Last spring, Jenny Jaffe described all the ways New Girl could save itself in season five, and the number one requirement was that the loft gang stick together. A flood of minor characters and story lines that pull everyone apart simply aren't a recipe for a good sitcom. Blessedly, as though showrunner Liz Meriwether heard the call, the first episode of season five is so locked into the unity theme that it might as well have been 23 minutes of the gang singing kumbaya around a campfire. (That didn't exactly happen, but I'd love to see a Mahatmoves Gandhi rendition of summer-camp classics.)
After the rocky patches of season four, it's great to see New Girl return to its strengths, even if the narrative seems too on-the-nose. "Year of us!" Jess keeps yelling, and it's obviously a bid to persuade the audience along with the lofties. But if that's what it takes to bring the whole group together at a social event that nearly goes wrong in seven different ways — and also features Winston's notoriously terrible pranking skills — I'm happy to be persuaded. I'm even happier to award bonus points for Cece's description of Schmidt as "the slim-hipped ghost of Tom Cruise."
The premise of this episode is a timeless sitcom setpiece: Jess flies in Cece's mom for Cece and Schmidt's engagement party, but it turns out Cece hasn't told her mom about the engagement yet. To add to the tension, Nick picks up the wrong Indian woman from the airport, and Jess falls down a comically high flight of stairs, which means she can't run around and fix everything with her usual energetic distractions.
This sitcom concept is such an oldie-but-goodie that it could feel boring, but "Big Mama P" elevates the familiarity into something more gratifying. I'm thinking of how the episode handles Nick and Cece's Not-Mom, a joke that starts out as something groaningly recognizable — Nick picks up the wrong woman, who speaks no English … and she thinks he's kidnapping her! — then takes a fun turn into a more distinctive story line. The highlight is when Not-Mom takes a starring role in the episode's big dance number, but the funniest and most New Girl–specific detail is Nick's growing affection for her. "Stop being so mean to me, or I swear I'm going to fall in love with you!" he says, and we're all nodding along in recognition.
The other piece of this episode that lifts this concept out of its prosaic framework is the reveal of Schmidt as Mahatmoves Gandhi, along with the whole Bollywood dance number. Look, I'll just be honest: I have a weakness for choreographed dance spectacle that goes back to the moment in Oliver! when the street starts dancing along to "Who Will Buy?," a scene as dumb as it is great. The giant, über-sincere dance works particularly well for "Big Mama P," and for New Girl more generally. The danger of Schmidt as a character is that he tips too far into "quirky oddball with no underlying humanity" territory, and putting him inside the structure of a big Bollywood number perfectly moderates that. He gets to reach the ultimate height of Schmidt-ness in an appropriate context, which puts all of his funny tics to good use. Even better, he gets to be his ridiculous self for a human, character-driven reason — he's trying to impress Cece's mom in a way that's grounded in the (admittedly implausible, but still fun) plot.
Not all of the episode lands quite so successfully. The biggest sad trumpet noise is once again for the Winston-the-cop story line, who has become quite famous for (sort of) saving a boy trapped under a car, but is growing weary of his fame as the "Carport Hero." Like too many Winston plots, this one doesn't go much of anywhere, and is mostly discarded once his much-preferred Winston-the-bad-prankster bit kicks in.
"Big Mama P" takes a notable turn at the episode's end, though, by denying Cece and Schmidt the closure of Mrs. P's blessing. It's not an especially surprising move for the series, which has built its narrative over the past four seasons on exactly this balance between dizzying silliness and real emotion. Silliness always wins on New Girl, but the romantic arcs and more touching moments in the show's past (Nick's dad's funeral, various incidents of Significant Life Crises) possess a core of true feeling with a hint of triteness. This scene does both: Schmidt and Cece's crestfallen looks as Mrs. P refuses to give them a happy resolution are moving, and the subsequent bit in which the rest of the gang chimes in to give their blessings is clichéd in a way that suits this show. Even better, Nick gets one more dig at Cece's Not-Mom, who refuses to play along with the "natural three" sitcom rhythm.
This is a solid episode, and one that suggests the show may be able to get its magic back — but there's also a bit of a ghost haunting "Big Mama P," especially given its persistent claims that this will be the "year of us!" New Girl was delayed to schedule around Zooey Deschanel's pregnancy, and Liz Meriwether has said that other changes will come later this season. It's tough to sell "year of us" when we know it'll actually be "year of us, and also a part where it's not the main character, but instead, Megan Fox." It's even tougher when the show's lead is already doing some ride-around-on-a-scooter, pregnancy-hiding hijinks, which means those changes are visible on the horizon.
And yet, I'm hopeful. A big shake-up can be great for a sitcom, and a new actor to change the chemistry after Coach's departure might be what New Girl needs. Or perhaps the whole thing will careen down a flight of stairs and end up in two leg boots and an arm cast. Just as Winston keeps getting back on that pranking horse, I look forward to watching the lofties try, try again.