Prior to sitting down and writing this review, I re-watched “Cooler” for the first time since last spring. The way The Kiss dictated the direction of everything that came after it, it’s funny to be reminded that “Cooler” debuted in January of 2013—January 29, to be exact, nearly a year to the date of “Birthday”’s premiere. There are a lot of parallels between the episodes, not the least of which is their capacity to surprise. 51 weeks later, Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson locking lips is still a breathtaking moment, one that’s hard to anticipate even when their cast mates are chanting “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” at them. The true nature of Jess’ birthday party works in the same way: The seeds of the location are planted in the cold open, but when Nick shows up on the big screen, an elaborate, series- and guest-roster-spanning greeting isn’t the first conclusion you might jump to. In fact, my heart sank for a second, thinking that the episode had pulled an elaborate apology out of thin air. I was so, so pleased to be proven wrong.
And just like “Cooler,” “Birthday” feels like the start of something bigger—ironic, because it’s airing out of production order. The 13th episode of New Girl’s third season was actually the 12th to be made, which does no harm to the half-hour beyond the occasional thought of “Why is Winston baking when he should be researching law-enforcement job openings?” And yet “Birthday” does a more effective job of kicking open the door to season three’s back half than “Basketsball” would have, falling neatly into character pairings that hint at longer storylines ripe for exploration. Jess knows how deeply Nick cares for her, but the honeymoon portion of their relationship is over. Schmidt and Cece are getting back to a place where they can be friends. Winston and Coach work through the conflict that might arise if someone was literally brought in to replace you. None of that is as monumental as “Cooler”’s concluding flourish, but I can definitely foresee being able to trace my way from season three’s endpoint back to “Birthday.”
Of course, I’m doing all this comparing, contrasting, and prognosticating because I’m kind at a loss as to what to say about “Birthday.” It’s a very, very good episode of New Girl, with the same components of other very, very good episodes of New Girl. Coming a week after a comic high point for season three, it contains a higher volume of big laughs than “Basketsball”: Lamorne Morris and Damon Wayans Jr.’s physical comedy pas de deux in the loft, attempting to keep Jess’ party a secret. Nick’s inability to kill time. (“Next on the agenda is lunch.” “It’s 8:30 in the morning!”) Jess hijacking a little girl’s birthday party. Schmidt running from CGI dinosaurs. Couple that with solid performances from all of the leads (give or take some soft spots) and a measured dose of quarter-to-mid-life-crisis poignancy, and this is as good as this show gets. “Birthday” might be less ambitious than “Basketsball” or “Menus,” but it’s certainly a sign that New Girl still has plenty of life left in it.
I loved “Birthday,” but I feel like I’m so deep into the show’s pocket right now that it can be difficult to fault it for anything. The episode is lumpy in spots, particularly when Zooey Deschanel has to play at being disappointed with Nick’s birthday plans. She has a weird, cartoonish way of portraying the noisy side of sadness, which verges on the wrong side of obnoxious/hilarious line New Girl walked during its first handful of episodes. The tone of “Birthday” loses the thread when Jess tearily dashes away from Nick in Griffith Park, but it evens out in time for the genuinely heartwarming coda between girlfriend and boyfriend in the theater lobby. Maybe that’s just the nature of writing surprise, with dramatic irony getting in the way of forgiving certain character behaviors: “Why is Jess acting like Nick forgot her birthday? If only she knew what Nick has planned!” Because she doesn’t, “Birthday” sets up some roadblocks that have to be acted, directed, and edited around—an in a couple of spots, it doesn’t always take the smoothest route.
It’s strange taking the big-picture view on the show’s third season (which David Sims will do in greater detail in the TV Reviews section next week) after “Birthday,” because New Girl no longer seems to command the television conversation like it did at this time last year. We’re a long way off from “Cooler,” the moment at which a lot of viewers went from “Hey, you should probably watch New Girl” to “Hey, you need to watch New Girl.” In the time since that episode, the torch of critical defense has been passed to other programs; fan-wise, the show has found such a consistent quality that it really only disappoints with an out-of-character moment like “The Box.” Like Jess and Nick’s relationship, some of New Girl’s heat has cooled, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less capable of accurate observation or profound humor.
But it’s still not that long since the show’s big, triumphant moment, and from the perspective of someone who’s been watching so closely, it’s not like all that much has changed. Season three navigated the choppy waters of a protracted love triangle, and as the bake-off C-story in tonight’s episode demonstrates, Damon Wayans Jr. and the writers have integrated Coach back into the reality of the show with remarkable speed and ease. Within a season about a person’s true nature and their capacity for reinvention, “Birthday” tucks into some potent material about what Jess and Nick can truly expect from one another. The idea has often been that they can change as individuals in order to work better as a unit, but tinges of doubt remain. When Nick appears to be acting like his old self, Jess gives in to that temptation. That assists the episode in earning its ending, even when the audience knows there’s a surprise coming. Nick didn’t drop the ball on Jess’ birthday—in fact, he handled it so well that the only way he could express his love, appreciation, and gratitude to the birthday girl was on a cinematic scale. (But he also has that coin in his pocket from the first time they kissed, a bit of honest intimacy that cuts the treacle of the montage even better than Nick admitting that he’s a bit of a sap as a filmmaker.)
You’ll often hear that a romantic relationship started to sour when the partners could no longer surprise one another. “Birthday” reinforces the impression that the Day-Miller romance is nowhere near that point—and I think it shows that New Girl isn’t at that point with viewers, either. There’s a comfort and contentment about New Girl these days, but it’s still capable of replicating the magic that garnered so much attention for it at this time last year. The next new episode doesn’t air until February 2, but that episode will put New Girl’s biggest guest star ever in front of the show’s biggest potential audience ever. Following “Birthday,” I hope the show manages to catch a lot of people off-guard on Super Bowl Sunday.
- “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms and alter-egos: We don’t know who “Boomer” is, and Nick doesn’t know what that “See you in hell” cake is celebrating, but I can guarantee that “Boomer” is not “Boomer”’s real first name.
- While writing last week’s review, I thought, “It’s odd that the show didn’t go all in on the joke and call this one ‘Basketsball.’” Well, I’m an idiot, because the show did exactly that. My apologies for getting it wrong.
- I don’t know if Ben Falcone is set to return as Nick and Cece’s co-worker at the bar, but he makes quite the impression in his first appearance. The way he’s super-explicit in his attraction to the manager, yet weirdly non-vulgar (“holy crud”; “you butthole”) just killed me. The cut of “Birthday” I screened seemed like Falcone was given a wide berth for improvisations; his description of Cece’s “old fashioned”—“Gin in a muuuug… with a peanut in it”—comes off as inspiredly off-the-cuff.
- Damon Wayans Jr. really is one of our greatest comedic taunters: “Coach, where are all the kazoos? All over your face!” [Taunting kazoo noise.]
- Great pregnant pause from Max Greenfield on Schmidt’s list of people who never graduated high school: “Einstein, Bill Gates, Anne Frank—I’m gonna take back that last one.”
- Rob Reiner kills it while acting into a fake webcam: “When you were born, I got a deli sandwich at the hospital cafeteria. And then there was a baby!”