New Girl Fishes For Laughs, Catches Terrible Episode

By Christie Wilcox | March 22, 2013 12:36 pm

I get that Hollywood sometimes fudges science for dramatic effect, and I’m willing to overlook warp drives and extraterrestrial DNA goop sometimes to enjoy a sci-fi flick. But this week, one of my favorite shows completely botched biological reality, and I simply can’t stand for it. Shame on you, New Girl, shame on you.

A relaxing trip to the aquarium leads to all-out writer FAIL

For those of you who don’t watch the show, New Girl is about four eccentric roommates that live in LA starring the quirky Zooey Deschanel alongside three off-beat male leads. In the latest episode, one of the boys, Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield), is having a tough time getting over the fact that his dream girl and ex Cece (Hannah Simone) is getting married. In an attempt to cheer him up, his buddy and roommate Winston (Lamorne Morris) takes him on a soothing trip to the aquarium. Instead, Winston’s plan backfires, and Schmidt becomes obsessed with a fish that reminds him of Cece: the lionfish.

Cue me screaming at the television.

It’s no wonder that Schmidt falls for the dangerous and beautiful lionfish. I certainly did — that’s why I am studying them for my doctoral dissertation. They’re a popular aquarium fish, and their elegant, striped spines have lured many a collector, so that is not what made me so mad. You see, Schmidt, now completely obsessed, inquires about buying the fish. He is told that he can’t buy it because the California Lionfish is endangered, and protected under state law.

Are you kidding me?

Lionfish aren’t native to California — at all. While they’re found throughout the rest of the Indo-Pacific, California’s chilly coast is devoid of these tropical fish. In fact, lionfish aren’t native in any US state except Hawaii. So no, there isn’t a California lionfish, and there certainly isn’t a protected one.

I don’t know what angered me more: the complete fabrication of an endangered species, or that the species they chose to make up is actually the exact opposite. Lionfish are about as far from protected in the US as possible: they’re responsible for one of the worst invasions in history.

Lionfish sightings in the Atlantic and Caribbean as of today (c/o USGS: you can see this map updated daily here)

You see, Hawaii isn’t the only state where lionfish can be found. Aquarium releases have led to a devastating lionfish invasion in the Caribbean and western Atlantic.

To use the term ‘devastating’ isn’t hyperbole. In 2010, the lionfish invasion was listed as one of the worst threats to global biodiversity. Since the first reports in the late ’80s, lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean and Atlantic with lightning speed. They’re fast growing, voracious predators that have been shown to reduce the recruitment of native fish by an average of 79%, leading to sharp declines in many species. These insatiable fish are literally eating their way through seagrass, mangrove and reef ecosystems from Venezuela to Rhode Island, and may lead to irreversible losses of native species and even entire coral reef ecosystems.

But I digress.

“Laws, schmaws. Let’s catch us a protected species!”

Not to be defeated by silly things like laws, Schmidt and Winston decide to wade off the coast on a beach to find the elusive “endangered” lionfish. I find the show essentially promoting violating protection acts more than a little upsetting, and the idea that they would find a rare fish by wading ankle deep off the coast is just silly. But then, poor Schmidt chases after what he thinks is a lionfish, and instead manages to get stung in the face by a jellyfish — perhaps just desserts for his flagrant attempt at law-breaking. And then the writers screw things up even more.

As the intense pain radiates from his sting, Schmidt begs Winston to pee on him, which science has shown doesn’t help at all. I get the character believing in a much-propagated bad remedy, but later, they make reference to the “paramedic’s urine” fixing the problem — a paramedic would NEVER pee on a jelly sting! They might have used vinegar or dilute acetic acid to rinse off any unfired tentacle cells, if jelly stings were common in the area and they had it on hand. But pee on a patient? Not a chance.

But the writers aren’t done messing things up yet. While Schmidt sleeps off the pain, Cece brings him a lionfish that she acquired through ‘shady model connections’, and Winston convinces her to leave before Schmidt wakes. Upon seeing the fish, Schmidt realizes that it wasn’t really about the fish after all, and decides to let it go. He and Winston return to the beach, where Schmidt grabs the lionfish and attempts to throw it back into the sea.

Yes, you read that right. He grabs a lionfish, barehanded, and flings it. Though the writers have focused an entire show on lionfish, they don’t mention once that these fish, like the jellies, possess a potent and painful venom. Lionfish are one of the most venomous fish in the world, and the pain of their sting has been described as “just short of driving oneself completely mad.” The writers so completely ignore this fact that they have Schmidt grab a lionfish bare-handed. This is more than a slight oversight. You think the jelly sting hurt, Schmidt? Go ahead, grab a lionfish bare-handed. I dare you.

… because what California really needs is a devastating invasive marine species

But worse, they end the night with Schmidt doing exactly what caused the disastrous invasion of the Atlantic in the first place. Schmidt ‘releasing’ the lionfish off the LA coast in the last scene is EXACTLY the what led to the invasion, and exactly what scientists DON’T want people doing. Lionfish might not be found off California right now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever be. The devastating invasion of the Atlantic has spooked scientists, who now fear that the aquarium trade in California might lead to a similar invasion in warmer areas, like San Francisco and — oh yeah — Los Angeles. Over 11 million non-native aquarium species including lionfish pass through those two ports every year. Lionfish escapes or releases from the aquarium trade may doom California’s marine ecosystems to the same fate as the Caribbean and Atlantic.

