A pair of lines from the first of tonight’s two New Girl episodes indicate where the show’s head is at as it enters its second season. The first is the three-way exchange between Nick, Jess, and Schmidt that closes “Re-Launch”’s cold open; Nick finds Jess using a telescoping scratching implement to get at an itch beneath the gauze and plaster encasing Schmidt’s nether regions, which leads to the following exchange:
Nick: What am I watching here?
Jess: What do you mean?
Schmidt: This is friendship—pure, unadulterated friendship.
One commercial break and a penis-cast removal later, Schmidt drops this piece of telling dialogue, a bit of marketing-speak about how everyone has “a brand”: “Nick, your brand is ‘gypsy alcoholic handyman.’ Winston, your brand is ‘Winston.’”
I hesitate to say that New Girl is being completely self-reflexive in these moments, as they serve to bring newcomers up to speed as much as they riff on established characteristics for the amusement of the show’s fanbase. “Yeah, what are we watching here?” asks the viewer who heard about the leaps and bounds of quality the show made in the back half of its first season, now tuning in to see a feral-looking Max Greenfield don a loincloth from Mugatu’s Derelicte line. “Can Winston be more than simply ‘Winston’?” asks the long-time viewer looking forward to the character development promised by series creator Elizabeth Meriwether. After rocketing to hit-show status then blossoming into an appointment-viewing hangout show while the part of its audience that was chased away by MLB playoffs wasn’t watching, New Girl deserves some time to reset itself at the start of its second year. This entails reinforcing and challenging the identities of its characters, by means of jokes as well as major life changes.
The big turn in “Re-Launch,” which then carries over to “Katie,” involves Jess losing her teaching job, a shock to her system so serious that she adapts two separate alter egos over the course of tonight’s episodes. The first, husky-voiced shot girl Ivy, is all about illuminating who Jess is not: A world-weary booze-slinger plying her sexuality for tips and attention. The eponymous alternate persona of “Katie,” meanwhile, is less of a radical re-invention, an online-dating profile filled in with secondhand information from the guy the real Katie was supposed to meet at Nick’s bar, a tall, scruffy drink of water played by tall, scruffy drink of water David Walton (late of Bent).
While an unemployment arc signals big changes for Jess, it’s also an echo from the beginning of the series. Back then it was losing a long-term boyfriend, now it’s losing the job she loved—the Jess stories in “Re-Launch” and “Katie” are all about the character finding herself when a defining attribute of her personality suddenly evaporates. These have never been the most potent of New Girl storylines, but the show now has the benefit of buttressing a dejected-and-searching Jess with relationship- and character-based material that wasn’t available to the show at the time of its pilot or “Kryptonite.” That comes on the strongest in the evening’s Jess-Nick scenes, which trade on the genuine, sweet rapport that has developed between Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson. (On his own, Johnson is the MVP of the première double header, a distinction secured by his commitment to a facial tic that overwhelms Nick while he feeds Jess the lie that everyone’s going to be fine after her firing.) That doesn’t mean I’m finally sold on the two characters’ potential coupling, but the first two episodes of the second season elevate their tough-love give-and-take (“Look sharp, ya dumbass!”) to one of the hallmarks of the series.
Whither the “Breakout Character of 2012,” Schmidt? His ascension through the ranks of the show’s ensemble is honored in “Re-Launch,” which is as much a Schmidt episode as it is a Jess episode. There’s a danger in relying too heavily on Max Greenfield’s estimable charms—for example, when Winston’s mom and sister come to visit in “Katie,” the storyline is ultimately hijacked by Schmidt—but to not give the actor and the character their Emmy-nomination-acknowledged due during the première would be ignoring an important part of the series’ growth.
That goes for comedy—the fire-twirling pickle and the pickup game against fictional pro-baller Alisha Bishop are pure, in-over-his-head Schmidt—and drama. An encounter with Cece at the re-branding party (The theme: “Danger,” as correctly predicted by Nick and Winston—they just know each other too well) extends the heart-wrenching loose threads of “See Ya.” Nelson Franklin (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, The Office) continues the show’s guest-casting hot streak as Cece’s new boyfriend, a guy so unlike Schmidt, he’s wowed by the number of speakers hanging from the walls of Nick’s workplace. That Cece would rebound with such a dweeb is a source of tremendous frustration to Schmidt, but Hannah Simone’s heartfelt explanation says all that need be said on the subject: Franklin’s Robby is the anti-Schmidt. This is a guy who would never feel the need to photograph himself in James Bond garb in order to celebrate a functioning wang. (“I wouldn’t say functioning,” Jess tells Schmidt, in a rare joke where vagueness is a comedic asset. “I saw what you did to the toilet seat.”) And right now, that’s just what Cece’s needs.
And an evaluation of those types of wants and needs is a good foot on which to begin the show’s second season. The characters of New Girl may want to affect all these different personas, but what they really need is one another. Teaching is an essential piece of the Jess puzzle, but she’s not totally adrift without a classroom—she’d be more adrift without her roommates or best friend. There’s a sly commentary about the show embedded in that truth: Meriwether contends that she always envisioned New Girl as an ensemble comedy, and that’s evident from the way that none of the individual storylines in tonight’s episodes shine as brightly as the collaborative moments. Jess’ awkward shot-girl routine is worth some chuckles, but it’s at its funniest when Nick calls her choice of sexy attire a “turn of the century bathing costume.” Nick, in turn, gets wrapped up in some inspired silliness involving a barfly who claims to be a time-traveling Future Miller—but even that storyline’s biggest laughs (aside from the punchline, which posits Raymond J. Barry’s character as something of Homeless Time Lord) come from Schmidt and Nick hashing out the scenario over the kitchen counter. Even the height of Winston’s “Girl Drink Drunk” routine—a solo spin through the verses of Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart”—depends on Nick’s previous a cappella rendition of the song.
In other words: Friendship—be it scratching an uncomfortable itch, knowing exactly what your buddy wants to drink, or providing a shoulder to cry on—is the core of New Girl. It’s an immutable facet of its identity, one which, if The Wino Doctor hasn’t corrected the course of history, could face some major challenges in the episodes ahead. From this current juncture in time, however, it’s awful nice to watch Ivy/Katie, Gypsy Alcoholic Handyman, Danger, “Winston,” and Cece bouncing off one another again.
- In order to shore up the relevance of the show’s recently released tie-in book, The Douche Journals by Schmidt, The Douchebag Jar makes a quick appearance in “Katie,” after Schmidt expresses a strong opinion about the proper method of preparing a frittata.
- The bar where Nick works apparently caters to a clientele of hip twentysomethings by night and a band of hobos by day. That said, it’s not too surprising to find Justified’s Arlo Givens hanging around a bar during the daylight hours.
- Among tonight’s all-star guest players is The Book Of Mormon’s Josh Gad, who plays an associate of Nick’s who goes by the nickname Bear Claw. In his doomed-to-failure romantic advances on Jess, Gad strikes comedy gold, including a desire to be called “Sgt. Giddyup Caruthers” in bed. Parker Posey, meanwhile, appears in “Re-Launch” as yet another dire example of what Jess could turn in to.
- Nick has moved on from mixing the elaborate, sugary sweet cocktails that college co-eds and Winston crave: “Now I only want to make a drink that a coal miner would want.”
- From the digital files of Jess Day’s flirtatious texts, in response to a question about what she’ll wear on an upcoming date: “Or not wear—because sex happens naked.”
- A look into a teenage Jess’ idolization of Jenny McCarthy: “She was beautiful with all that swearing…”