Now that Fox has started following its new episodes of New Girl with reruns from earlier in the season, it’s easy to see how the show has grown and changed since it started in October. New Girl started out good, but it got better once it stopped working so hard to establish Jess’s manic pixie dream girl bona fides and just settled into telling the story.
Some time around the landlord threesome, things really hit a groove, and the past few Tuesdays have flown past, powered largely by the forward motion of the Schmidt-Cece romance. But now that those two are officially a couple, the show might need to locate a new source of momentum. Last night’s proceedings dragged a bit, even though the episode was full of great lines. (Winston’s earring alone provided six or eight of them.)
Maybe last night was just an inflection point, a chance to pause and reflect on where the show has been. That would explain the return of Justin Long, Jess’s boyfriend from earlier in the season, and also the return of Caroline, the woman who broke Nick’s heart.
Caroline first shows up performing dance moves to Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which Jess has been listening to on repeat ever since she broke up with Russell. All that Joni is driving the roommates crazy (Winston: “I’m kind of hoping that the sun comes up, thaws that river, and that woman drowns”), so they drag Jess out to the bar to cheer her up. Jess was the one who initiated the breakup, but that isn’t making her feel better. She’s worried that she’s going to become a crazy old lady and die alone, even though Schmidt tells her that’s impossible because humans will be immortal by 2026.
Nick understands her fear of loneliness. “Caroline is way hotter than that voice in my head who sounds like Tom Waits and tells me I’m a failure and that I look bad in hats,” he explains. Everyone’s warning Jess not to backslide and call Russell, but Nick has already backslid.
When Jess finally cracks, Russell isn’t the guy she calls. It’s Paul Genslinger, a.k.a. Justin Long, the music teacher she dumped after he said, “I love you” before she was ready. “You backslid all the way down the hill and into the parking lot!” says Schmidt when he finds out. “Take off your skis and wait for your family in the lodge, Jessica Day.”
You’d think that a guy like Paul would leap at the chance to get back together with a girl like Jess, but it turns out that he’s got a serious girlfriend named Jenn. He’s planning to propose to her, in fact, and he only slept with Jess out of panic. At first, Jess thinks Jenn deserves to know. But when Paul explains how he feels, Jess realizes that she doesn’t want to mess with their relationship. Unfortunately, Paul takes exactly that moment to tell Jenn what happened, and they both begin sobbing hideously. If Paul is the world’s worst crier — Jess says he’s like “a slow-motion sneeze” — then Jenn is the runner-up.
Jess doesn’t do a great job of explaining her feelings to Jenn: “I thought you were Asian me, but then I realized I’m just Caucasian you.” She’s better at nudging Paul into proposing on the spot, shoving him to one knee and stuttering out the key words for him. Jenn accepts, and in the background, a child plays “Here Comes the Bride” on the recorder.
Poor Schmidt is having romantic problems of his own. His penis is still broken, so Cece has to dress “like a women’s studies major” (a rare cliché of a New Girl joke) so that she doesn’t turn him on. This is difficult because everything turns Schmidt on, up to and including bird-watching. What’s so erotic about a mama bird sitting on a nest? Duh: eggs.
One thing that Schmidt does not find arousing, though, is the old-folks home. Cece brings him to meet her grandmother over his protests that old people are scary because they’re like giant walking raisins. It’s a safe environment for his penis, but maybe less so for his ego. Schmidt: “These people are disgusting. I’ve never been more flaccid in my life.” Cece’s Nana: “Thank God.” She’s saucy, that Nana, and she tells Schmidt that if he hurts her granddaughter, she’ll die and haunt him forever. She also tells him that he can’t make Cece happy: “Not with all those moles on your face.”
In the end, though, Nana gives Schmidt her blessing, prompting Cece to tell him outright that she wants a long-term relationship with him. Schmidt’s reaction to this moment of emotional intimacy is pure pain, but not scared-of-commitment pain. No, he’s having a joyous physical reaction to the idea of Cece as his serious girlfriend, and it’s so bad that it makes him pass out. (Cece seems remarkably tolerant of his injury, given that he got it by sleeping with her crazy roommate. Some people would have a hard time getting past that.)
As for Nick, he’s busy making plans to move in with Caroline. She has him convinced that their earlier troubles were simply a matter of timing: Sure, she abused him for years, but now they’re more mature and things are going to be different.
After their last breakup, Nick made a DVD warning himself not to date her. The roommates hid it somewhere in the house and apparently decided to signal each other with bird noises if it seemed like Nick might need to watch it. It would have been fun to see how that decision was made, but it’s so much better to witness Winston cawing like a flamingo and Schmidt dashing in from the next room making seagull noises.
DVD Nick has a beard and a mustache, collects tears in a jar, and generally resembles rapping Joaquin Phoenix. Even his harrowing message can’t stop Nick, though. At the end of the episode, Jess runs into the bathroom and gives Nick a heartfelt speech about how he doesn’t have to settle for Caroline. But it’s too late. He’s already signed the lease — presumably setting up the central conflict for next week’s finale.
The odd thing about Caroline is that although we’ve watched Nick spend eight months trying to get over her, we’ve barely seen her at all. The other guys in the apartment think she’s bad news, but she hasn’t really been onscreen long enough for those of us in the audience to form an opinion. This episode doesn’t really change that. It’s definitely sketchy that she’s been lying about her age. And her history of dumping Nick repeatedly doesn’t bode well for their future as a stable couple. But she and Nick seemed like they were having a good time performing their “River” dance. Nobody wants Nick to leave the apartment, of course. Still, I wish Caroline seemed a little bit more obviously terrible, just to raise the stakes.