Move over, hapless on-screen Yids, there’s a new Jew in town. He goes by the name of Schmidt and is single-handedly changing what we think when we think of a schlemiel.
One of four main characters on the Fox sitcom “New Girl,” which is in the middle of its second season, Schmidt is the garrulous, metrosexual resident clown who is forced to put a dollar in the “douchebag jar” every time he says something uncouth. If he sounds like an unlikable punch line, well, it is because he should have been — “hair chutney,” driving moccasins and all. But instead he has flipped the whole kvetchy, desperate male Jewish character trope on its head, infusing it with generosity and warmth and attracting a whole lot of love for it.
Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series “Girls,” told New York Magazine that Schmidt is the one character on TV she wished she had created: “He just tugs at every string I have.” And Gwyneth Paltrow called Max Greenfield, who plays Schmidt, her favorite actor on television and “the kind of guy you lusted after at your cousin’s bar mitzvah.”
Thirty-two-year-old Greenfield, who, according to an interview with GQ, had a “Saturday Night Live”-themed bar mitzvah, received an Emmy nomination last year for playing Schmidt, as well as a spot on People magazine’s list of the sexiest men of the year — no small feat for a schlemiel. And on January 13, Greenfield headed to the Golden Globes as a nominee in the supporting actor category. (The Forward went to print before the award winners were announced.) Not too nebbishy, eh?
“New Girl” is about the misadventures of four late-20-somethings who live in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. Schmidt, who works in marketing, is roommates with a quirky teacher named Jess, played by Zooey Deschanel; Nick, a grumpy bartender, and Winston, a dopey ex-basketball player who works in sports radio. Schmidt’s character serves as a vain and sometimes foolishly ambitious foil to the other characters’ Generation Y-esque uncertainty.
Now it isn’t as though Schmidt has nothing in common with his various fictional forerunners; he is an oversharing neurotic who can’t shake the feeling that he is stuck outside of where he wants to be. On a recent episode, he says that befriending musician Kanye West is his idea of making it — “the most efficient way for me to jump social strata.” He also pretends to be related to Mitt Romney in order to get into a nightclub.
But unlike the many Woody Allen-inspired characters that have come before him, Schmidt seems wholly immune to self-pity and doubt. Instead he maintains a strong commitment to self-betterment, physical and emotional. And he will do whatever it takes to help. What makes Schmidt so charming is that he convinces us that this self-betterment — his, his roommates’ and ours — is possible; he is a beacon of optimism in this age of detached irony. When the character Cece, a professional model and Jess’s best friend, falls for him, we totally buy it.