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New Girl Recap: Off the Grid

NEW GIRL:  Jess (Zooey Deschanel) tries to fill her free time after she is laid off from her teaching job in the "Katie" season premiere episode of NEW GIRL airing Tuesday, Sept. 25 (9:00-9:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

After a solid first episode, New Girl really got going in its second half-hour last night. It was funny. It was spooky. It involved Nick pretending to be a dancer named Cricket. Basically, it was a 23-minute reminder of why this show became a hit, and it made me profoundly glad that it’s back.

Somehow, last night’s episode managed to take two wildly different genres — sex farce and time travel — and blend them with that classic old-school sitcom plot in which somebody distinguished comes to visit and everyone has to be on their best behavior. In this case, the visitor was Charmaine, Winston’s mother, who is not a fan of Schmidt.

Possibly she dislikes him because of his tendency to blurt things like “The loft just became Big Momma’s House!” whenever he sees her; possibly it’s because he keeps trying to sleep with Winston’s basketball-playing sister. Either way, Charmaine does not approve, and Winston’s caught in the middle. (Sample quote: “If he touches your sister, I’m going to stop paying your cell-phone bill.”)

This storyline wasn’t bad, exactly — the slo-mo tribute to He Got Game at the end was certainly inspired — but for me it paled in comparison to the madcap two other plots. Before we get into those, though, let’s talk for a minute about David Walton, a.k.a. Sam.

Last year, Walton starred in the cute-but-doomed sitcom Bent, which perished due to low ratings after NBC buried it in a three-week run over late March and early April. Before that, he had leading roles in four other NBC shows — all of which were similarly canceled. He’s surely hoping for better luck with Fox, and in fact, his soulless-hot-guy schtick might make sense on a slightly raunchier network. So far, at least, he seems like an excellent match for this slightly wilder, funemployed new version of Jess.

Here’s the episode’s basic setup, as explained by Schmidt: In every person’s life, there comes a time when he or she becomes irresistible to the opposite sex. In Schmidt’s case, it was the Night of the Shoshannahs, Hanukkah 1996. In Nick’s case, it’s whenever he gets on a jet ski. Something about getting fired has triggered Jess’s Moment of Unstoppable Hotness, and now she’s attracting men right and left.

Man No. 1 is Andy, a beer deliveryman who Jess meets while she’s hanging out at Nick’s bar, attempting to go “off the grid” by getting drunk at 11 a.m. Jess thinks Andy’s cute, so she asks Nick to give him her number, but Nick screws up and gives it to man No. 2, Andy’s awkward sidekick Bearclaw (so named because he has a shoddy back tattoo of a bear claw that he gave himself in middle school).

While this mix-up is brewing, Jess meets Man No. 3, Sam, who’s appeared at the bar looking for his Internet date Katie. Since she’s off the grid, Jess claims she’s Katie, adding saucily, “And I’m the girl from my dreams of you.” When Sam says he’s been to 48 Creed shows, “Katie” squeals “42!” That’s how appealing David Walton is — he has a face that can make a lady pretend she’s into Creed.

Jess and Sam have what could mildly be described as chemistry. As Jess puts it, “He brewed me like a fine chamomile.” Also: “I left my body, went up to heaven, saw my grandparents, thought it was weird that I saw my grandparents, came back down, became a werewolf, scared some teenagers, came back in my body.”

The only problem is that she needs to maintain the fiction that she’s Katie, the dancer who does something with puppets. Oh, and she also needs to keep this development secret on her hot date with Andy, which turns into something else entirely once Bearclaw shows up at the door. In classic sex-farce form, she winds up evading Bearclaw by pretending she’s “sick in the face” (Bearclaw: “Well, I have an anal thermometer in my bag”) and sneaking out to meet Sam in the bar bathroom — where of course she’s discovered by her other two suitors.

It’s rare for that sort of door-slamming bedroom comedy to mesh well with a time-travel plot, and I say that as someone who enjoyed Hot Tub Time Machine. But somehow it makes perfect sense in the New Girl universe that Jess’s romantic entanglements would blow up at exactly the same moment that Nick is trying to handle a mysterious visitor from the future.

Played by Raymond J. Barry from Justified, Future Nick is a grizzled old man who seems to understand all of Nick’s issues (broken heart, inexplicable moments of anger) and even owns a beat-up version of his red hooded sweatshirt. Also, he knows all about Nick’s half-finished novel, Z is for Zombie. If that isn’t proof enough that he’s actually Nick in a few decades, consider this: He’s a terrible tipper. Isn’t Nick exactly the sort of guy who would travel back in time and still tip himself badly? (That this plot aired the week that Looper — a film about a man whose present and future versions run into each other — comes out and that it revolves around Jake Johnson, who this summer starred in indie time travel film Safety Not Guaranteed, is a wonderful coincidence.)

Nick’s spooked enough by this apparition to ask Schmidt his opinion of time travel. The answer is not wildly helpful: “One: Marie Antoinette. Two: Cleopatra. Three: Young Ann-Margret. Four: Old Ann-Margret.” So Nick is left without much support when Future Nick gives him an unsettling prediction: Apparently, he’s going to hurt Jess in the future, and so he should apologize to her now.

There’s something genuinely creepy about this — what is Nick going to do, and how bad is it going to be? The prophecy doesn’t even lose its power when we learn that Future Nick owns a tinfoil hat and lives in a cardboard box behind the bar. The scene where Nick makes Jess an old-fashioned to atone for his future wrong is sweet and lighthearted, as the two compare notes on their favorite MTV personalities. (As a kid, Jess says, Jenny McCarthy was her role model: “She was so beautiful, with all the swearing.”) But there’s a weird darkness there.

Luckily, it’s dispelled by Handsome Sam at the door. He knows Jess lied to him, and he’s okay with it, as he explains in a speech that perfectly tweaks romantic comedy clichés: “I don’t care what you like or what your name is or anything about you. And the good news is that you don’t have to care about me either, and we can still tear each other apart.” In other words: “I’m just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to bone him.”

Jess gladly accepts, and good for her, right? She might not be Jenny McCarthy, but she’s come a long way from that girl in season one who couldn’t say the word “penis.”

Photo: Greg Gayne/FOX