I know TV shows write for story rather than accuracy, but you think they’d have done even a meager amount of research on the fish they feature so prominently. Instead of highlighting an important conservation issue, the show practically promotes the kind of behavior that leads to localized extinctions (poaching of threatened species) AND devastating invasions (releasing aquarium fish) in under 30 minutes. There is simply no excuse.

 

New Girl still shots from TV.com

  • Jackson Rook

    You’re going to make a great Ph.D. Only a Ph.D. could ramble ad nauseum about a fish and it’s fictional relationship to a really terrible TV program. Good job! Another brilliant scholar!

    • http://www.facebook.com/Kruegsybear Brian Krueger

      Trolly troll likes to troll.

    • Buddy199

      I thought it was funny. Lighten up.

  • Kevin Bonham

    In the beginning, of this post, I was going to chide you for being a science pedant… but holy crap, this seems like they’re actively trying to be science illiterate.

    • http://jonathan-peterson.com/ Jonathan Peterson

      agreed 100%. This isn’t up there with an anti-vaxer episode, but it’s well into the realm of dangerously irresponsible anti-science.

      FWIW – friends of mine in the Keys say Lionfish is very tasty, so there’s that working for us.

  • chris tucker

    I didn’t know how invasive these buggers were, but when he grabbed that thing I was all like, “Nope.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/laden.greg Greg Laden

    Well, sure, but the thing is …. if you are doing your PhD on a topic there should be a force field around you that prohibits you from seeing anything at all related to your thesis topic that might come along in popular culture, including things being said by people you know, stuff on TV, movies, etc. There should just be a blank space where any of that stuff would be.

    And that stuff comes at you at a higher rate when you are working on it due to a cosmic force as yet undiscovered. When I was on my way to the Ituri Forest to do my thesis work with the Efe, Sing and I cross paths in London. He was on his way out of the Ituri, and ready to appropriate Pygmy musical styles in his own work. Moments later a dutch person came out of nowhere in an airport and said to me “Pygmies …. their language is based on sound, I hear…” And so it went until I turned on the Blanking Cloak Mechanism.

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      And that stuff comes at you at a higher rate when you are working on it due to a cosmic force as yet undiscovered.

      -Confirmation bias?

      • facefault

        Selective attention. Aka Baader-Meinhoff effect.

  • Entrophyst McNormal

    I was stung by a jelly down at Perdido Key in 2011. The pain was instantaneous and profound. I urinated on it within a minute of initial contact, the pain disappeared immediately (within three to four seconds), and the relief was permanent. There were several other sting victims out swimming with me on the same public beach, and given their shrieking and crying for long periods afterward, I would consider them to be an acceptable (if unfortunate) control group. I understand SA’s intent, but they should probably steer clear of such obvious assumptions on speculative data. Not that I’d encourage them to test their hypothesis in the field, but they’re still laughably wrong.

  • Marta Fernandes

    I get what you’re saying, although I think you’re dramatizing the situation a bit too much, but I do disagree with you on two points. You say “the idea that they would find a rare fish by wading ankle deep off the coast is just silly”, and this is totally true, but that’s precisely why that scene was so funny. The scene made me laugh because I knew what they were doing was stupid. As for the “paramedic’s urine”, I don’t think we’re supposed to take it seriously. It’s so obvious that a (“normal”) paramedic would never do that, that I think they only mentioned it because it’s silly and were trying to make the audience laugh at the silliness of the statement.
    I also like New Girl very much, but it’s definitely a very silly show that can’t be taken too seriously.

  • lulubell

    So right. It was a missed opportunity to talk about the whole released pets issue. I live in Florida where we have out or control boa constrictors and monitor lizards

  • Buddy199

    You can hardly blame them. They’re just automatically parroting the default response mode for greens:

    “Endangered”

    Undoubtedly caused by the other tropes: “man-made”, “alarming” and “unprecedented”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/preston.campbell.56 Preston Campbell

    It was a joke. Everything in every episode is a joke. Do you think the writers and producers went to all that trouble and accidentally put in incorrect statements about lionfish on accident?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.wilcox.54 Bruce Wilcox

    We both loved reading your passionate piece about the lionfish. It made us laugh as we were beating our heads against the wall from the stupidity of scriptwriters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/trishnmiller Patricia Nelson Miller

    Quit wondering why our students wil argue “science facts” when they are completely off base. They saw it on TV or the Internet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Dishesbite Nanci Oechsle

    I love the show and I too had issues w/the whole Ca Lionfish thing. I know it’s just a tv show, and a comedy at that, but it wouldn’t have taken much to make the story line a little more accurate.

  • Marine Depot

    looking for more pics of these categories of fish…

    Aquarium Filters

  • Rebecca Blan

    I mean its a sitcom. Its a silly show not a National Geographic special on the Lionfish.. Give them a break. Most things that happen in this show are pretty ridiculous which is why I watch it. Its meant to entertain not to educate.

  • http://www.phpexperts.pro/ Theodore R. Smith

    I’ve been stung by a lionfish, and let me tell you, picking one up with your bare hands *will* kill you, especially if it’s your right hand (venom will go straight to your heart. Dead in 30 minutes).

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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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