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New Girl Recap: Nick Miller, P.I.

NEW GIRL:  Jess (Zooey Deschanel, C) is caught off-guard when Nick (Jake Johnson, R) goes undercover in Jess' classroom to expose a secret about one of her students (guest star Nathan Corddry, L) in the "Pepperwood" episode of NEW GIRL airing Tuesday, Jan. 22 (9:00-9:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

After spending the first half of the year pushing everyone’s emotional buttons, New Girl seems ready to settle into a more relaxed mid-season swing. With one poignant — but underplayed! — exception, last night’s episode contained no moments of deep feeling. Instead, it was all slapstick, as Nick and Jess played amateur detective and Schmidt and Winston taught us all the meaning of the word pogo.

A pogo, in house parlance, is a personality quirk that irritates the other housemates so much that they talk about it. The term comes from Winston’s overeager boner, which appears with such startling regularity that Nick, Jess, and Schmidt had to invent a shorthand for discussing it. One time, it actually changed the channel while they were watching a Bears game. And you don’t want to know what it did to Nick’s pizza.

Winston disavows all responsibility for pogoing, blaming “a combination of adrenaline and great circulation.” And the housemates seem pretty willing to accept it as an unavoidable facet of loft living, even if it’s disconcerting to Cece, who’s staying at the apartment while her plumbing gets repaired. (Models are hell on showers, Schmidt explains, since their low-protein diet causes them to “shed like a $4 Christmas sweater.”)

More disruptive than Winston’s pogo specifically is the general concept of a pogo, because if Winston has one, then doesn’t everyone? Schmidt, who’s never exactly secure about his body, goes wild with self-criticism as he tries to imagine what his roommates are saying about him behind his back. First he does something horrible to his eyebrows, and then he threatens to cut off his mole. Turns out he’s almost there: His own pogo is indeed a physical problem, but it’s located a little farther south. As Cece reveals, his pogo is his “barnacle toenails,” also known around the house as “clickety-clacks” or “centaur boots.”

Now, this is all relatively amusing — I especially liked when Jess compared his new eyebrows to Audrey Hepburn’s — but based on everything we know about Schmidt, how is this even remotely possible? Keratin surplus or not, he’s the kind of guy who should have a weekly standing pedicure appointment. He should be spending hundreds of dollars on high-end foot scrub and know his personal toenail stylist by name. Maybe this is the sitcom equivalent of those Game of Thrones fans who get mad when George R. R. Martin switches the sex of somebody’s horse, but I refuse to believe a character so obsessed with grooming would let his nails go untended.

Cece didn’t have much to do in this story line, but the recurring gag about how she doesn’t get a pogo because it’s “kind of a loft thing” was a nice touch. Even better was the hands-off way the show dealt with Nick’s pogo. Winton’s got a hyperactive little Winston, Schmidt has bad toenails, Jess is a know-it-all, but Nick’s fatal flaw, the thing his housemates discuss behind his back, is that he can’t take care of himself. It’s not a funny pogo, but it’s sweet how much his friends worry about him, all the more so because the show doesn’t make a big deal out of it. After last week’s syrupy sentimentality, the light touch is kind of a relief.

If this episode consisted of only the pogo plot, it would have been disappointing, but Detective Julius Pepperwood — ex-cop, ex-marine — really livened up the proceedings. New Girl has never gone wrong with a fake identity, and Jake Johnson’s first appearance as Pepperwood, in that hat and sunglasses, is pretty terrific. “I’m from Chicago. Thin-crust pizza, no thank you. I’m from Chicago.” I mean, who wouldn’t buy that backstory?

This is the first time in a while that we’ve seen Jess at work, and the first time all season that the show has really made use of her adult education class as a source of comedy. Even before creepy student Edgar showed up with his deer-stabbing fiction, the episode gave us merman erotica (“He was not a mer-gentleman”) and Nick’s own thoughts on the literary arts (“Writers don’t read; we write”).

Jess is disillusioned with teaching, so she’s delighted that she seems to be getting through to Edgar. Nick, on the other hand, thinks Edgar is trying to kill her, which is why he creates his Julius Pepperwood disguise and sits in on Jess’s class. It’s also why he and Jess go to Edgar’s house, where they discover that Edgar is a plumber (just like his disturbed protagonist) and watch him unload a mysterious duffel bag filled with … what, exactly? We never get to find out, though we do learn that Edgar has a shed filled with disturbing drawings of deer with huge eyes, just like Jess.

Edgar, it turns out, isn’t a stalker who’s trying to kill Jess. He’s a comic-book artist who can’t draw eyes. But the big reveal isn’t his fictional proclivities so much as his relationship status: the much older redheaded woman who lives with him, and who maces Jess in the course of the investigation, turns out to be not his mother but his girlfriend.

Ultimately, though, the Edgar mystery matters mostly because it’s inspired Nick to write again after the failure of his zombie novel. His new project: Julius Pepperwood, zombie detective. (All of his murder victims are already dead.) “Pepperwood had two friends,” Nick writes, “one if you count his hat.” The other is Jessica Night, who is totally not based on Jessica Day.

Most of the jokes in this story line are pure slapstick, and the plot itself feels like an old-school sitcom gag, with lots of falling down and crashing into things. Whether they’re wrestling over Edgar’s notebook or trying to hide behind his house, Nick and Jess are all over each other, but the manhandling feels platonic, more Three Stooges than Pam and Jim. While other sitcoms would take this time to build up the sexual tension, New Girl seems to be building their emotional relationship. If those two ever do get together, they’ll be doing it on the back of — and potentially at the expense of — a seriously solid friendship.

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FOX