When New Girl started, all anybody knew about it was that it starred Zooey Deschanel and had inspired a team of Fox marketing professionals to coin the term adorkable. These ingredients suggested that we were in for a half-hour show about banjos and knitting, and that embedded within would be some sort of message about How We Live Now, Especially If We Are Girls With Bangs.
Luckily, that was a fake-out. New Girl is a lot of things, but it isn’t new. It’s a classic, old-fashioned sitcom, a time-honored formula that lives or dies by the quality of the writing behind it — and in this case, the writing is totally solid. If Cougar Town is Drunk Friends, then New Girl is Friends2K, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ensemble comedy as a form has stuck around so long because it works.
There’s another reason the How We Live Now bit doesn’t apply. Over the course of the season, New Girl has proven that its schtick is the comedy of the ridiculous, not the comedy of the universal. The arrival of Girls has just underscored this: Jess isn’t the voice of any generation, nor is she meant to be.
As plenty of critics have pointed out, the show improved over time as Jess started to seem more like a person and less like a walking collection of quirks. But it also improved by making it clear that Jess isn’t meant to be an Everywoman anymore than Nick, Schmidt, or Winston are Everymen. It’s okay if we can’t relate to her; most of us can’t relate to Winston’s recently revealed fear of werewolves, either. Or to practically anything going on with Schmidt, the show’s breakout star, who stole the show by demonstrating over and over that he’s just as weird as Jess, if not a lot weirder.
Which brings us to Thomas Lennon as Neil, the guy who tried to replace Nick in the apartment last night. Neil is getting out of a divorce. He considers himself a troubadour. When Winston chastises Schmidt for mentioning his broken penis, Neil says, “Don’t worry about me. I can talk about my dingus all night long.” The recent breakup, the singing, the childlike terms for human genitalia — Neil is basically Jess as she was 24 episodes ago. And Jess can’t stand him. It’s a nod to the idea that quirks aren’t enough to make a character, and an acknowledgement of how much Jess has changed.
The question is, have any of the other characters? Last night made it hard to tell. For a season finale, it didn’t feel especially final. Most of it involved our heroes stranded in the desert, which is about as perfect and ancient a metaphor for spiritual confusion as you’re going to find anywhere. Winston even makes the Biblical reference explicit: “I’m worried about Schmidt. He’s a Jew in the desert. I don’t want him to wander.”
That’s a lie, by the way. Winston isn’t worried about Schmidt. He’s worried about werewolves, which seems to be the reason he’s afraid of the dark. After a season watching Winston establish his life post-basketball (and watching Lamorne Morris establish his character post–Damon Wayans Jr.), it would have been nice if the finale had used him a bit more, rather than giving him a brand-new phobia and then relegating him to an off-screen desert adventure. Still, Morris was perfect ranting in the background on his return. Why was he covered in pee? We’ll never know.
Actually, though, it seems like Winston really should be worried about Schmidt, as should the rest of the gang. His plan to White Fang Cece is spectacularly misguided, even if it did give us a chance to learn what’s on Schmidt’s Kindle. (More than one book, he swears, plus a subscription to Cricket and lots of PDFs.)
Schmidt wants to break up because he thinks Cece would be better off out there in the fashion wilderness, interacting with other members of her species, like the muscle-bound Gino. This doesn’t make a ton of emotional sense as a plot twist. Sure, Schmidt is insecure, but the relationship has been developing for months. Why would his insecurities get the better of him now? Also, if the writers wanted to undo his relationship with Cece, couldn’t they use his ongoing medical problems as a built-in complication? Otherwise, why include that scene with the doctor? Doesn’t that violate Chekhov’s famous line about never introducing a broken penis in the first act?
Here’s the biggest question about this turn of events, though: Why doesn’t Jess try to talk Schmidt out of it? She’s spent the whole episode trying to convince Nick not to move in with Caroline. She’s even fake-thrown her keys into the desert so that they’ll all have to hang out all night, thereby reminding Nick of what he’ll be missing when he leaves. And yet when Schmidt says he’s going to dump her best friend, all she does is listen patiently, then make fun of his pronunciation of “wolf.”
Either Jess thinks the breakup is a good idea, or she’s distracted by her fear of losing Nick. After teasing a romance between those two at the beginning of the season, the show dropped the topic for a while, but lately it’s been back with a vengeance. If Nick and Jess are going to be New Girl’s Ross and Rachel or Jim and Pam, though, they can’t get together too soon. This relationship, if it happens, is going to have a lot of false starts.
So it’s a good thing Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel have such a charming dynamic when they’re interacting with an interrupting third party. Think of Nick’s worshipful reaction to Russell, or the way the two dealt with Remy the landlord (who had a cameo in this episode, along with his creepy pointed broom). This time around, said third party was a coyote. It might have made more sense as a wolf — symbolism! — but regardless, the encounter demonstrated all of the show’s strengths, particularly its ability to sneak in moments of sentiment at the least sentimental of times.
You’ve got Jess making roadrunner noises at the coyote, and you’ve got Jess pulling her fur hood over her head and pretending to be the coyote — both scenes that showcase Zooey Deschanel’s weird, deep, creaky voice, which she’s been using more and more lately as a comic tool. But sandwiched in between those two slices of absurdity bread is the meat of the scene, where Jess tells Nick that she’s okay with him leaving because she just wants him to be happy. She’s White Fanging him, in other words.
Only here’s where the metaphor falls apart, because Nick’s natural habitat is emphatically not the grown-up apartment with bay windows that he and Caroline have rented. We’re talking about a guy whose moving-out speech to his roommates includes these two sentences: “In my room you’ll find a shoebox. In that box there is a guinea pig I said I would bury, so please deal with that.” He’s clearly not ready to be an adult, with or without Caroline. So it’s no surprise when he returns to the apartment late at night with his boombox and announces his arrival by blasting the mix he made when he was 14. (Nick is all about audiovisual reminders of the past.)
This is really the only way the episode, and the season, could have ended. It’s an ensemble comedy; the ensemble can’t break up. While it was unfolding, the dance number felt like a satisfying conclusion, though it seems a little less so on reflection. It smoothed over some seriously loose threads — like, are Schmidt and Cece really over? Still, the cast members are all hilarious dancers, and it does makes sense to end an episode that’s all about old music (“How Bizarre”!) with “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It feels like a classic sitcom move, tacking on an upbeat ending scored to an AC/DC song. But then, after this promising first season, New Girl definitely has the potential to become a new classic.