In the first half of its first season, I bowed to almost no one in my dislike of New Girl. What I thought was a mildly promising pilot degenerated into a series of quirks and quips, disconnected from anything like real human emotion or connection. The best description of the show I knew of came from my wife, who opined that it felt like a series that spun off a popular supporting character from another sitcom—in this case, Jessica Day—then amped up everything that had made her popular in the first place. But as with so many spinoffs, what was fun in an ensemble became insufferable without a strong ensemble to tamp it down. What made it even worse was that New Girl wasn’t actually a spinoff. There was no original program from which viewers knew Jess to hang on to positive memories of her. It was just all Jess, all the time, and it became sort of physically assaultive. I gave up on the show.
Obviously, I don’t need to tell you that things changed, nor give you a long-winded explanation for why they did. You can see that I’m here and reviewing the show. You can see the grade I’ve given it. You might even have seen me raving about the show’s second season on Twitter or in comments. I don’t even need to really explain why. There have been great explanations for it both story-oriented and behind-the-scenes-oriented. What’s most interesting to me is how New Girl essentially retrofitted itself into the theoretical show Jess had been spun off from in the first place. To follow my wife’s logic down an increasingly insane rabbit hole, New Girl is the show that made people love Jess so much in the first place, only to lose some of that affection once she got her own show. In this alternate universe of my own devising (which I promise I’ll move out of in a sentence), New Girl is a perfect ourobouros. Predictably, ratings have stumbled, about which more in a few weeks, hopefully. (Long and short: American comedy viewers seem to prefer comedies with true leads to true ensemble comedies, at least Nielsen-wise. There are exceptions—Friends—but most sitcom success stories involve an obvious lead that all of the other characters react to, and once that dynamic dissipates, a show’s ratings start to taper off.)
New Girl doesn’t have it easy, either. There’s a huge spate of hang-out comedies on the air right now, shows about groups of friends who just spend their time sitting around and shooting the shit. The problem I’ve found with this particular genre is that when there are enough of these shows around, since they tend to have fairly low stakes and lots of relatively affluent white people, they start to blend into each other. Would anyone be surprised if New Girl, Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother, and a bunch of other young people hang-out shows merged into one super-being, Voltron-style? Probably not (I mean, outside of the sheer impossibility of it happening). But where I think New Girl succeeds comes from its commitment to injecting stakes back into the proceedings. Maybe they aren’t the highest of stakes, but the show has diligently tested all of its characters this season (yes, even Winston), as they embark on the confusing journey toward maturity. It’s a tough balance to handle, yet New Girl has managed it with aplomb, and most weeks, it or Bob’s Burgers is the show I end up getting the most pure pleasure from. (Both are on Fox, which doesn’t get enough credit for the strength of its comedy development process, both at developing new shows and at massaging existing shows into better programs.)
But you don’t want to talk about that. You want to talk about Jess and Nick having sex, because it was awesome.
“Virgins” is a flashback episode, one of those stock-in-trade episodes for these hang-out sitcoms, at least since Friends showed us how everybody looked in that prom video. (Cougar Town just had a pretty good example of this form earlier this season.) Since it’s showing us how everybody in the group lost their virginity—well, not Nick, who just tells Jess (and, by proxy, us) toward the episode’s end—it seems like an especially obvious way to hang a lantern on the fact that if Jess and Nick didn’t have sex soon, the “stumbling toward coupledom” segment of this storyline was going to end up being a bit of a bore. Yet creator Elizabeth Meriwether once again trusts her instincts, and Nick running to stop the elevator (to the strains of VanDerWerff number one super-hit “Anything Could Happen,” no less) perfectly rode the line between expected and desired. You knew it was going to happen, just as soon as the show isolated the two of them in that scene together, but you also wanted it to happen, and that’s the best kind of storytelling.
