox’s breakout comedy New Girl. Between takes, you can find her dancing the Charleston, hugging crew members, doing her best Cary Grant impression, or joking around in a wittle baby voice. When the camera’s back on, she switches easily into character as Jess, a quirky grade-school teacher who moves in with three guys she met through Craigslist. In this scene, Jess and her roommate/occasional crush Nick (Jake Johnson) are filling scarecrows with hay when Jess breaks into an exuberant scarecrow song, extolling the joys of ”stuffin’ scaresies.”

Witnessing this, it’s pretty understandable why Fox originally promoted New Girl with the tagline ”Simply Adorkable.” To a certain generation of fans who value sincerity, creativity, and a flair for the retro, Deschanel has become the poster girl for all things big-eyed and bighearted. To others, including the bloggers who labeled the show ”tweepulsive,” that sweetness has become Deschanel’s cross to bear. Last year, the comedian Julie Klausner even suggested that the so-called adorkability Deschanel is now known for was downright antifeminist. (”It’s much harder to bring down a woman, or to call her a moron, when she’s not in pigtails and Ring Pops,” Klausner wrote on her website.) And yet, halfway into its first season, New Girl is pulling in 10.3 million viewers each week (counting DVR replay) and has established itself as the No. 1 new series in the 18-34 demographic. Not even the pigtail haters can deny that it’s an out-of-the-gate hit.

Besides, Deschanel doesn’t want to engage in what she views as a self-destructive fight waged by women against women. For her, this is just sexism disguised as a war on girliness. ”I’ve examined and reexamined myself,” she says, curling up in her trailer near a giant butterfly balloon. ”And I really don’t feel that liking to wear dresses is a problem for the feminist world.”

Maybe not. But lately New Girl has begun acknowledging Jess’ detractors — and as a result it’s become a much deeper, funnier, edgier show. It started when the show’s creator, Liz Meriwether, decided to write an episode in response to Klausner’s essay: In ”Jess and Julia,” Nick’s headstrong girlfriend of the moment (Lizzy Caplan) tells Jess off for her ”whole thing with the cupcakes and the breaking for birds and the ‘bluebirds come and help me dress in the morning.’ ” Since then, everyone in the New Girl universe seems to be calling Jess out, from the guy in the bar who hears her Mae West voice and asks, ”Why are you talking like that?” to Jess’ preteen student, who deadpans, ”Your happiness seems like a mask.” Even her roommates — lovable grump Nick, sporty but sensitive Winston (Lamorne Morris), and charismatic douche bag Schmidt (Max Greenfield) — have been rolling their eyes at her Daffy Duck voices and use of a ”feeling stick.” In a recent episode, Nick tells her bluntly, ”You don’t know how to be real.”

All of which raises the question: Are the writers trying to tone down the cuteness? Not according to Meriwether, who points out that all freshman shows go through tonal changes during the first season. Also, the 30-year-old first-time executive producer insists, ”I never went into this thinking that Jess was cute.” Sharp-witted and deeply sarcastic, Meriwether based Jess on herself, back when the show had the more risqué title Chicks & Dicks. Originally she envisioned the show as a Will & Grace-style comedy focused on just Jess and Nick, whose relationship was inspired by Meriwether’s close friendship with a guy. ”Our exes started dating each other, and we were both mad at the world, so we felt compelled to become really good friends,” she explains. When she met Deschanel, the two connected so instantly that she knew she’d found her perfect Jess. Deschanel, who’s also a producer on the show, says she’s helped build the character by collaborating with the costume designer, improvising lines (as all the actors are encouraged to do), even writing some of the songs Jess sings on the show. (In her downtime, Deschanel performs as one half of the indie-pop duo She & Him.) To a passing observer, the only thing Meriwether shares with Jess is an affection for oversize eyeglasses. But to the writer, Klausner’s critique of the character felt very personal. ”It was a little weird for me, as a feminist who’s actively trying to create interesting roles for women, to hear that attack, that Jess is like a little girl,” admits Meriwether, who also penned the sex-buddy script that became No Strings Attached. She believes there’s a double standard in comedy: Men are allowed to act like boys, but women aren’t allowed to act like girls. ”Isn’t immaturity supposed to be funny?” she asks incredulously. ”Haven’t all the Judd Apatow movies taught us that?”

