This two-episode outing of New Girl is certainly stronger than last week's "throw Jess into a car wash and see if she comes out in a romantic relationship" situation, in spite of the fact that the show seems to be laying groundwork for something I'm not particularly excited to see. Both "Jeff Day" and "Helmet" excessively revolve around the tension between Jess, Nick, and Sam, a move that suggests a Nick/Jess reunion in the works.
Of course, Nick/Jess/Sam don't constitute the entirety of these two episodes. We also get two really solid Winston stories. "Helmet" continues to slowly develop Winston's crush on Aly by pitting him against her boyfriend, Trip, Agent to the Animal Stars. The bit mostly exists to establish Trip as a figure in Winston's life, and to set up a shot where Schmidt runs screaming through a hallway chased by as many cats as Fox's animal wranglers could convince to run after him. It's good! It's funny. Avatar: Cat Planet will not be a good movie.
The Winston plot in "Jeff Day" is more interesting, and it revives that bit about how he's incapable of identifying the right-sized prank — his pranks are too small or too disastrously big. Winston starts dating Rhonda, a military reservist who also suffers from Winston's Prank Blindness, and they proceed to "prank" a horrified Schmidt and Cece in a series of escalating hoaxes. Schmidt and Cece are terrified that Winston plans to bring this woman to their wedding, and who wouldn't be? She puts a watch battery in Winston's food! She salts the wine! She meets the gang by running into Nick's bar, screaming and bloodied, before pulling out the knife in her arm and yelling, "You've been RHONDA'D!"
What makes this story great is how it explores the very New Girls–y place where humor borders on real monstrousness. And even better, thanks to Schmidt and Cece's stunned bafflement, we actually get some characters who look at Rhonda's behavior and say, " … Wait, what the hell?!" It's nice to have a voice within the show questioning the madness. When someone usually behaves like a child on New Girl, Jess just shrugs and says resignedly, "Ohhhh Nick."
The Bad Prank plot reaches its inevitably glorious conclusion when Rhonda and Winston actually get married just so they can "prank" Cece and Schmidt into inviting her to their wedding. And of course, when Winston attempts to annul the marriage the next morning, he's greeted by a guy dressed as Rhonda who delivers the message that she's been called up for duty and they'll have to stay married for a while. (I half expected this, too, to be a "prank" that would end in Rhonda jumping out of a closet, but no such luck for Winston.)
Outside of Winston's unfortunately all-too-real sham marriage and Ferguson's bid for stardom in the Avatar sequel, the main stories are all about Jess and Nick. In the first episode, Jess finds it's hard to buy a car without being treated like a clueless airhead by the misogynistic car salesman. Wisely, she decides to negotiate for the car over email, but she also decides to invent a male car-buying persona so the salesman will treat her fairly. (A word to any car-buyers out there: The male name is not necessary, but I highly recommend car purchases via email, as detailed here.)
To no one's particular surprise, Jess still needs to go sign for the car in person, which means she needs a guy to come with her and pretend to be "Jeff Day," the person who's supposedly written all these emails. Sam's busy with a surgery de-webbing someone's toes, so the job falls to Nick, who comes armed with a fake mustache and a total disregard for Jess's careful negotiations. When Nick ends up on a test drive for an RV, Jess admits to Sam what's been going on, and he too shows up at the dealership (as "Geoff Day"), prepared to do battle with the salesman.
In the end, Jess takes "Jeff," "Geoff," and the salesman hostage on a dangerous test drive — which, frankly, looks like occasionally hitting the brakes and wiggling the steering wheel a little bit — to put the fear of God in all of them. From the salesman, she demands several trim upgrades on her chosen car. From Nick and Sam, she demands that they pretend to get along whenever she's around. Everyone agrees to this, even though Nick holds firm to his stance that he'll "teach my sons to hate his sons, and I expect the same from him."
While Schmidt and Winston explore the world of animal stardom in "Helmet," Jess goes to sleep after agreeing to go to dinner with Sam's parents the next day. When she wakes up that morning, though, she realizes she's just had a sex dream — about Nick, of course. And it's not just a simple sex dream. It's a sex dream featuring the Chicago Bears helmet that Nick once gave her for Christmas. (For what it's worth, the dream also involved a dark Victorian alley. The sounds of their passion apparently drowned out the hungry cries of the nearby orphans.)
Jess tries to rid her subconscious of Nick by throwing away everything he ever gave her, but Nick finds the helmet in the possession of Outside Dave, who's repurposed the helmet as a nest for his rock babies. After rescuing the gift, Nick confronts Jess about throwing it away and eventually gets Cece and Jess to explain what's happening.
In a turn of events as inevitable as the sun's rise each morning, Jess ends up putting the helmet on, where it becomes irrevocably stuck. (It is a child-sized medium, as Nick explains.) And, of course, this is the moment when Sam shows up to take Jess to dinner with his parents. Jess refuses to go while wearing the helmet, in spite of Nick's brilliant suggestion that she just put on a jersey and gym shorts then run with it. To his credit, Sam is surprisingly okay with the situation, and accepts Jess's assurance that her sex dream had no deeper meaning. (Uh huh. I know how you work, New Girl.)
When Sam offers to break the helmet to get it off, Nick reveals another problem: It's not just any helmet — it's a helmet his father gave to him. Unwilling to break a present from her friend's deceased dad, Jess tells Sam she'll have to skip dinner. She's left sitting wistfully on the sofa, still stuck in that football helmet, trying and failing to drink from a wine glass.
Seeing her disappointment (and more likely, confronting the fact that Jess can't just wear a football helmet for the rest of her life), Nick finally agrees to break the helmet himself. It works. Jess shows up at dinner with Sam's parents, and at the end of the episode, she presents Nick with a framed piece of the helmet to hang in the bar.
I have a lot of questions. For one, why did no one try some form of lubricant? Smear some Vaseline on Jess's head and then try pulling it off! For another, it doesn't really look like the helmet is actually stuck on Deschanel's head. At one point, you can see it wiggling as they push and pull on it. And for my last question: Why are we playing through Nick/Jess/Sam tensions again?!
New Girl's problem is that it likes to tie its ragtag assortment of Funny Bits, Oddball Non Sequiturs, Cursory Cultural Observations, and Personality Quirks to more slowly developing stories. It's a sitcom model we're all eminently familiar with, but New Girl has an uneven record of getting longer arcs to work or to have any real teeth. When they do work, it's only in the realm of romantic relationships. Love triangles, Schmidt and Cece's wedding, even Winston's crush on Aly — these stories do pretty well.
(It's worth noting, of course, that the show is quite good at "Hey, here's a new person in the gang!" plots. But short of steadily kicking out and replacing every character in the main cast, that will only go so far.)
Shouldn't these characters have substance outside of who they're dating and whether or not they're currently engaged in some bizarre three-person meltdown over how to purchase a car? This is why I'm always cheering when we get stories about Winston's job as a cop, or Nick's role at the bar. It's not that it never happens; it just doesn't happen enough.
In the end, "Jeff Day" and "Helmet" expend an awful lot of effort on the romantic and platonic tensions between Jess, Nick, and Sam. We get it in a variety of flavors: Sam's jealousy of Nick, Jess and Nick's special friendship, Nick and Sam's grudging acceptance, Jess feeling newly moved that Nick gave her a meaningful gift. It may make for entertaining TV, but we already did this three seasons ago. It's time for New Girl to find some new territory.