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New Girl Recap: Birthday Breakdown

NEW GIRL:  Jess (Zooey Deschanel, L) thinks Nick (Jake Johnson, R) organized a party for her at the local park in the "Birthday" episode of NEW GIRL.

There are some people out there — probably not many of whom are reading this — who don’t much care for Zooey Deschanel. The way one cartoon character wandering in the desert may see his companion as a walking chicken drumstick or steak dinner, this unimpressed faction sees Deschanel as a polka-dot ukulele with bangs for strings. She seems to navigate the everyday world with the breezy touch of a fairy-tale princess. Her cartoon likeness graces the front page of HelloGiggles, the Internet’s Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper, a website so sweet and gentle that its edgiest features are the peaks of the “www” in its URL. I say this with zero judgment. That description could also be summed up as “my kind of person.” I have been described (by HelloGiggles contributor Meghan O’Keefe, no less) as a “human cupcake.” I value niceness more than most people (in part because it’s how I was raised, and in part because it is my greatest natural defense against predators). I think there should be more places where people can be sweet without fear of being torn to shreds by the wolves lurking in the comments section. (The assumption here being that some wolves live with their parents.)

Even though Jess Day isn’t based on the life of Zooey Deschanel, the character is pretty much on-brand the same way a muffin is pretty much a cupcake. (They’re exactly the same. Open your eyes, people.) Jess is an elementary-school teacher with a bunny rabbit iPhone case. She’s a walking whistle solo. To modify 50 Cent’s famous koan, Jess seems like she ain’t into having sex; she’s into making love. Again, I don’t mean to belittle. Given the amount of horror thrust at us by the world on a daily basis, it takes a tremendous strength to maintain one’s softness and openness. Maybe this is my own middle-class softness speaking, but it’s nice to consume entertainment where things feel like they’re going to be okay.

That said, it felt sadistic how relieved I was to see Jess break down in tears. As she half-curled up on the couch (a posture I call “chill-ass fetus”), I thought: “Oh. Here is a person who is capable of disappointment and frustration beyond her control.” Thank goodness. Because her general cheeriness is such that she might be expected to try to murder Austin Powers with guns concealed in her breasts. Hold on. Be right back. Yes, the half life of the carbon in that reference says that it is indeed seventeen years old. But Jess’s tantrum was ameliorated by the fact that now, for the first time in a while, she had something to bounce back from.

Not only did Jess suffer a breakdown, but it happened because of a personality flaw. Not a quirk. A flaw. Jess Day, we learned, expects too much from people. On the surface, that sounds like the kind of problem you’d cite on a job interview. (“My greatest weakness? I just want everyone around me to do their gosh darn best.”) But the flashback to an earlier birthday (“Made in China! ARE YOU TAKING ME TO CHINA?”) shows that Jess’s expectations are a real problem. Nick certainly did a very bad job of planning a birthday celebration outside of the spectacular finale in the movie theater. Free diabetes test? Find the biggest rock you can carry? Has he never heard of a zoo or a museum? But let’s be real. It’s Nick. What was Jess expecting? Yeah. Maybe Nick watched, helpless, as Jess crashed a child’s birthday party (taking a bite out of the birthday girl’s cupcake and earning some serious side eye). At some point, though, you have to expect that’s going to happen. Maybe Jess is just too demanding. Maybe she’s just like her mother … Jamie Lee Curtis.

(Side note: Sorry for that digression. I am very intrigued by the Prince cameo promised during the post–Super Bowl New Girl episode.)

“Birthday” dips into the flaws of the other characters as well. Nick, as has been mentioned, is a slob who doesn’t think anything all the way through. Coach is a sanctimonious do-it-all (the physical equivalent of a know-it-all) who can’t help but rub it in when Winston brings home someone else’s revenge cake. His hubris reignites Winston’s competitive streak, and the two engage in a bake-off. After several ridiculous misuses of “behind!,” the two cakes merge, making Coach and Winston better friends than ever before. Maybe that’s not exactly realistic. But it’s nice. I don’t watch New Girl for a gritty, realistic depiction of friendship. I watch it because it makes me laugh without gritting my teeth from tension first. And I laugh the most when Winston is onscreen. And I’ll admit, watching those two guys hug, my eyes got about as moist as Coach promised his cake would be.

At the bar, Cece wrestles with her own shortcoming, which is that she has no practical skills. Until a few weeks ago, Cece was essentially flawless. Her greatest conflict was choosing between the men who were competing for her affection. Now she’s emotionally struggling with her age and physically struggling not to break glasses. Again, because this is New Girl, her disenchantment with modeling isn’t going to spiral too far out control. Comfort arrives quickly, in the form of a familiar (and moderately implausible) figure: Schmidt.

While the rest of the cast spends Jess’s birthday overcoming their flaws, Schmidt puts his most commendable qualities on display. (Exceptions: (1) The unbridled douchiness of calling beer “the drink of idiots.” (2) Using the phrase “double-tapping some Insta-G’s” to refer to favoriting pictures on Instagram, which almost made me barf out of places I didn’t even know were barfable.) Schmidt helps Cece make an Old Fashioned, but more important, he helps her build her confidence. We’re only halfway through New Girl’s third season, a season that began with Schmidt cheating on Cece with Elizabeth. (Or was it the other way around? Maybe it was both ways.) Fortunately, with the holiday hiatus, the beginning of the season feels like it was seven years ago. We’re far enough removed from Schmidt and Cece’s horrible breakup to believe that she’s willing to call him a friend again. Of course, if this were real life, we would totally understand if Cece keyed the side of Schmidt’s SUV like a Carrie Underwood song.

Obviously, Jess’s birthday turns out fine. Nick’s surprise party is good … impossibly good. Despite his abundant, medical-grade love for Jess, Nick has the intellect of a law school grad but the practical ability of a moderately coordinated infant. It takes him two hours to cook a breakfast that Jess can make in six minutes. Mathematically speaking, for Nick to have planned this surprise party at the movie theater, he would have to have started working on it roughly a decade before he met Jess. The home movie’s subtitles alone (possibly the highlight of the entire episode) show a level of self-awareness that Nick couldn’t achieve without additional years of extensive therapy. But that’s not the point.

What matters is that Nick, Coach, Winston, Cece, and Schmidt worked together to make Jess’s birthday special. The whole gang pitched in. Even when they disagreed, the result was extra cake. There was never any doubt that would happen, though. We watch New Girl because we know things will be okay.

And this week, okay felt pretty great.

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX