New Girl’s third season was always going to stand in the shadow of “Cooler.” It’s still possible that all of New Girl might end up standing in the shadow of that one monumental episode. It produced a legitimately breathtaking coda, it signaled that the series was hitting a creative peak, and it pretty much made True American off limits for any episode of the show that doesn’t end up detonating the New Girl status quo.
But while we’ve had “Cooler” on the brain for the whole season (at least I have, judging by how often these reviews call back to the episode), only “Mars Landing” has dared to invoke it so directly. It quotes the episode’s two biggest set-pieces, re-staging The Kiss down to the colors in Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s wardrobe. It’s remixed a little, with Jess grabbing hold of Nick and a gut-punch of a hug replacing the heart-swelling smooch. Starting the episode with True American, meanwhile, lets us know that “Mars Landing” is going to be important. By the time Jess leaves the bedroom that’s no longer hers for the one across the hall that really isn’t hers anymore either, we know all too well why it’s important. This is “The One Where Nick And Jess Break Up,” and it’s going to sting worse than the non-consecutive shots of the Grover Cleveland Round.
In addition to “Cooler,” the other New Girl episode I can always find an excuse to dredge up in this space is season one’s “Injured,” which was also helmed by “Mars Landing” director Lynn Shelton. The tonal similarities between “Injured” and “Mars Landing” go beyond the grasp of small-scale, interpersonal relationships (and the ludicrous fireworks such relationships can set off) that Shelton ports over from her film work. This is the first time during season three that I’ve felt the dramatic beats of “Injured,” a tool New Girl would do well to employ more often as it surges toward the 100-episode mark. Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel both bring a lot of experience in that muted, grounded realm, and the end of “Mars Landing” is a welcome reminder of the type of quietly devastating scenes the pair used to do when their characters were just friends. The unspoken anguish in their “I love you, too”/“But what if that’s the only thing we have in common?” exchange is going to leave a mark.
But does it ring as true as the moment that brought them together? I’m struggling a bit with “Mars Landing,” if only for the ways I’ve put aspects of Nick and Jess’ relationship out of my mind, right alongside the characters. That’s been a big part of the season three passages I’ve enjoyed the most: That superb stretch from January and February that hinged on the characters working through differences and accepting characteristics that simply weren’t going to change. On those counts, tonight’s episode can come across as an emotionally manipulative backtrack. In one fell swoop—or so it would seem–Nick’s inability to take responsibility is too much for Jess to take. Just as quickly, Nick can’t abide by Jess’ need to plot out her future. Where these opposite poles previously attracted, they now repel—the result, just like The Kiss, of feelings that just won’t be bottled up anymore. And yet there’s a sort of genius that I admire in that parallel to “Cooler.” Goddammit, New Girl’s got me all twisted up inside this week.
With Coach in Schmidt’s old room, Schmidt in Jess’ old room, and Jess and Nick sharing a room even though they’d rather not, the loft is turning into a pressure cooker. After watching “Mars Landing” for the second time, I jokingly suggested that season three is a haunted house story and Apartment 4D is turning into the hotel from The Shining—but look at how these characters are behaving in such close quarters. These people were pretty nutty to begin with, but in a cramped space where privacy is limited, all five roommates are going full Jack Torrance. The tragicomedy of “Mars Landing” comes from subtraction: Winston, Coach, and Schmidt begin the episode competing for the affections of two new neighbors, then end up fighting over one and her “crazy witch eyes.” (That’s the TV camera’s favorite female object of 2014, Alexandria Daddario, late of True Detective. Maybe the next character she plays will get to talk more about how she feels about all of this attention?) Schmidt got away for a while, but there’s a gravitational pull in the loft, and it has the roommates cornered like the floor-lava in True American. Shelton’s blocking really plays this up: Simply moving Nick and Jess from the bedroom to the sidewalk in front of the apartment is like dropping the characters into the middle of a big, open field.
The tight, circle-of-friends setup of a hangout sitcom is inherently claustrophobic, and “Mars Landing” turns that characteristic into a punchline. Nick and Jess’ situation is pretty much the classic “stuck-in-the-meat-locker” bottle-episode setup, without the need to contrive a reason for two characters to wind up locked in a meat locker. Instead, they spill their guts and reveal their true feelings because they’re hemmed in by their hangovers, their plans for the future, and the fact that they care about one another despite all the evidence against such emotions. The way these scenes are staged and performed, you can practically smell the boozy sweat slicked all over the characters. They’re in it, and we’re in it with them.
Mostly, though, they’re stuck because of the loft, this necessity of the television show built around the characters that now feels like their ultimate undoing. The fire Nick starts almost provides the cathartic cleansing the characters need, but it only torches the sad monstrosity that serves as a symbol of Jess and Nick’s inability to work together. They’ve never felt so far away from Table 34—back then, they solved relationship-building challenges by accident. It’s when they force the solution that the problems start to show.
- I changed the grade on this thing a million times while writing it, and I’m still not sure that I got it right. I want to downgrade it because the Nick and Jess stuff bubbles up out of nowhere—but their scenes are so good together, and I really like what’s happening between the lines of the Schmidt-Coach-Winston story. The grade started as a B, climbed up to an A-, and could very well end up a crocodile by the time I give more consideration to the Cece-Buster interlude.
- Your window for starting a restaurant called The Famous Meat Bucket (“Taste what meat tasted like before electricity!”) before anyone else opens… now.
- Both times True American has returned, I figured there’s no more U.S. history to draw jokes from—and then Lamorne Morris and Jake Johnson LARP Richard Nixon and his dog: “Drink it up, Checkers. Forget what you saw.”