Romantic tension is a tricky substance: A satisfying generator of emotional drama in the right hands, a frustrating weapon of stasis in the wrong ones. Employ it correctly and sparingly and it can accurately represent the real-life headrush of falling for someone, but being too afraid to admit it; rely on it for too long and the budding relationship that was propelling your story can transform into a narrative block.
Take Jessica Day and Nick Miller for example. Prior to “Cooler,” one of my greatest fears about New Girl was that the hint of a love connection between the two might be stretched across large swaths of the series. I worried about that relationship elbowing out more fruitful avenues of storytelling or individual characters like Schmidt and Winston; in general, a will-they/won’t-they between Nick and Jess felt antithetical to the show’s relaxed, ensemble-based charms. But “Cooler” voided the will-they/won’t-they question: Jess and Nick kissed, and New Girl didn’t implode—instead, it kicked off one of the best multi-episode runs in the show’s short history. It added a complication to one of the better platonic male-female friendships on TV, but Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson rolled with the punches, their winning dynamic now given a new angle for laughs and turmoil.
“First Date” takes the will-they/won’t-they that was leapfrogged by “Cooler” and spins it into a “are-they/aren’t-they”—a solid foundation for a single episode, but one that could turn to quicksand if it isn’t answered soon enough. Part of the thrill of the episodes that immediately followed “Cooler” was they way they picked up from The Kiss and charged forward. But at the end of another episode revolving around Nick and Jess’ unresolved feelings, the who begins to feel like it’s repeating itself. (I’m starting to worry that I’m repeating myself, too.) But that’s bound to happen at some point in a network-sitcom season. 12 and 1/2 hours is a lot of time to fill!
All of that hand-wringing eclipses the fact that “First Date” fills its allotted half-hour well. For the threat it makes toward gumming up the larger narrative works, this is a funny, tightly written episode that draws on material from throughout the series’ run. You can see the wheels starting to spin, but why complain when those wheels are in the background and Tran and Fancyman are in the foreground?
But before those two can show up (followed by the return of Outside Dave, who’s more obviously comedian/Vine superstar Steve Agee in this appearance) a development from the more-recent past: Following some awkward, above-the-clothes touching, Nick asks Jess out to dinner. Unfortunately, his incomprehensible invite (“Dirty J! Dr. Day, my toilet sister—if so… food”) masks his true intention: He wants to take Jess out on a date, the end result of his latest one-sided conversation with Tran. It’s good to have the smiling face of Ralph Ahn back, because he illustrates the major problem that faces Jess and Nick: When it comes to hashing out their feelings toward one another, they’re only talking to themselves. Cece doesn’t get many words in during her first-act conversation with Jess, and the Nick-Tran scene is reminiscent of all the private moments Jess took to contemplate Nick’s swelling sense of responsibility (Phrasing!) in “Quick-Hardening Caulk.”
Nick and Jess’ eventual encounter with Russell reinforces this notion, particularly once they’ve called their date off twice (and called it on once) and Fancyman takes up the Winston torch in order to put an end to all the tomfoolery. It’s a strange guest turn from Dermot Mulroney: He lurks around “First Date” until he hands Nick and Jess a pair of valet tickets and the two pens he already had on him (cue Nick’s enthusiastic approval). He’s a specter—of what Jess lost and what Nick can’t ever be—until this sudden transformation into an active participant, at which point Mulroney justifies his inclusion on the week’s call sheet. He guides the two maybe-lovebirds toward confronting their feelings, but in a move that echoes the classic Cheers two-parter “I’ll Be Seeing You,” he pulls back at the last second, keeping Jess and Nick in the dark about what the other thinks of their current relationship status. That ambiguity can look like a roadblock, or it can be the final launching pad into confronting the roommates’ true feelings for one another. Sure they have relatable reasons for not taking that leap—the fear of getting hurt, the acknowledgement of what they sacrificed with The Kiss, disrupting the dynamic in the loft—but the leap is what’s required to keep New Girl charging ahead. It’s just not going there this week.
