Making a television series is a tug of war between tradition and evolution. An audience wants to see characters behaving how they’ve behaved before, but they don’t want to see those behaviors repeated to the point of stagnation. A sense of progression is inherent in telling stories across (and within) multiple episodes and multiple seasons—but too much progression can alienate loyal viewers. It’s a weird process that involves breaking new ground while sifting through the earth that’s already been dug up, and New Girl is in the process of figuring out one of the oddest examples of that process in recent memory.
Two weeks ago, “Coach” introduced a character that technically wasn’t a new character: Damon Wayans Jr. represented a brief footnote in the history of the show, so reincorporating him involved minimal heavy lifting. His presence in the past three episodes opens up new doors for New Girl, but doesn’t require the strained invention a character with no past would require. The writers can use Coach to redefine relationships and reconfigure character dynamics that have developed over the past two-plus years, while also sending him into unchartered territory like a date to a Los Angeles Sparks game with Cece. It’s a unique opportunity to blend something familiar with something fresh, and the confidence with which it’s being executed is enough to make me forget I ever rooted for Schmidt and Cece.
It’s also a fun flavor for an episode like “Longest Night Ever,” which is otherwise quieter in its integration of fresh material. Big changes have come to New Girl this year, but the biggest has been playing out in the background: Nick Miller is now the lynchpin among this group of friends. If season two was about giving Nick the depth and definition that season one gave to Jess, then the stealth plot of season three’s first nine episodes involves carving a dependable, stand-up guy from the pile of Heisler Gold bottles and father issues that Jake Johnson once played. Look at him calling the shots in “Longest Night Ever”: Making sure Schmidt has a babysitter while Coach and Cece take in some hot WNBA action, then sidekicking for Winston in the search for Ferguson. It’s due in part to the character’s growth, but it’s also a canny, relationship-status trick on the part of New Girl. Countering concerns that a coupling would destabilize the show, the way in which Nick and Jess complement each other and bring out new sides of each other has in turn made them the glue of the program.
There’s an inverse of this, of course—if that glue melts, what comedic chaos would ensue?—but New Girl’s pretty good at spinning chaos out of its current setup, thank you very much. “Longest Night Ever” finds Schmidt, Winston, and Coach each acting against their better instincts, and that’s a bad-decision vortex that even sucks Nick and Jess in. They’re not together long enough to activate their Wonder Twin powers, and so Jess hits Schmidt with a car (twice) and Nick leads Winston into a questionable hookup. Sure, severe bodily harm and some boot-knocking might just be what those guys need, but an enabling’s an enabling’s an enabling.
Then again, this is just what happens to New Girl when the sun goes down. Fox’s press site originally referred to “Longest Night Ever” as “Werewolf,” a more telling indication of the full-moon fever seizing the characters this week. It causes the principals to act unlike themselves, but it’s a characteristic move for New Girl, a series that fell hard for “into the night episodes” in its second season. “Longest Night Ever” is of a piece with “The Story Of The 50,” “Santa,” and Winston’s “Parking Spot” plot, in which the “anything goes” nature of the witching hour raises stakes and exaggerates personality quirks. No one’s acting like a different person in “Longest Night Ever,” but small transformations—and Jess and Nick’s reactions to them—make up the episode’s comedic foundation.
Take Winston, for example. His bond with Ferguson starts him off on unsteady footing, but shaken confidence and a lost cat take him to a point where he’s ready to bed down with an early riser whose bologna is too hard. The blame for that behavior can’t be blamed entirely on Mr. Moon—even if his glow illuminates some harsh truths about these people. Those truths kick off some sort of mutation within Winston, to the point where he’s chugging milk of magnesia out of his desire to sleep with Ferguson’s savior, Bertle. During a season when he’s worn a hoodie as pants and turned $2,000 into worthless strip-club currency, it’s his strangest decision yet. But as the Bunny Money incident illustrates, there is no thinking in the dark of a New Girl night—there is only doing.
And doing it (and doing it and doing it well). The nighttime drives the characters of New Girl a little crazy, but “Longest Night Ever” also fills the air with pheromones. Nick and Jess give it all away with their date-night talk at the beginning of the episode: There’s a lot of pent-up frustration, sexual and otherwise, within these characters right now. That’s going to make Coach overcompensate with extravagant snack orders (seven pretzels!) and faux-loverman schtick. That’s going to make Schmidt race to the Staples Center on foot—but not without showing Cece some courtesy, because what is he, an animal? And it’s certainly going to make Winston, the most wound-up of all the characters, buy Bertle’s explanation that sometimes a painting of a boat is just a painting of a boat. If you’re seeking further evidence of the mingling evolution and tradition within “Longest Night Ever,” look no further than its use of silly sexcapades as a comedic engine—a former stumbling block that the show has turned into an asset. It’s not 100 percent effective here—Bertle comes from the realm of broad cartoon stereotypes that occasionally takes hold of Outside Dave—but it gets the job done.
Because the other balancing act “Longest Night Ever” performs involves simultaneously ratcheting and unwinding tension. Schmidt’s inability to get over Cece wears thin, but at least Coach’s entrance into that love triangle adds a new wrinkle. It’s different from Robbie (or Shivrang, Elizabeth, or Schmidt’s love affair with himself) because this obstacle to Schmidt and Cece’s reunion is a person Schmidt loves and admires, and with whom he high fives away awkwardness. The sense that “Longest Night Ever” is building toward bigger fireworks glosses over the fact that the episode doesn’t resolve itself—it just stops. But when it’s going, it’s a winning blend of old New Girl and new New Girl.
- Seriously, I think Ferguson’s job here is done:
- Lines like this make it okay that most of the search for Ferguson occurs offscreen: “We should do another lap around the park—I bet those mean-ass kids playing frisbee are gone by now.”
- A question for the ages, courtesy of Nick Miller: “What do friends do when their other friend is taking a shower with a cat?”
- As Schmidt’s wingwoman, Jess says what we’re all thinking about his employment status: “He has a job that I don’t really understand but seems to pay him well.”
- After having some “Eat up Martha” trouble with his “dumb pocket robot,” Schmidt gets his priorities straight: “Hi there: I’m ruining a date and I don’t want to show up empty-handed…”
- Bertle’s biography has some spectacularly specific details: “Sold Christian T-shirts for a while…”