The first time flashbacks are all very funny. They’re essentially there to be shaggy dog stories that get between the state of things at the start of the episode—Nick and Jess haven’t had sex—and the state of things at the end—they have!—but they do a solid job of filling out the time (which is often all a hang-out sitcom needs to do). The funniest is Schmidt’s, because it boils down to Nick trying to lift his greased-up roommate up from the floor to climb up into bed to sleep with his girlfriend. I’m not a big fan of fat Schmidt, but I thought this was probably the best use of that version of the character ever, able to take a gag that would have been funny with even muscular Schmidt and make it doubly hilarious because it boils down to Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield wrestling on the ground in ridiculous makeup while “I’ll Make Love To You” plays on the soundtrack.
Weirdly, the weakest of these flashbacks is Jess’, which is what kicks the whole thing off. (She’s meeting the guy she lost her virginity to for drinks. His name is Teddy, and he turns out to be a handsome fireman.) There’s lots of funny stuff here—particularly from Jess’ initial prom date, who wants to make sure everything about their sexual encounter is carefully negotiated—but it also boils down to younger Jess being a dork. And while I like that version of Jess, it’s also subject to some diminishing returns, where the show has gone to the flashback well with all of these characters so often that the flashback stuff is losing a bit of its potency. Then again, Nick’s consternation at this story being told in the present carried enough of it, as did Jess’ clear confusion at the fact that it wasn’t particularly horrifying, really.
In screenwriting, there’s a lot of talk about characters’ “wants” versus their “needs.” Basically, this is all about what characters think should happen versus what actually must happen to them for them to progress as human beings. What’s made New Girl season two so great is that it’s taken this idea and applied it to all of the characters, then made it palpable. Take, for instance, young Jess, sitting on the bed with her prom date, and thinking she wants him to tell her exactly what he’s going to do at all turns, then realizing that what she really needs is for him to just tear off her dress. Nick and Jess have spent all season avoiding their feelings for each other, but the longer time goes on, what they want and what they need start to dovetail, and if things play out as I suspect they might, this could end up happening with everyone on the show. I feel like I’m doing a poor job of selling why I love this show so much where I once hated it, but suffice to say that the best thing an ensemble comedy can do is build to a conclusion that benefits all of the characters, not just the one, and the closer we get to the end of this season, the more convinced I am that Meriwether and crew are going to nail the landing.
- I didn’t talk about Cece and Winston above—probably because the show still isn’t always clear what to do with them—but Meriweather usually has a great sense of what to do with both. Cece’s short story about losing her virginity to Mick Jagger is one of the episode’s funniest moments (and surprisingly sexy, consisting as it does of simply shots of feet and hands drifting off a bed). Winston only now realizing that Mysteria was a prostitute is a little too dumb, but I enjoyed teenage Winston embracing the businessman persona.
- Nick’s dad returns—from beyond the grave!—for a really nice little scene with his son that I wish I’d written down, so I could tell you exactly what he said. Alas.
- Nick sometimes just sits in the toilet stall in the bathroom and listens to the other three talk. You know. Like you do.
- Though I’m sure the Internet would crucify me for this, I would not mind if Schmidt and Elizabeth stayed together for a while. Merritt Weaver is a really great actress, and I am less invested in the Schmidt and Cece stuff than I am a lot of other stuff on the show (though I occasionally enjoy it).
- I also like Brenda Song and feel that both this show and Scandal—where she also has a recurring part—do too little to use her particular brand of manic energy. Something something Suite Life On Deck.
- The wordless reaction of Nick and Jess after they finish is pretty fantastic, as is the way that the episode ends with Zooey Deschanel saying, “Ruh roh.”
- Teenage Nick was obviously Jake Johnson, but I actually thought they’d hired a different actor for Teenage Winston. Props to Lamorne Morris for making that happen.
- One of the curious things about the characters on this show is that the pop culture they like almost lines up with the era they grew up in but not quite. It sounds like Jess is a member of the Class of 2000, and she’s really drawn to “Stay” by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories. I’m a member of the Class of ’99, and I can’t say that song was terribly relevant to my high school experience and much more to my junior high experience. But who knows with Jessica Day. She might just love girls with guitars.
- Erik Adams will return next week, to guide you through the final two episodes of the season. Thanks for having me to discuss what’s my favorite network comedy.