New Girl’s kind of on a roll, huh? The freshman series returned from its December hiatus refreshed and re-energized, and while the last four episodes haven’t been end-to-end excellent, they definitely represent the most consistent stretch of the series so far. “Valentine’s Day” continues the streak with some solid, character-based laughs, fantastic guest-star work, and seasonal plots that never felt the need to shout “Look at how weird Jess is!” And while its three storylines didn’t all land as well as the one concerning Jess, Schmidt, and Cece, for the most part they proved that there are some competent storytellers in the New Girl writers’ room.
Tonight’s script comes to us from writer Lesley Wake Webster, late of the short-lived Fox sitcom Traffic Light. While that show (and most of Webster’s other credits, which reach back to the similarly short lived Fox series That ’80s Show) aren’t the most conspicuous of résumé items, it does speak to Webster’s ability to bounce the members of a youthful ensemble off one another with some degree of success. And episodes that do so have been my favorite types of New Girl episodes: Not the ones that emphasize Jess’ quirks or Schmidt’s pretensions toward sexual prowess, but the ones where quarter-life anxieties and romantic tensions light tiny fires under the feet of the show’s bright, funny stars.
Yet, “Valentine’s Day” manages to twist some worthwhile complications into Jess’ quest for one night of meaningless, greeting-card-company endorsed bangin’—a quest Cece reminds Jess is fruitless because, when it comes to Jess and sex, there are always strings attached. (“You could form an emotional relationship with a shoe on the side of the road” says Cece, right before Jess proves her point with an “Aw, one shoe? I hate that.”) That’s a bit of necessary exposition that leads to Jess’ flailing attempts at picking up guys, a parade of evidence for Cece’s case against Jess’ one-night stand that ends in our heroine hooking her least-compatible (and therefore most fuck-and-runnable) fish in the Valentine’s pond: dimwitted, taco-obsessed Oliver, played by True Blood’s dreamiest werepanther, Ryan Kwanten. Of course, Jess needs a ride to his place—since Schmidt drove to the bar and Oliver doesn’t have a car—and when Schmidt ultimately requires a ride from Cece—roving, despicable “street youths” abscond with the wheels of his car—“Valentine’s Day” initiates a sweetheart of a comedic setpiece. There’s slapstick, characters entering through multiple doors like a zippy film comedy from the 1940s, the arrival of a previously unmentioned ex-girlfriend—the only thing missing is an appearance from the chicken featured in Nick’s cockfighting flashback. As it stands, however, it’s a great climax that pushes Jess away from Oliver while throwing Schmidt and Cece together.
When Schmidt and Cece watch over Jess’ flirtations at the bar, there’s little doubt that they’ll end up the ones most enjoying the evening. (Together. Like, in bed. Because they’re obviously gonna do it.) If I have one major complaint about “Valentine’s Day,” it’s this: The episode is dispiritingly tied to rom-com tropes like Julia being too busy for a night with Nick or Winston’s “second chance” with Shelby. At least Schmidt and Cece’s hook-up stems from a screwball comedy-like love/hate setup. It’s the type of dynamic that New Girl tries to pin on Nick and Jess, and while it almost took in “Landlord,” Schmidt and Cece just wear it much more effortlessly.
And while Cupid’s arrow lands shy of a bullseye in regard to the Nick-Julia and Winston-Shelby stories, his aim is true until the final 10 minutes. Clark Duke appears as Julia’s legal assistant, with whom Nick spends most of the evening—before inadvertently persuading the kid to drop out of law school. Duke fits in so well here it’s easy to imagine him playing Nick in an alternate universe where Jess’ roommates don’t all have to be TV-handsome. (This marks the second time in these reviews where I’ve recast Nick in my mind—I might not be a fan of Jake Johnson.) And while it doesn’t benefit from proximity to Lizzy Caplan (who gets in a few good lines when she’s not offscreen screaming at her Chinese counterpart), Winston’s girls’ night in with Shelby transcends its secondary status by reinforcing the notion that Winston is a better listener than he lets on. Too many C-plots have made the character a jumble of attributes—he’s not competitive, good with kids, and sympathetic to other peoples’ problems—but they could eventually add up to the mature version of Winston whom Shelby is seeking. If that should happen, I’m hoping we can avoid the kind of goopy dialogue that wrapped the characters’ contributions to “Valentine’s Day.”
But that’s a lot of hemming and hawing over an episode that hits New Girl’s “20somethings’ problems” sweet spot while introducing a dose of structure that makes the final moments between Schmidt and Cece feel earned. There’s no telling how long the show’s hot streak will last, but if Webster and her fellow writers continue to wind up their characters and let them collide—while avoiding cliché pitfalls—it’ll at least go longer than Jess’ fling with Oliver.
- No interaction between Jess and Julia tonight, sadly, though it is worth noting the way Julia takes to Nick’s bag o’ Valentine’s novelties. There’s an ironic distance to her appreciation of the heart antennae and light-up sunglasses—items Jess would don without a second thought.
- Cece, on her horrible boyfriend Kyle: “He’s got a little surprise for me.” Schmidt: “Spoiler: It’s his penis”
- Schmidt expresses a universal fear: “It’s a horrible neighborhood—there are youths everywhere.” (The soft “th” sound of Max Greenfield’s reading totally sells this line.)
- Oliver, as his ex noisily chomps away at a Mexican anti-aphrodisiac: “She can’t keep eating tacos all night—because I ate most of the tacos yesterday.”