The Politicization of Winston Bishop
A New Girl Essay
Since Covid-19 struck the world, New Girl has proved to be a particularly pleasant distraction from the ongoing madness. A sentiment shared by the number of people currently streaming it. It’s colorful, zany and the loft that acts as the shows home base offers a warm, almost cozy sanctuary that could sedate the rising anxieties of an LA native, even if they have already long since discarded any delusions that they would ever live in such comfort in a city whose rising rental prices are only matched by the increased homeless population (it’s up about 14% this year if you haven’t heard).
But I digress, for now. The point is, that New Girl is a fascinating sitcom. And I don’t necessarily mean that as it’s consistently good all the way through. It isn’t. But I firmly believe that the markings of a truly interesting sitcom, stems from your ability to discuss it in depth, whether it be positive or negative. And New Girl allows you to do both. The positive ranging from the normalization of a cast of characters coming from atypical, if at times, broken homes and the negative ranging from Schmidt cheating on Cece and the show deciding that it never happened and you should just bask in their completely #goals love. But that isn’t the kind of bad for today. This type of bad is tangential to something very good; policing and Winston Bishop.
Lamorne Morris is regularly praised for his portrayal of the gang’s loveable goofball for good measure. He’s quotable (elations, elations, elations), charismatic and despite the writer’s mishandling of his character early on, he never falls into the degradation of personality that the other members of the main cast do. In fact, Winston improves with each season. I would even go as far as to say that he doesn’t really hit his stride until Season 5, when Zooey Deschanel is gone for maternity leave, where it finally appears the writers have found a way to integrate him into the friend group organically. However, this friend group integration comes at a cost.
New Girl is a fairly apolitical show. A world where Schmidt is allowed to be a loveable Republican without any metatextual analysis of what that would mean with a friend group so diverse. The only times politics are really brought up are when there’s a Presidential election. First, in Season 2 episode 3, Fluffer, where Schmidt dawns the persona of the nonexistent son of then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney in an attempt to gain favor with sorority girls, (an episode I found particularly suspicious, seeing as the name Romney is said frequently in an episode of prime time television airing one month before a national election) and in Season 6 episode 2, Hubbedy Bubby, where Jess and Cece come out in full Hilary Clinton support.
But beyond that and some base level nods to feminism and the patriarchy, New Girl is more or less a cartoon with live action children-adults. It isn’t designed to make powerful political statements. This is the same show where Nick kidnaps an Indian woman from the airport without any consequences.
However, in regard to Winston and his Cop-ness, the show forgoes complete political neutrality in favor of acknowledging the potentially adverse relationship a black man would have with the police. The LAPD no less, while at the same time dedicating very little to addressing it, which ultimately fails to say anything and does the show more harm than good.
In season 3 episode 7, Coach, when a drunken bender leads the guys outside of a police station, Winston remarks, “Did you hear the joke about the 2 black guys and 2 white guys that walked into a police station? The 2 white guys walked out.” Now, jokes of this nature are commonplace in sitcoms and movies, as they are often used to highlight the apparent “caucacity” of the predominantly white cast from the point of view of the POC character. New Girl would exist in a similar light, if not that in just 5 episodes, Winston would make the decision to join the LAPD.
Now, there are many black officers working for the LAPD. They are people with unique backgrounds, lives, and reasons for choosing the line of work that they did. If handled correctly, New Girl could potentially say something bold for a topic often considered taboo for a Tuesday night lineup. But it doesn’t. For the rest of season 3 and halfway through season 4, Winston’s path to cop-hood is not met with any of the personal contemplation that one would expect after his comment in Coach. Winston becoming a cop is as natural as Cece getting a job at Nick’s bar or Jess becoming a Vice Principal.
And from here, it appears that Winston’s police hesitance was simply a throwaway line in a show wanting to keep its toes out of controversial waters. But then we get to season 4, episode 20, Par 5. When it comes to the topic of policing and New Girl, Par 5 is the episode you are more than likely to read the most about online.
The episode begins with Winston attempting to court a woman named KC, played by Kiersey Clemons. And just as hilarity is about to ensue, it is revealed that KC is vehemently against cops and on her way to an anti-police rally. Winston initially lies about his profession to save face with what will soon be a drastically underutilized love interest (a common trope for the actresses romantically paired with Winston) but at the same time, he begins evaluating what it means to be black and an officer.
Later in the episode he tells Nick, “I’m black. I understand where she’s coming from. When I was a kid we used to run from the police. Even if we did nothing wrong, it was just out of habit.” And it is here we as a viewer think we have something. The arc that was promised over a season ago. A chance for Winston, undoubtedly the least fleshed out of the gang at this point, to have something substantial to work with.
