I have an embarrassing confession to make: I am a shipper.
Yes, yes, I know. In the realms of TV fandom, shippers are the lowest of the low. Shippers tend to get all caught up in whether the TV show they love will focus on the relationship they love, and they tend to become irate when said TV show breaks up said couple because that will be better for “drama.” Shippers don’t just root for two people stuck in the endless dance of a will-they/won’t-they to get together. Shippers dig in and make that happening integral to their enjoyment of the show. They watch because of the possibility of romance, and while they may be among the most disgruntled of fans, they are also among the most loyal. They’ll be there until the end, and if anybody says anything bad about their prospective coupling of choice, woe to the comments section that dares defy them.
But let’s get a little more specific here. Let’s talk about the ’ships that really matter to me. The TV ’ship that I have the greatest amount of emotional investment in? Well, that would be Don Draper and Peggy Olson of Mad Men. If the series finale of Mad Men ended with Don giving Peggy a firm handshake and saying, “Y’done good, young lady,” well, I think my heart would just about melt.
See, when I said I was a shipper, that wasn’t exactly the truth. What I am is something closer to a “friendship shipper.” Instead of wanting to see two people on a show I like sleep together, I have a tendency to want to see them strike up a mutually beneficial friendship that skirts the uneasy lines of sexual politics and becomes a relationship of deep and abiding respect, but no more. When, in the 30 Rock finale, Jack Donaghy professed his platonic love for Liz Lemon—in German, no less—it was the ultimate moment for the friendship shipper I am deep down inside. I just want these people to respect and appreciate each other, then maybe go and get a sandwich together so they can bitch about work. Is that too much to ask?
There are all kinds of male-female couples on TV that work much better in friendships than they do in will-they/won’t-they couplings. Sheldon and Penny on The Big Bang Theory used to be the epitome of this, and Jeff and Britta on Community are usually more fun when they’re goading each other on than when they’re making out. (I say “usually,” because I secretly suspect if the series ended with the two tying the knot, I’d be pleased as punch.) I’m not opposed to the Ben and Leslie thing on Parks And Recreation, but I was much more invested in the couple when they were friends with a lot of interests in common. Similarly, I was never as into Jim and Pam on The Office as a lot of people, simply because I always had a lot of fun with them as prank-pulling friends, rather than soulful lovers.
And until the latest episode of New Girl, I would have put Nick Miller and Jess Day on that list as well.
Just to catch you up, New Girl is a series about three guys living with a girl, so it was, perhaps, inevitable that one of the guys would hook up with said girl at some point in the show’s run. That the series has made it this far without pushing any of its potential couplings together is to be commended; that it couldn’t resist forever is understandable. The show’s been dancing around the idea of Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) hooking up for quite a while now, and I’ve often thought that the show would almost work better if the two hooked up once or twice, realized how bad of an idea it was, then went back to being close friends. The show had built them, slowly and believably, into the kind of male-female friendship that’s so rare to see on TV, one where both parties give the other advice and a shoulder to lean on when things get rough, but the suggestion of romance stays off in the corner somewhere. I could see how the show wanted me to see the two as potential romantic fodder, but I also enjoyed the way it didn’t push things too hard, allowed the relationship to simmer while their friendship was growing.
In the latest episode, Nick and Jess are imprisoned in a room together while playing drinking game True American. They have to stay in there until they kiss, and the two are reluctant to do so, in a way that speaks to both the weirdness such a thing could introduce into their friendship and also suggests the curiosity both had about the possibility. Nick, who was trying to hook up with a character played by Brooklyn Decker, and Jess, who’s in a relationship with one played by David Walton, run up to the edge of kissing, before backing off every time. And when they seem like they’re about to do it, Nick pulls back and says the fateful line, “Not like this.” He tries to get out of it, but the damage is done. Jess now knows that he, indeed, has thought about kissing her before, and evidently quite a bit. He escapes the situation, but later that night, when the two have a spare moment alone, he grabs her and gives her the kiss he’d been picturing those other times. And it’s amazing.
I’m not overstating it, either. I’ve seen a million TV sitcom kisses, and this is at least the best since that first Jim and Pam kiss way back in the “Casino Night” episode of The Office. Ever since the days of Sam and Diane on Cheers, the will-they/won’t-they has been reliable sitcom fodder, with almost every comedy since then introducing one or two or 500. (Parks And Recreation sometimes burns through will-they/won’t-theys like an alternative fuel source.) Yet it’s so rare to see a will-they/won’t-they done in a satisfying fashion, and until the kiss, I would have put Nick and Jess in the “good, but not quite” category as well. Why, then, was this latest episode so capable at shifting the two from the, “maybe they should just be friends” bin to the “let’s see them get married and have 500 children” bin?
I’d say it works because it’s evident New Girl creator Liz Meriwether has been studying her Sam and Diane. The verbal acrobatics between Nick and Jess have grown more pronounced this season, and the writers have been very good at isolating them in plotlines where they bounce off each other in funny ways that could be read as romantic or friendly. And when the time comes to plunge ahead, Meriwether flips the Cheers script on its head: Here, the guy’s developed a case of the feels, and the girl’s taken aback by it. Nick, like Diane, is the one who’s overthought this; Jess, like Sam, is the one who’s been unable to see past her own stuff. It’s a neat subversion, and it almost immediately brings this to life as the most successful will-they/won’t-they in a long time, to the degree that it colors the two’s interactions in past episodes in a new light. In addition, just like Sam and Diane, the show has spent time building up reasons Nick and Jess would be terrible for each other, not least of which came in the Thanksgiving episode, when viewers met Jess’ dad and realized he was just like Nick—and had had a very unhappy marriage to Jess’ mom, who’s, unsurprisingly, rather like her daughter. These characters may be drawn together, but they also might destroy each other.
As much as I may be on the Nick and Jess bandwagon now, I have to admit that I’m also a little sad about the development. One of the nice things about the relationship between the two was that it was one of the few places on TV where it seemed like the writers of a will-they/won’t-they couple could also see the virtues in “they won’t.” One of the freshest things about How I Met Your Mother back in the day was that it told you the central couple would never end up together, lending everything that followed a bittersweet tone (until the show insisted on returning to that well over and over again). The will-they/won’t-they can be a powerful force for drama on a sitcom, but only if said sitcom makes the idea of “they won’t” just as appealing as “they will.” That’s been true on New Girl, and I expect it to remain true. But it’s also sad to say goodbye to the idea of “friendship shipping” Nick and Jess. Now that they’ve kissed and it was so great, there’s probably no going back to how it was.
Let’s face it: Too many TV comedies lean on romance as a crutch. (I’m looking at you again, Parks.) Romance is a reliable story generator, and it’s a good way to invigorate plotlines that have gotten boring or old. Yet, all too often, this means that every male-female relationship on a sitcom is colored with the potential for the two sleeping together. New Girl was neat because even though it was about three guys and a girl living together, and even though it understood one of those guys and that girl might hook up someday, it also understood just how powerful and wonderful the friendships between them could be. Yeah, the best romantic relationships usually involve two people who are almost better friends than lovers, and yeah, it completely makes sense that Nick and Jess would eventually take this step. But the world isn’t full of potential romantic partners who constantly dance around each other; it’s full of men and women who navigate complicated friendships and find their way to happiness within those friendships. I may hope Nick and Jess have a million babies someday, but I also miss the New Girl that might have been, the New Girl of two people who build each other up and tear each other down and emerge closer—but not romantically—on the other side of it.