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New Girl Recap: Party Down

NEW GIRL:  Jess (Zooey Deschanel, L) and Schmidt (Max Greenfield, R) recap his birthday celebration in "The Story of the 50" Winter premiere episode of NEW GIRL, airing Tuesday, Jan. 17 (9:00-9:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Ray Mickshaw/FOX

They’re both brunettes, they’re both comedy actresses, and they both fall into that elusive category of celebrities men want to date and women want to be played by in the movie version of their lives. But beyond those shared traits, Zooey Deschanel and Lizzy Caplan have some major differences. Zooey is all sweetness and light; Lizzy is all sour and bite. Zooey once starred in a movie where she dated an elf; Lizzy once guested on a TV show where she murdered a vampire. You could sub in a young Winona Ryder for some of Lizzy Caplan’s best-known roles, on Party Down, possibly on True Blood, maybe even as Janis Ian in Mean Girls; not so for Zooey. And there’s one more difference: At the moment, Zooey Deschanel is much more famous.

Which is why Zooey is the star of New Girl, and Lizzy is just here for a too-short three-episode arc as Julia, a lawyer who’s dating Nick. We never find out how they met — our first glimpse of them together is on a date at a legal party, where they’re flirting by doing terrible Bill Cosby impersonations at each other. (It’s more charming than it sounds.) Soon enough, though, Julia has been swept into one of the circles of zaniness that orbit Jess Day like so many rings around an adorkable Saturn. For now, at least, it works; looks like there’s room for more than one hipster pinup on this show.

Last night’s episode focuses on Schmidt’s 29th birthday party, starting with Schmidt berating himself because he lost his party bus to Frankie “Malcolm in the Middle” Muniz. With only two days until the big night, where else is he going to find a bus with a state-of-the-art sound system, a stripper pole, a Love Grotto, and a steering wheel in the shape of a boob?

It’s very important for Schmidt to throw a good party because otherwise he might not impress Benjamin, his bronemy (also known as his fremesis). Schmidt explains to Jess that Benjamin is his old college suitemate and that they have “a weird, girl-style friendship.” In other words, Benjamin is a dick who makes Schmidt sing, à la Starship, “We built this Schmidty on Tootsie Rolls.” In a flashback, poor fat-suit Schmidt not only sings the song, he also performs a humiliating little dance.

But Jess is undaunted by the specter of judgmental, pointy-shoed Benjamin, let alone Schmidt’s other douchey friends, one of whom has legally changed his middle name to “Doin'it.” (That’s a single word, mind you.) She’s determined to throw Schmidt a party herself. Soon enough, we hear her on the phone, explaining politely, “I’d like to order a last-minute stripper. Preferably of Asian heritage. Very bendy. With a heart of gold. And a crotch of gold.”

The party quickly picks up some unexpected guests. There’s Julia, who Winston invites even though Nick is desperate to keep her away from his roommates. And Tanya Lamontage, Jess’s vice principal, who includes herself when she catches Jess in her office searching for party drugs in the “confiscation station.”

The bus actually looks terrific by the time of the big reveal. Jess has decorated it and stocked it with all sorts of good-times essentials: Kosher yogurt and honey, three sizes of condoms, and of course a stripper pole.

But the stripper turns out to be a dude named Martin Fuller. He explains that the company always sends a man when they hear a woman’s voice, which seems unlikely, but never mind. Martin says that times are tough and he needs the money so he’s just going to take his pants off. Jess says she’ll pay him to stay clothed, then takes pity on him and lets him sing gospel baritone for tips.

Meanwhile, Julia won’t stop mocking Nick for being friends with these people, especially after Benjamin calls him by his special nickname, “N-Word.” It only gets worse when Winston explains that Nick is the inventor of their favorite party drink, “bro juice” (best consumed head-first out of a Gatorade cooler.) Nick finally gets so defensive that Julia has to admit she’s just messing with him. She likes his friends. And anyway, she has embarrassing secrets of her own.

Halfway through the party, Benjamin announces that he’s got his eye on Jess. Schmidt recognizes that this is a terrible development, but he’s distracted by Martin the male stripper’s career advice. It’s crucial to pick a persona (as opposed to a character), Martin says, so Schmidt rattles off three: “Luxury. Dessert. I’m a warrior poet, man.”

Benjamin sidles up to Jess, tells her can get her into a club, then gives up on subtlety altogether: “Why don’t you ditch that zero and get with the hero? The hero is my penis.” When Jess rejects him, he starts insulting her party. Winston tries to challenge him but gets tripped up on the word charcuterie. Finally Julia steps up, asking, “Can I talk to him? I’m a lawyer.” Then she elbows him in the face. In the ensuing melee, the bus crashes.

Turns out, Julia has dark secrets too. Namely, she’s dealing with some serious anger management issues, ironically compounded by the martial arts skills she picked up while trying to become more Zen. It’s okay, though, because Nick is turned on by her craziness. This actually suggests that Nick and Jess might not be compatible; if he likes girls who can krav maga the crap out of a guy like Benjamin, how is he ever going to wind up with one who had trouble saying the word penis?

Inter-apartment love seems to be a forbidden topic now, anyway. The story ends with Jess and Schmidt waiting for the tow truck. In a moment of great vulnerability, Schmidt thanks Jess, tells her nobody’s ever done something so nice for him, and then leans in for a drunken kiss. Zooey Deschanel’s horrified face here is perfect, especially the way she seems to shrink into her coat collar. Schmidt now owes the Douchebag Jar $50.

As a coda, the episode plays us out with a litany of Schmidt’s other jar-worthy offenses. Here’s a brief list of things he’s lost and then been fined for mentioning: His good peacoat. His sharkskin laptop sleeve. His croquet cleats. His other timepiece. And, of course, his driving mocs.

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX