It’s remarkable how little there is to “Dance,” and how much New Girl makes of that little. Though it shouldn’t be surprising, because we’re one episode away from the end of the third season and the show’s staff clearly knows how to make this stuff work by now. And “Dance” is essentially a redo of previous New Girl winners like “Wedding” and “Prince,” anyway: There’s a big event that only Jess is excited about, all the other regulars get roped in somehow, the high jinks build to a climax, and then everybody dances. Those general details ought to be rote by now, but it’s really only the dancing that I’m tired of. And even then, that’s mostly the fault of where the ads fall during any given broadcast. With the resolution spilling into the credits tag every week, what recourse is there but to go “Hey, everybody! It’s Smash Mouth!” once every few months?
“Dance” is the type of episode that you might see from a lot of hangout sitcoms, one that renews the unspoken contract between a hangout sitcom and its viewers. Do you still enjoy these characters? Is their fundamental weirdness still enough to amuse and entertain? If they each received a low-stakes plot that reflects or contradicts how that weirdness might have affected their adolescence, would that be additionally amusing? Okay, see you around next week, and we’ll do this again in three months or 30,000 miles—whichever comes first.
I don’t mean to sound so diagnostic about it, but enough New Girls have aired that viewers and critics alike can be diagnostic about it. Knowledge of what’s going on under the hood is key to enjoying the parts of “Dance” that juke expectation or reach for some extra emotional resonance. There’s a line in my notes on the episode that reads “oh no, Jess interacting w/ kids,” a knee-jerk reflex caused by memories of episodes like “Bells” or “Bully,” which made it feel like Jess’ occupation should be spoken of and never seen. But “Dance” is less concerned with indulging Jess’ inner child and more concerned with getting in touch with who she was as a kid: a scared wreck of a middle schooler cowering in the bathroom stall next to the one occupied by underage smoker Cece. That sense of fear resurfaces in a reluctance to confront her breakup with Nick, a pain that everyone else has to feel for her this week—with hilarious results like the one-way hug she receives from Schmidt. The kid Jess takes under her wing is confronting her own anxieties indirectly, their talk at the end of the episode leading to the Kids Say The Darnedest Things button “Are you talking about sex or dancing?” It’s hard to tell, but Cece’s face indicates that Jess is talking about a little of both. Turns out the under-18 set isn’t completely toxic for New Girl.
The scene in the locker room is also the culmination of a fruitful episode for the Jess-Cece friendship, one relying on the lightly antagonistic “Why are we friends?”/“This is why we’re friends!” dynamic that’s usually applied to their relationships with the guys. There’s a heavy boys-versus-girls current running through “Dance,” and I have to wonder if that’s a result of the writing staff realizing that it’s been a while since Jess and Cece spent any significant amount of time together. The chemistry between Zooey Deschanel and Hannah Simone is one that’s benefitted from age: There’s a natural, chummy connection there that doesn’t require recitation of the duo’s backstory or similar reinforcement to come across honestly and genuinely. And I really enjoy the way Cece overcompensates during what she perceives as a time of need for her best friend: Telling Jess how she should feel in the aftermath of a breakup transitions nicely into their misunderstanding of “good cop/bad cop.” That semantic joke is another example of a “Dance” element that shouldn’t work but does; Deschanel salvages it through sheer force of will, plausibly elaborating on how Jess defines a “bad cop” as “the kind of fumbly dumb cop who’s nice…”
“Dance” understands that the important stuff that happens at a school dances doesn’t occur on the dance floor, and it shuts down the title event early enough to scatter its characters to separate corners of the school—and separate corners of the adolescent experience. As the target of insults and the guy finding disruptive fun in the parking lot, Schmidt and Nick are forced to respectively relive their own childhoods. Winston, meanwhile, winds up on the receiving end of a collective teen crush, which is inexplicable but funny—it’s all in Lamorne Morris trying and failing to put “the heat” away.
It doesn’t matter, though, because “Dance” wouldn’t have its big Hard Day’s Night climax without Winston’s newfound celebrity, which is what really seals the deal for me on this episode. It’s not so much that it pulls the episode in for a smooth landing—because it doesn’t. It’s because the sequence, in which three separate high-speed chases are pulled into a single shot, is such a pure expression of joy. Coach leavens that joy with the maturity that could easily rocket the character out of New Girl’s orbit (please don’t climb into that escape pod just yet, Damon Wayans Jr.), but that brief, shining moment in the parking lot is the show at its best. It’s True American, it’s The Kiss, it’s “Gave me cookie, got you cookie,” it’s “basketsball”—it’s the kind of stuff that might not fit into the traditional framework of a half-hour TV comedy, but does arise organically from the looser way New Girl pulls itself together. There’s satisfaction to be found in both forms of sitcom storytelling, even if you have to look past the occasional dance-off denouement.
- “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms and alter egos: Inasmuch as fake band names count for this feature, please refer to the rap trio of Nick, Winston, and Schmidt (with beatboxer Cece) as The Dumbest Boys In School.
- Fun facts from the IMDB: Director Trent O’Donnell co-wrote and directed the original version of Review, Review With Myles Barlow.
- Coach earns his nickname with a fantastic pre-dance pep talk: “Listen up, chaperones: You will obey all of my instructions. This means everything to Jess. Your asses belong to me now, which means I currently have four asses: the three of yours and mine!”
- When the lights go out, Jess makes a poor attempt at self-censorship: “Ah! Son of a… ooo… penis! That wasn’t better. Sorry everyone.”
- Cece should make friends with Lana Kane: “You have the grip of a much taller woman.”
- Among the candidates for “better chaperones than Schmidt, Winston, or Nick”: a dog, a plant wearing underwear, Ray Charles’ ghost.