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New Girl: “Exes”

New Girl gets more out of the conflict between between brains and hormones than any other show on TV. (The possible exception is Archer, but excess is such a fundamental part of that show that someone like Pam should have the same mania for fucking, recreational drug use, and illegal street racing.) The comic voice of New Girl is much more attuned to the emotional aspects of romance, but every once in a while, the roommates get doused in a love potion and race to hilarious heights of randy madness. That kind of frustration isn’t a card that the show can play every week—but when it does, it usually yields huge comedic fireworks. Which makes sense, considering that one of New Girl’s funniest episodes is called “Virgins.”

In “Exes,” there are very real, very insurmountable obstacles to getting what the characters want—that “what” being “some.” Nick and Jess are the only regulars getting it on the regular (welp, this got off to a gross start), and that’s throwing the New Girl universe out of sync. In a parallel to the pilot that I’m only just picking up on, Coach came back into the show’s orbit because of a breakup. Schmidt, meanwhile, is hemorrhaging mojo because solitary living is causing him to revert to old, awkward habits. It’s a mounting sense of chaos that’s a lot of fun to stir up; “Exes” contributes to that volatility by introducing people Nick and Jess used to date to the mix. There’s some requisite talk about the point of no return between friendship and dating, but the episode speaks most confidently (and most humorously) when its characters confuse emotion and lust for logic. It’s in line with the bulk of the script’s content: They can all hear one another, but nobody’s listening.

And because miscommunication is at the foundation of “Exes,” mileage with the episode will vary with your tolerance for farce. Handled incorrectly, this kind of thing can be death for a single-camera sitcom. Unless your show is moving at the speed of vintage Arrested Development, missed cues and mistaken identities belong to the theatrical realm of multi-camera sitcoms, for better (Cheers, Fawlty Towers) and worse (Three’s Company, Bosom Buddies). It’s the “Noises Off baloney” Schmidt winks toward in the episode’s big set-piece—which, because it’s so expertly paced and confined to a single set, works like gangbusters. Like a lot of my favorites from season three, “Exes” gets extra points for ambition: The middle third of the episode is a New Girl equivalent of the “farce from behind” concept of Noises Off. The scenes in Apartment 4D are the preparation and negotiation for what’s happening in Schmidt’s loft. In a nice spot of parallelism, both preparation and execution totally fall apart. Berkley’s appeals to Jess are just as unsuccessful as the multiple-Schmidts/Frank Skabopolis ploy.

Even more than the two farcical multi-cam classics mentioned above, what “Exes” really reminds me of is Seinfeld. All the conversational scenes in the apartments, the “Does sex ruin a friendship?” question (the original underlying tension of the Jerry-Elaine friendship), the illusion that the episode is about nothing—all that’s missing is a slap-bass riff on the theme song. Yet, for all Frank Skabopolis might have in common with Kel Varnsen, “Exes” violates Seinfeld’s biggest rule: “No hugging, no learning.” The episode ends with a big embrace between Nick and Jess, and they each learn a little bit that’s going to carry their relationship forward. 

A large part of that is the footnote that Nick tacks onto the show’s timeline: Before The Kiss, before he reunited with Caroline, before “Wedding,” even, Nick fell for Jess. It happened the moment she walked through the door, a minor retcon that officially explaining a season-and-a-half of squirrely Miller behavior. That reveal is a sweetness that pairs well with the madhouse energy swirling around it—a blend that’s then cut with Caroline’s sour prophecy: “Jess, you’re the girlfriend now, and one day you’re going to be the ex.” Part of enjoying what New Girl has done with Nick and Jess this season is accepting that the show could break them up just as quickly as they came together.

I wasn’t as down on season three’s opening passages as other critics and other viewers (the grades on those reviews certainly bear that out), but I think whatever experimentation was going on behind the scenes was worth it for the hot streak the show has been on since “Thanksgiving.” Some of those episodes depended on the actors YELLING THE JOKES AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS, something I wasn’t particularly sensitive to—but if yelling wasn’t in the show’s vocabulary, it wouldn’t have turned out “Exes.” Because if you want to make some farce, you gotta yell. The door-slamming potential has always been there in the show’s sexual tensions—it just had to try (and, admittedly, fall short a few times) its hand at getting big and loud before trying an episode like tonight’s. Sometimes—but not always—preparation pays off.

Stray observations: 

  • “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms and alter egos: Julius Pepperwood and Theodore K. Mullins, you have met your match, and his name is (improbably) Frank Skabopolis. (Frank even sounds like Theodore when Winston tries the identity on for size.) The most important part of the fake name is the conviction with which everyone—especially Coach’s date—says it.
  • My fixation on the structure of “Exes” gives Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Adam Brody—playing the former girlfriend and boyfriend of Nick and Jess, respectively—short shrift, but each fulfills their duties ably. (Or maybe I gave them short shrift because neither of them is Prince.) Caroline and Berkley (the latter presumably named for New Girl writer Berkley Johnson) are here to serve the narrative more than anything, so there’s not much space for the performances to make an impression. Ellis makes off with a couple of scenes, especially when she digs into Caroline’s (totally justified) malice. As such, I’m choosing to believe that “I’m not from Milwaukee” is not a retort to Nick’s forgetfulness, but rather the reveal that she’s been lying about her hometown this entire time.
  • Great, subtle work from Lamorne Morris all over this episode: Notice that he takes both of the sub coupons after being lured to Schmidt’s lofts, then check out the face he makes in response to “You stay in the guest room with Bertie doing whatever the hell it is you’re doing.” (Also great: “It’s me, Bertie!”)
  • Jess can’t let the possibility of running into Caroline ruin her farmers’ market game: “Strolling around, chatting with vendors—it’s so nice. I feel like Don Corleone.”
  • Entrances and exits can be funny: “Men don’t talk to women they’ve dated unless they want sex or they’re Winston.” Enter Winston: “I also want sex.”
  • As nutty as things get this episode, Jess manages to put it all into perspective: “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve led a very fortunate life.” 

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