But we don’t. The resolution to this episode and Winston’s struggle is that he just needs to be honest with KC and tell her that he is proud of his line of work. And if she has a problem with that so be it. And strangely enough, KC is fine with this. It turns out that she’s not mad Winston is a police officer, she’s mad that he lied to her. Which is an odd turn of events for an episode that started off with such clear conviction to say something meaningful.
Par 5 was actually co-written by Lamorne Morris as a way for him to process and explore his own personal feelings about playing a police officer, an idea that was originally his. However, by his own accord, the end product was “less militant” than he intended. According to a 2015 New York Times interview, Morris wanted a line in the episode where Winston says, “I’m black, and I’m a police officer, and as I sit here, comfortable in this loft with you, my white buddy, black people are being slaughtered.” Not at all surprisingly, this had to be cut. Which is a shame. Because Morris’ desire to really tackle the plight of a black man dedicating himself to law enforcement would have given a much stronger message than the watered down embrace who you are farce, we actually got.
But like I said, I’m not surprised Morris’ more pointed lines got cut from the final episode. It’s a primetime sitcom on Fox. FOX. Realistically, the fact that they allowed him to create something this critical of policing is astonishing. New Girl as the institution on which it stands, needed to wrap up its slight venture into wokeness in a little one episode arc that wouldn’t get brought up again. Except that it does. Sort of.
While Par 5 is indeed the most pervasive in terms of addressing Winston’s Blackness/Police-ness, it is not the only. The other example is far more subtle, and despite the minimal contribution to the overall plot of the show, it is the one I find the most offensive, so much so that it fueled this essay.
In Season 6, episode 16, Operation Bobcat, Winston proposes to his girlfriend/police partner Aly, played by Nasim Pedrad. While Aly and Winston’s relationship over the seasons has been a powerful, hilarious and sweet lifeline to New Girl in its later half, (something that could have been better developed if not for Pedrad’s busy schedule and the show’s need to dedicate precious time to the atrocity that was Jess dating Sam again), something in his proposal irked me in a way it wasn’t intended to.
With a bobcat costume on his back and partially concussed, Winston has Jess read Aly the vows he wrote for her, “As a young black man, I never thought I’d feel safe with a police officer”. Yet again, two seasons after Par 5, the show reminds us that Winston is aware that black people do not feel safe around police. And still, the show decides to use this as a joke in the same vein it did with Coach. While this was okay, if not worthy of an eye roll early on, such a comment cannot be used as a joke post Par 5. Either the show addresses the blue uniformed elephant in the room, or it doesn’t. And it has to pick one.
But shows with black characters do not have to constantly discuss race or politics. I firmly believe that is important to be able to view POC and marginalized groups in fiction in a way that doesn’t constantly exploit their people’s history as a substitute for characters writing, usually by writers who are not a part of these groups.
However, should all shows that depict law enforcement have to address the torrid history with POC communities? Personally, I say yes, but as it stands, if a show isn’t willing to truly dive into the subject matter, it shouldn’t even bother. New Girl shouldn’t have bothered. It’s insulting when any piece of media acknowledge systemic issues, pay them the tiniest attention, and then congratulate themselves for taking a halfhearted stand.
Having now finished the show for the first time, I can firmly say I wish they had never brought up Winston’s issues with being a cop, and frankly considering where I and America is currently, I wish they didn’t make him a cop at all. Because I, as a POC and a person who has not shut their eyes to the world outside, cannot fully enjoy a sitcom that chooses to address the issues with policing in Los Angeles and then say nothing about it.
And I know it’s a sitcom. I know it’s on Fox and I know it wasn’t designed for a strangely television obsessed 23 year old to break down while isolated and separated from a burning world. But the truth of the matter is that media is important and the stage it creates for millions of people to see how we as a culture deal with hot topic issues must be handled with care.
Media reflects life, but the inverse is also correct. Your less politically inclined compatriots may see Winston’s seemingly lack of conflict with being an officer as a sign that there is nothing wrong with policing. That despite his initial issues, once he joined the force, he could see that there was nothing to be worried about. But there is. There truly, truly is.
If New Girl had started airing now, I’m more than certain they wouldn’t have made Winston a cop. I am curious to see what the future holds for Police comedies or even dramas. It is my hope that this current moment, when people are rallying in the streets, calling their representatives and making it clear they have had enough of the violence, enough of the oppression that has plagued a people since they built this country on their bloodied backs, transfers into our media. Because we as an audience deserve better, the people wanting to tell poignant, sometimes uncomfortable sitcom stories deserve better. Winston L’Andre Bishop deserves better.
Jordan Penland: "I am a Black/Latino writer from Los Angeles. I am a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in Literature. Currently, I am the co-founder of Scorched Palms, a community literary zine for my local neighborhood. When I’m not busy writing, I am telling my stuffed penguin Steven that I love him."