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New Girl Recap: So Long, Justin Long

NEW GIRL:  Schmidt (Max Greenfield) plays "Sexy Santa" at his office Christmas party in the "Christmas" episode of NEW GIRL airing Tuesday, Dec. 13 (9:01-9:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Greg Gayne/FOX Sexy Santa!

Last week, literary journal the New Inquiry published an article arguing that New Girl “fails at fostering a game-changing leading nerdy girl.” Jess Day isn’t a person, writes Sarah Handelman; she’s a collection of quirks. Fully realized characters are supposed to have basic, fundamental desires that let you know something about who they are. Lisa Simpson wants to be recognized for her intelligence. Liz Lemon wants to run her show in peace and quiet. But what does Jess want?

So far, it seems impossible to answer that question, which leads Handelman to compare Jess to the Morton’s Salt girl or the Coppertone Sun Tan Lotion girl — a cute, wide-eyed logo whose job is to charm us while also selling a product. (In this case, says Handelman, the product is Zooey Deschanel herself.) Until Jess reveals some sort of inner drive, she’ll remain two-dimensional and her weirdness will just be shtick.

It’s an interesting essay, but it’s so focused on Jess as a character that it sort of loses track of the fact that we’re talking about a sitcom and not a Greek tragedy. “Weird for weird’s sake isn’t compelling,” writes Handelman. But when it’s handled right, weird for weird’s sake can be funny, and isn’t that the important thing here? Sitcom history is littered with characters who can’t be explained according to the fundamental-desire rule: What does Elaine Benis want out of life? What about Tracy Jordan? (The EGOT doesn’t count.)

This would be a great place to segue into a description of all the quirky things Jess did last night and the ways those things facilitated, you know, laughter, but the truth is that last night’s episode isn’t really about Jess as a quirk machine. Instead, she’s faced with a pretty conventional problem: Her boyfriend says “I love you” before she’s ready.

Poor Paul — he seems so perfect for Jess. Even his Christmas gift is sweet and thoughtful: two tickets to Vienna and passes to the Salzburg music festival. Jess, in turn, gives him a plush toy in the shape of the anatomically correct heart of a 50-year-old nonsmoker. Trying to reassure her after this unequal exchange of presents, Paul says, “I love it. I love you.”

Jess, awkwardly: “Thank you.”

Paul, absolutely crushing it in the awkward contest: “You’re welcome.”

This isn’t the first time a sitcom has dealt with a premature declaration of love, and it probably won’t be the last. Jess is confused because she’s used to being the needy one in a relationship. “One time I went on a date and by 11:30 p.m. I gave the guy my ATM card,” she complains to Nick. But now she’s just not ready to get serious, and she doesn’t know how to tell Paul. This is all still pretty contextless; it doesn’t take us any closer to understanding what motivates Jess as a character. But it does make the episode more about her feelings than her ball-of-weirdness personality, which, unfortunately, means fewer jokes.

As for Schmidt, he passes the fundamental-drive test with flying colors. He’s a former fat kid who wants to prove his masculinity. Boom. Done. Of course there’s a dating profile video from 2008 floating around the Internet in which he makes his life look like the credits to The Hills — that’s just so Schmidt. (It’s still a little harder to say anything is “just so Jess,” although buying all the boys roller skates for Christmas probably fits.)

But then, the show isn’t called

Schmidt. Or About Schmidt. Haters could argue that New Girl is doing something wrong when the most likable, fully realized character is a member of the supporting cast. But again, Schmidt is funny, and funny is good, and do we really need more than that from a half-hour of Fox?

Last night’s episode advanced the Schmidt-Cece intrigue just a smidgen when Schmidt gives Cece a custom perfume called Cecelia #5. Schmidt explains, “Base notes of cocoa because of your brown … ness. Sea salt because it kind of sounds like ‘Cece.’ And sandalwood. Sandalwood! Always up to no good!” Cece’s charmed. Her ginormous new boyfriend Kyle, though, not so much.

That night, Cece and Kyle turn up at Schmidt’s office party. So do Paul, Jess, and Nick, who somehow get trapped on a balcony immediately after Nick accidentally lets Paul know that Jess isn’t in love with him. While they’re hashing out their problems, Schmidt’s inside, playing Santa for his many female co-workers. It’s a task he claims to enjoy, but we soon learn that (a) they specifically want him to be a half-naked sexy Santa and (b) he’s mostly doing it because his boss Kim forces him to.

Cece, who knows a bit about being objectified, tells Schmidt that he can’t let Kim treat him like a piece of meat even though he has a pretty face and a hot body. Schmidt is delighted by this disquisition on his body disguised as a message of empowerment. He tracks Kim down and tells her that he will no longer be sexy Santa. He’s also done with Sexy Easter Bunny. And Cinco de Sexy. And Sexy Martin Luther King. (“I could never get the voice. I never really felt like I had the authority.”) In her own imperious way, Kim is impressed.

Meanwhile, Schmidt’s other boss, Gina, has lost her little son, Alvin, who ran away when he overheard Schmidt telling Kim that he killed Santa. Winston finds him huddling outside in a Christmas display, impressing Gina so much that she offers him a nannying job. She’ll even pay him lots of money, which could make up for the fact that Alvin keeps calling him “LeBron.”

By the time the party’s over, Jess has broken up with Paul, Schmidt has (temporarily) regained his dignity, Winston has gotten a job offer, and Cece has sprayed herself with Schmidt’s terrible perfume. The whole group is on the way to the airport when Nick decides he’d rather miss his flight and cheer up Jess with a trip to Candy Cane Lane, where the neighbors go crazy decorating their yards every year.

But they arrive too late, and the street is dark, convincing a distraught Jess that she has terrible timing both with boyfriends and Christmas displays. Nick is the first to begin yelling, but soon the whole group joins in, shouting until the Candy Cane Lane residents wake up and turn on their lights. For the record, this is obnoxious. But then the lights go on, and everyone hugs, and we’re back to one of the Adorkable Moments of the earlier episodes. It’s a Christmas miracle, accomplished by a little bit of heart and a lot of inconsiderate hollering.

Photo: Greg Gayne/FOX