New Girl has a strange relationship with sex. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the series’ psuedo-twee aesthetic: Matters of love, passion, and attraction, it can totally handle, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty (you know, the real nitty gritty), the series starts to get squeamish. Particularly its main character, whose previous relationship was ruined by her boyfriend’s wandering libido. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that Jess was entirely comfortable with her sexuality before Spencer, though “Bad In Bed” establishes that the character isn’t entirely repulsed by the thought of intercourse. In fact, much of what drives the comedy of the episode is Jess’ over-interest in the matter: In an attempt to get over her own performance anxieties, she overcompensates at every turn, buying lingerie that she doesn’t entirely understand, raiding Schmidt’s digital porn stash for pointers, and eventually alienating Justin Long’s Paul with an ill-advised bedroom maneuver. New Girl has always approached physical intimacy with a degree of awkwardness; “Bad In Bed” is simply the most awkward manifestation of that approach.
Awkward isn’t a bad thing in and of itself—but forced, manufactured awkwardness is. And, unfortunately, that’s what the Jess-Paul storyline of “Bad In Bed” suffers from: A bad case of Manufactured Awkwarditis. It starts like this: Jess and Paul return from a date all hot and bothered. They can’t even wait until they get into the Jess’ bedroom, and, in a moment that threatens to drown sex-starved nerds of all genders and sexual orientations in their own saliva, both characters are shirtless within the first minute of “Bad In Bed.” Despite this initial flash of eagerness, Jess is hesitant. Given the way things ended with Spencer—and the fact that he was the only person she’s slept with since the second George W. Bush administration—that’s understandable. Zooey Deschanel gets a sweet moment alone where Jess pep talks her self into preparedness, going so far as to give her reflection a high five. But then—nothing. Jess and Paul lie side by side on the bed, apologies are given, promises to give things another try are made, and the episode begins in earnest.
There’s nothing wrong with this cold open. It stays true to the baggage left over from Jess’ last relationship, and it opens the door for an episode that honestly approaches her hangups and tries to alleviate them with some good, ol’ fashioned, consensual doin’ it. But “Bad In Bed” takes a different approach. Rather than having Jess hash out her problems with CeCe or her roommates, the episode throws a bunch of “wacky” contrivances at her. She goes shopping for sexy underthings with CeCe and buys the most impractical collection of straps and buckles in the store. In a funny moment that’s turned into a pair of less-than-funny scenes, she stumbles upon some porn on Schmidt’s laptop and uses it as entry point for a conversation about what kind of outrageously kinky stuff Paul might be into. It’s all terribly forced, and while Jess’ sit-down with the guys leads to the episode’s funniest scene—wherein Jess and Paul engage in some bizarre role-playing where she’s an old-timey reporter who talks like James Cagney and he’s an agitated Jimmy Stewart—those scenes just feel odd. It’s like they’re occurring between people who’ve just met, not two best friends or a group of roommates who’ve been living together for a few months. Jess isn’t a character with a lot of ties to reality, but the situations she finds herself in during “Bad In Bed” feel like the type which only arise in the minds of television writers.
And the way credited writer Josh Malmuth treats those anxieties isn’t enough to sustain a whole half-hour episode. Jess’ quest to bed Paul is propped up by a much more amusing B-story starring Schmidt and a barely-there C-story for Nick and Winston. Nick’s reluctance to get a haircut is inconsequential, save for how it ties into his affectations toward poverty, and it exists solely to give Jake M. Johnson and Lamorne Morris something to do in “Bad In Bed.” (When Nick emerges with a high-top fade in the final act, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see his trip with Winston to the barbershop—until the airless epilogue, which cemented how inessential the storyline is.) Johnson and Morris are now consistently losing out on the enjoyable storyline front to their colleague Max Greenfield, who gets to duck out of the “Will Nick get a haircut” proceedings in order to turn his boss’ baby shower into a drunken bacchanal. (The drunken part skipping the mother-to-be, of course, because that would be “horribly irresponsible.”) Winston’s need to turn everything into a competition is seemingly transposed to Schmidt in “Bad In Bed,” where a rivalry with Eva Amurri’s Beth and a desire to get a roomier cubicle at work eventually escalate to some unexpectedly tolerated bad behavior at the shower. Turns out you can push your pregnant boss into a pool (an example of one of the few organically developed moments of awkwardness of the episode) and still end up the most popular guy in the office. (Though Schmidt is still the only guy in the office.)
So what separates Jess’ story from Schmidt’s? They’re both pretty ridiculous, and they both involve a less-than-flattering portrayal of their central characters. It could just be that New Girl never treats drunken lunacy like something to be afraid of. Sure, there a lot of scary things about sex, but it’s disingenuous to approach those scary things through the means seen in “Bad In Bed.” The biggest problem with the plot might be how much time is spent talking about the problem, rather than trying to solve it. After all, the most genuine moments of the episode come at the beginning and end of the episode, moments where “Bad In Bed” follows that old New Girl saw about being yourself and doing what you want to do—which in Jess’ case is the sex, with Paul. That can be an awkward thing to admit, but when you stop dancing around it and just go for it, that awkwardness doesn’t feel so off-putting. Instead, it feels real.