After dealing with how weird and icky sex is last week, “The 23rd” finds New Girl turning to subject matter that’s more squarely in its wheelhouse: Namely, Christmas and feelings. A Christmas—nay, holiday episode, as Schmidt’s post-Chanukah malaise so quickly reminds us—is a no-brainer for the show. Jess is the type of person who goes gonzo for Christmas. Not necessarily the religious aspects of the holiday, but its fun, “glad tidings and good cheer” side. And that’s exactly what she does here, raving about a well-decorated street (while driving by its inflatable Santas and light-up trees during the daytime) and displaying her thoughtful gifting skills by giving a pair of roller skates to each of her roommates. The episode’s cold open, in which it’s slowly revealed that Nick, Schmidt, and Winston are each wearing their skates around the house, is a deftly written comic sequence, one heightened by the fact that none of the actors involved appear to have much skating experience. Unfortunately, that’s as funny as “The 23rd” gets.
The complicating factor surrounding New Girl’s first Christmas is Jess’ relationship with Paul. While the character knows exactly what to get for the guys and for her best friend (CeCe loves her fake mustache as much as the roommates love their rollerskates), she’s totally stumped when it comes to buying a Christmas gift for her boyfriend. Apparently she arrives at the conclusion that Paul’s life is missing a stuffed, anatomically correct heart, a gift she downplays despite Paul’s wide-eyed enthusiasm toward it. Not that Justin Long has many other modes as Zooey Deschanel’s potential suitor—what we’ve seen from Paul so far is either a childlike whimsy or the rattled, sad little adult that lives within that whimsy. And as soon as Jess answers Paul’s pair of tickets to Vienna and a Viennese music festival with a battery-powered novelty, it’s clear we’ll be seeing more of Long in the “rattled/sad” position later in the episode. When he says “I love you” and she responds with “Thanks,” that pretty much seals the deal on the whole romance.
But I’m not particularly sad to see Paul go. And his impending departure presents a real, relatable emotional dilemma for Jess, one that adds an element of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”-style melancholy to the proceedings. It’s just too bad the way things between the characters end is so abrupt and inconsequential. Paul has served his purpose as a narrative device—help Jess recover from her break-up with Spencer—and now he must join Michael Chang Sr. in the clouds above Fox Plaza. One minute he’s there on the balcony with Jess and Nick, and the next minute he’s gone. Now all that stands between a Nick and Jess hook-up is Lizzy Caplan’s inevitable ascendance to that higher plane.
And while New Girl is the last show that should be counted on for strong storytelling, its disappointing how limp “The 23rd” feels until the characters arrive at Schmidt’s office holiday party. And even there, things are a little off-kilter. While the script—New Girl’s second credited to Donick Cary following the more solid “Wedding”—gives miniature arcs that serve Winston, Schmidt, and CeCe well, Nick’s intrusion into Jess and Paul’s affair grafts two tired sitcom tropes onto the already rote “I can’t say I love you” story playing out between the characters. Not only does Nick fall into a pit of dramatic irony when he approaches Paul on the balcony of the Associated Strategies building (the generic name of Schmidt’s employer is an understated comedic high point of the episode) in order to smooth things over, he then gets himself, Paul, and Jess caught in a “stuck in the meat locker” episode when the door to the balcony locks. These are all necessary complications leading toward the end of Jaul (Pess? Jessaul?), but they’re each too Sitcom 101 to rise and meet the complex nature of Jess’ feelings toward Paul. And they each earn an additional lump of coal from the ghost of Sexy Santa for because they’re not funny.
But enough with the humbuggery—there were reasons to like “The 23rd,” and most of them had to do with characters other than Jess, Paul, and Nick. I especially enjoyed Winston’s story, which followed the template (set by “Wedding”) of playing Lamorne Morris off a precocious moppet. This time, it’s the son of Michaela Watkins’ Gina, whom he finds under a desk, hiding from Schmidt’s shirtless take on Kris Kringle. It’s a curious choice to make Winston the guy in the principal cast who’s wildly competitive and great with kids, but I really appreciate the way this part of the characters has grown from “Wedding” and “Bells.” Maybe it’s a result of his time interacting with the pubescent contestants on the “Cash Cab on a roller coster” game show BrainRu$h, but Morris really sparkles with the younger guest stars, and if Gina’s offer from the end of “The 23rd” stands, we’ll be seeing a lot more of that in future episodes. It’s a logical extension of the character’s current situation, too: If you returned from an extended period of playing basketball overseas, you’d probably feel alienated from other adults, too. And who feels more alienated from adults than the types of kids who’ve looked up to Winston here and in “Bells?”
While the show sends Winston down an unexpected career path, it’s putting things in motion for CeCe and Schmidt, too. If they’re ever going to get together, the male half of that equation needs to find his spine, which is located in the copy room beneath a skimpy Santa outfit in “The 23rd.” And while hearing from CeCe that he’s just a pretty face and a hot body is the greatest gift Schmidt can receive, she’s trying to move away from guys who see her like that. Guys like Schmidt, who likes her for who she is—not because she’s the “after” model for an assumedly deadly South American weight-loss drug. And we as an audience get a better sense of who that person is this episode, through some really sweet bonding scenes between Jess and CeCe. (Sidebar: The whip pan from CeCe entering the bathroom to Jess standing in the corner is one of those moments where you can hear New Girl think, “Wait, we can move the camera around like we’re making a movie?”) Light, fluffy, and funny, their scene in the ladies’ room is the emotional counterbalance to Jess’ Paul problems. If New Girl is never going to progress the Jess-Paul relationship past its gawky-teenager phase, it’s good to know it has a handle on the relationships that are actually central to the show.
“The 23rd” isn’t as great a holiday episode as New Girl is capable of, but when do the holidays ever match up with our heightened expectations? (When you can’t shout those expectations into reality—as the gang does during the conclusion of “The 23rd”—that is.) No, what’s important about the season is people coming together and hopefully finding some mirth and merriment (tempered with a dab of Charles Schulz-indebted soul searching along the way), which this episode certainly reaches. And hey, I only noticed one musical cue from A Very She & Him Christmas. Consider that New Girl’s Christmas gift to us all. Happy holidays, and I’ll see back here in 2012.
- Schmidt’s gift to CeCe is a personalized perfume with custom ingredients: “Sandalwood—always up to no good.”
- Jess sums up CeCe’s latest tool of the week, who won’t even his girlfriend wear her new fake mustache: “Kyle’s the living worst”
- Such are the dangers of playing Santa in hot pants: “I’ve got a bad case of Santa Lap”
- Schmidt’s other traditional, degrading office-party roles include Sexy Easter Bunny, Cinco De Sexy, Sexy Martin Luther King (he didn’t have the magnetism to pull off the last one).
- As an extra Christmas bonus, here’s a clip of BrainRu$h, which looks like it completely ruins the experience of riding a roller coaster.