Around the middle of its third season, New Girl was dangerously close to falling into Moonlighting territory: Its decline in quality seemed to correspond with the fulfillment of its big will-they/won’t-they. Anyone who watched Moonlighting knows that Maddie and David getting together in season three wasn’t a problem for the show. It was the subsequent fourth season, which involved splitting the couple apart and throwing a bunch of dumb obstacles in their way, a crippling blow to the show’s creative drive from which it never recovered.
Similarly, the best thing about New Girl this season has been how well it’s handled the union of roommates Jess and Nick (Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson), a difficult creative proposition for a sitcom with a small cast. Friends threw together various romantic pairings over its 10-season run, some working better than others; How I Met Your Mother was so terrified of locking its protagonist into “the” relationship that it kept his one true love away until the ninth season. During New Girl’s first season, it looked like Nick and Jess could’ve taken years to figure out the simmering tension between them. Instead, he suddenly kissed her midway through the second season, revealing a hidden longing that perfectly informed much of the character’s erratic behavior. It was a brilliant move, and it electrified the rest of the season, shooting the show back into the zeitgeist—for far better reasons than the marketing term “adorkable.”
It’s tough to catch that kind of magic twice, but the third season—which began with Jess and Nick embarking on a real, no-kidding relationship—has nearly been boosted to season-two heights by that challenge. Others shows would throw increasingly crazy twists at the couple, treating the relationship (beloved by most of the show’s fans) as a high-stakes chip constantly under threat. Moonlighting had Maddie get inexplicably married; Gilmore Girls suddenly dropped a secret long-lost daughter in Luke’s lap; Dr. House drove his car into Cuddy’s house.
The challenges for Jess and Nick resemble the challenges for any new couple embarking on something serious: There are all kinds of things they still have to learn about each other. Episode five, “The Box,” sees Jess struggling with accepting her boyfriend’s infuriatingly childish approach to paying bills. But by episode 11, “Clavado En Un Bar,” Nick’s strangely zen approach to his outwardly depressing lifestyle makes a lot more sense, both to the audience and to Jess—who finally figures out when to listen to his advice. Typical sitcom tropes—like Jess angrily flirting with a hot guy (played by Taye Diggs) to get revenge on Nick for some imagined slight—are turned on their head by the end of the episode.
It’s mostly impressive stuff. Then why, for most of the fall, did season three feel so lackluster? Outside of Jess and Nick, New Girl has never been a show with a great amount of narrative drive. It’s always been a little more interested in its other main couple, Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Cece (Hannah Simone), than it should be. Not that those two don’t have chemistry, but their breakup and the subsequent series of almost-reunions has grown ludicrous, filled with the storytelling pitfalls mostly avoided in the Jess and Nick saga.
Season three began with an arc where Schmidt dated both Cece and his college girlfriend, Elizabeth (the winsome Merritt Wever)—a development that left such a bad taste in the mouth the show then spent even more time trying to realistically confront it. It was an honest effort, but the whole thing was tiresome enough that it should have been swept under the rug. That finally and fortunately happened with Cece taking a job alongside Nick at the gang’s favorite bar, which could turn out to be a far better direction for that character.
New Girl also continues in its struggle to find things for Winston (Lamorne Morris) to do, attempting to fix the problem by making it a grand meta-narrative. Winston himself has a crisis of confidence, and reacts by toting a ridiculous-looking cat wherever he goes. Morris is a hugely talented comic presence, and almost any ridiculous thing Winston is made to do is gold in his hands. It’s nonetheless frustrating to watch the show struggle to find those things for him week to week. That wasn’t helped by the addition of similarly alchemical comic power Damon Wayans, Jr., coming back to New Girl following the unfortunate end of Happy Endings. The return of Wayans’ Coach disrupted the balance of a very tight ensemble, which can be a good thing for a show in need of some creative direction. But it’s certainly taken New Girl a few episodes to figure out how to use Wayans. The man is funny, but some of his storylines (particularly the ones revolving around Jess’ attempts to bond with his character) are reminiscent of the show’s weaker first season.
But finally, in its last few episodes, New Girl is back to being the energetic wonder it was last year. “Basketsball” is a raucously good time that mixes Coach into the gang perfectly; “Birthday” is an incredibly sweet, surprising episode, remarkable in its ability to warm the heart despite its utter predictability (Nick tries to throw Jess a perfect birthday, and after 20 minutes of chaos, succeeds).
There may well be weak runs of episodes in this show’s future; it has always been weirdly streak-prone that way. But its foundation—a clearly defined ensemble where every character pairing is a funny one—is strong enough that audiences shouldn’t worry. New Girl’s biggest fear should be getting bogged down in drama. Its biggest strength, as it tees up for its big Super Bowl episode, is that it barely has to do anything to keep being one of the funniest shows on TV.
Created by: Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring: Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Simone, Damon Wayans Jr.
Airs: Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox (special episode airing after Super Bowl XLVIII)
Format: Single-camera half-hour sitcom
13 season-three episodes watched for review