The third of those excuses for shielding emotions and hiding behind bedroom doors may be different from how it’s perceived, though. Contrary to what’s expressed at the top of “First Date,” Nick is not the glue of the male roommates—Schmidt and Winston make a great pair. The viewers have known this for the past few weeks, but it takes a hobo barricading himself in the loft bathroom to show Winston and Schmidt how well they go together. There’s a gratifying switcheroo that occurs in their storyline, another brick in the episode’s sound architecture: After enjoying the lion fish story from “Quick-Hardening Caulk” and the fear-of-death material in “Chicago,” I wasn’t looking forward to watching Max Greenfield and Lamorne Morris spend the whole episode scheming. The plot looks to be on shakier ground after Outside Dave excuses himself to the lavatory (or as he calls it, “the laboratory”) but that turns out to be the brilliant payoff to Schmidt and Winston’s conflict over a shared phone charger. How are these guys not made for each other? They have to work together to make sure they can communicate with the outside world!
There all sorts of carefully plotted payoffs like that in “First Date,” an uncommon storytelling tack that makes for a standout New Girl script. This is a dialogue- and relationship-driven show, and those qualities can make it difficult to warm up to: It’s learned to use the space afforded by the single-camera format for machine-gun patter, but New Girl is still largely a show that sets an episode’s pace and rhythms in the editing room. But at full strength, as the show’s been for much of season two, it can insert a running gag like Nick’s jaywalking into an episode without upsetting it’s natural patience.
The “multiple dates” plot is a curious hybrid in that respect, a high-wire premise that’s plays out across conversations, character moments, and quick cuts to Winston’s “FoScapé” and its unbelievably convenient, frantic-comedy-attuned Hands-Free Lift-Gate. (What, you think New Girl can keep Schmidt’s pomade caddy full without further promotional consideration from Ford?) There are all these elements that “First Date” keeps returning to that add up to a distinct framework—changing in and out of the date suit, interrupting Russell, Brian Stack’s apologetic motorcycle cop—that create the anarchy within a sitcom story dictated by emotion (or denial thereof). I found it incredibly effective, particularly that final beat where the ambiguous nature of the date, the encounters with Russell, and Stack’s cop all come together for one last punchline.
“First Date” is a smart and funny episode of New Girl, even if it betrays some stalling tactics. Only four more episodes of the second season remain; two of those—next week’s “Bachelorette Party” and the wedding-based finale—shift some of the focus back to Cece and Schmidt. The tension that’s been alternately relieved and generated by Nick and Jess’ flirtations will be building up all the while, and if the sheer boldness of that development is to be done justice, its momentum must be renewed in those final episodes. In the meantime, I’ll take some confidently written and edited material like the restaurant scenes from “First Date.”
- “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms:Scrambling to come up with a fake name for the woman he’s taking out—who happens to be Jess—Nick pulls half a Keyser Söze and blurts out “Yolanda Winston.”
- The closest Jess and Nick get to admitting their feelings for one another are admissions about the weird things they do that turn one another on: Nick gets all hot and bothered by being asked for help, while Jess is driven wild by the sound of Nick gargling beer.
- This might be fixed in the cut that aired tonight, but in the screener version Fox provided to critics, Nick and Tran magically produce soft pretzels in the middle of their conversation.
- Another smart callback: Winston is terrible at pranks! A bear in a restaurant is enough—why shoot it up with an infectious disease?
- Next time someone tells you you’re looking sharp, tell ’em you’re wearing Schmidt—with neckscape by Winston.
- Nick, upon seeing Russell: “Ah, the only man we both loved.”
- Schmidt, as Nick, reacting to some theoretically date-ruining tropical drinks: “Grandpa didn’t get a face full of Japanese bullet so that you could drink a melted popsicle!”
- Schmidt’s strategy for dealing with Outside Dave is largely informed by old cartoons: “I will poison every pie on every window sill!”