Somewhere in Jess’ retort to Julia, you can hear Meriwether lashing out at her critics: ”I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown, and I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.” Yet since that episode aired, Jess has evolved from a shy girl who can’t say ”penis” without giggling into a woman who searches for one-night stands, gets drunk, and makes Hitler jokes. And that’s partly the influence of her roommates, who are toughening her up — while earning their own beefed-up story lines and personal fan clubs. According to Morris, the roommates are the voice of reason. ”Winston’s a bit cynical about how quirky Jess is,” explains the actor, who’s a straight talker both on and off screen. ”So while the audience is laughing and saying, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ my character is literally saying, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ That’s what people connect to.”

Back in her trailer, Deschanel seems a little defensive about the polarizing reactions to Jess. After all, when the show debuted, she told many interviewers that she essentially was Jess. And during a recent panel at PaleyFest in Beverly Hills, Deschanel fit the part, pulling her hands up under her chin like bunny-rabbit paws, demonstrating the way that a turtle eats, even using a Daffy Duck voice to describe her resemblance to Jess as ”sssssertainly sssssimilar.” But now she appears to be backing off from that comparison. ”When I want to put it in a nutshell, I’ll say, ‘She’s like a 13-year-old version of myself,”’ the actress explains, clearly tired of the topic. ”But acting is more complex than just playing at a series of adjectives.”

Meriwether says she still wants to learn more about who Jess really is — as well as her roommates. ”The more we dig, the funnier things get,” she says. ”I’m hoping that we can dig into Winston and Nick and Schmidt as much as we keep digging into Jess.” She pauses. ”Uh, does that make it sound like they’re plants?” Looking ahead to the final eight episodes of the season, Winston will find a job at a radio station, working for a very difficult boss (Phil Hendrie). Jess’ model best friend, Cece (Hannah Simone), starts to have real feelings for Schmidt, though she’ll vehemently deny it, to the point of foisting him on another friend. And Nick, who’s had a pretty rough year, will try to grow tomatoes in the roommates’ rooftop garden.

Jess also starts a new relationship with her student’s very grown-up father (Dermot Mulroney) and ends up having a deep, semi-naked talk in the steam room with his ex-wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Does that mean we’ll have to wait forever for Nick and Jess to get together? Meriwether will admit only that there’s still something there between them. But Johnson says, ”I think, deep down, he’s in love with her.”

He’s not the only one. At PaleyFest, the biggest screams were reserved for Deschanel. Young girls asked her to sign their ukuleles. One budding singer asked her to sign a microphone. At the end of the night, a schoolteacher stood up in the crowd and confessed that she was so glad to have a unique, independent woman like Deschanel for her 17-year-old daughter to look up to, praising her ”über-adorkability” and gushing, ”I hope you stay around.”

For Meriwether, hearing that young women relate to Jess is the ultimate compliment. Recently she was standing in line for coffee when two girls behind her started describing their roommate by using the New Girl theme song: ”One of them said, ‘It was totally like, Who’s that girl…’ ” she says excitedly. ”The idea that young girls are feeling like there’s a different kind of female character that they can relate to on TV? That’s great. We’re teaching those girls how to have sex-only relationships with douche bags and threesomes with their landlords. We’re changing America!” She laughs. ”No, but this is progress in some way. From now on, I want to see more new, great, weird, f—ed-up women on TV.”

About Schmidt
Who’s that guy? It’s Schmidt! As the player with a heart of gold on New Girl, Max Greenfield has become the show’s breakout star. Giddy young women line up to flirt with the 31-year-old actor, and fans demand that he put money in their ”douche-bag jars.”

All of which has come as a welcome surprise to the Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., native, who’s married with a 2-year-old daughter. When he first auditioned for the part, Schmidt was just a one-joke character who couldn’t stop taking his shirt off. ”I went to [exec producer] Jake Kasdan and said, ‘Let’s just try to make this character as not-douchey as possible,”’ recounts Greenfield. ”And he goes, ‘Well, just don’t play him douchey.’ ”

He didn’t — and slowly Schmidt transformed into a bathroom-scrubbing, charcuterie-eating, lady-pleasing charmer with a chubby backstory (see: Fat Schmidt). ”Max brought an amazing emotional life to this character who wanted to be a better person but couldn’t,” New Girl creator Liz Meriwether explains. While the writers map out the script, the actors are encouraged to improvise, and Meriwether calls Greenfield ”one of the best improvisers I’ve ever met.” She remembers a table read where Greenfield worked and reworked a scene in which Schmidt seduces Cece with fancy-cheese metaphors (”I just want to slowly peel the wax off your Babybels”). And now that he’s broken out, look for Schmidt to get more screen time — and fun story lines — going forward. He’ll help Nick get in touch with his inner douche bag and will learn that he and Cece might have a lil’ Schmidt on the way. ”Because people like him, we can be as offensive as possible with this character,” says Meriwether, laughing. ”I completely attribute that to Max.”