Last week, I wrote that Zooey Deschanel's upcoming maternity leave seems to have sapped the momentum from New Girl. But it's not just that: While Jess's departure looms over these first few episodes, it's also not clear what's supposed to be driving the show forward. Schmidt and Cece are happily together. Nick is doing well at the bar. Winston has no real character-developing plot (surprise, surprise). Jess is at loose ends, for obvious reasons.
That's not to say that a sitcom needs narrative momentum. We all remember how shows like Cheers and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and All in the Family would start in the middle of nowhere, and end with each plot thread neatly tied into a bow. Television story lines don't have to develop slow-burning tension that blooms into romance and tragedy with every premiere and finale. But New Girl has often operated on this wavelength — particularly in the heady days of season two, as Nick and Jess collided — by combining silly loft-mate fripperies with interesting, long-arc character development.
In other words, sitcoms don't need narrative momentum — but it's very noticeable when a show loses it. I realize this makes it seem like "Jury Duty" was a major flop, because wow, nothing really pulled this episode forward. Regardless of whatever doesn't work for "Jury Duty," though, the episode is a funny and effective farewell to Deschanel. Her (temporary) good-bye doesn't fix any of the episode's issues — or the season's issues, for that matter — but it does promise that new stuff is coming.
Let's break it down. Episode title aside, the biggest plot point is a conflict between Cece and Nick. It's ostensibly about loftie etiquette, but it's actually about their relationships with Schmidt. Nick is annoyed that Cece is a "disgusting beast" who leaves her stuff all over the apartment; Cece complains that Nick tells the same stupid story too many times.
Now, I don't want to say that Cece's protest isn't valid. We all know a person like that. (I am that person.) But Cece's issue doesn't come anywhere close to the level of Not Cool Behavior that her own egregious messiness reaches.
In any event, the fight quickly gets out of hand, but Jess can't mitigate it because she's absent for jury duty. (How convenient!) Over speakerphone, she suggests that Nick and Cece hash things out using the official loft-mate agreement document, which inevitably leads to a rehashing of that document's more unusual and obscure clauses. (Nick can't do electrical work; a rule regarding kitchen condom disposal; and five or more personal grooming products in the bathroom triggers a shower caddy or rent-increase penalty.)
Although Cece agrees to the shower-caddy clause, things continue to escalate until she mindlessly repeats, "Not always funny!" to Nick and Nick fake-karate-chops Cece in the face. Poor Schmidt runs away, incapable of dealing with the gang's dissent, but not before dropping a sick burn. "I can't listen to the two people I love most in the world fight like this!" he yells, before turning to Winston: "Sorry, Winston." And boy, if that's not a good illustration of how adrift Winston's character has become, I don't know what is.
While all of this goes on, Jess proudly fulfilling her civic responsibility as a juror — and she runs into none other than John Cho, a man so dreamy, he'd definitely wake up early to get you the best books from the library book sale. She and John Cho (who plays a character named Daniel, but will remain John Cho to me) have a nice chat about how jury duty is a noble calling. Over the phone, Jess tells Nick, "I just met the other only person in America who cares about jury duty, and he's a gosh damn dreamboat."
Inevitably, Jess's boss calls to say that he's been in a horrible school-mascot accident — no surprise, since mascots are horrifying and occupy the worst neighborhood of the uncanny valley — so she needs to step in as acting principal. (This plot point was probably set up in the episode's first scene, but in my East Coast airing, the episode's dialogue track was mysteriously silent at the beginning. I could try to read Nick and Jess's lips, but I prefer to think of it as an unexpected, surrealist turn for the show.)
In any event, Jess is thrilled at the chance to be acting principal — but that means she'll have to stoop to Liz Lemon–esque trickery to get out of jury duty. (As she tells the gang, "I don't want to lie, it's kind of not really my #brand.") Nevertheless, she finds herself sitting in the courtroom, where she realizes John Cho is one of the lawyers on the case. Jess tries to follow Nick's advice by denying belief in anything the lawyers say, but this only leads to a tortured metaphor about marriage and highways, and earns her John Cho's disgust.
What follows is one of the highlights of the episode, a soaring defense of the democratic process delivered by Your Boyfriend, John Cho. (It's even scored with swelling music.) Overcome, as anyone would be, Jess admits that she actually loves juries. She's seated immediately, only to learn that it's a capital case, which means she'll be sequestered in a mediocre hotel for at least a month. On the bright side, the hotel has a pool!
In the final scenes of the episode, Cece and Nick have a heart-to-heart over their mutual envy about their relationships with Schmidt, and agree to tone down the loft-mate disagreements. Cece doesn't even have to sign the official loft agreement, the last page of which, Nick admits, is just "obscene drawings of cartoon princes."
The episode's big moment, of course, is Jess's departure. It's also home to the episode's two funniest gags. First, as Jess bids farewell to the loft, she realizes everyone thinks she's actually going to prison. Nick gives her a box of cigarettes, Schmidt gives her an unmarked burner phone he bought in Koreatown, and amid a rapid-fire list of prison tips, Winston notes, "Hate put you in there … but love gonna bust you out." Oh, Winston. In this episode, you have a little plot about a hole in a wall. What has happened to you, my friend?
"Jury Duty" saves the best gag for last. As a gift to keep the lofties in check while she's gone, Jess leaves a bowl of advice notes. Predictably, they tear them all open as soon as she leaves. Her advice includes: "No more poop pranks," "No biting," "Nick, stop doing that!" (because it "just applies to everything"), "Tell Schmidt not to sing Rent in the shower, we're in a drought," and, with great wisdom, "Boy shorts should, at most, rise six inches above the knee."
So we wave good-bye to Jess, with hope that bright new things are coming. Until then, please remember: Schmidt is allowed to request that you do his back with sunscreen only once a week.