I'll admit it: I wasn't super enthused when New Girl began airing two episodes a week. Jess has had a rocky return, and it's taken awhile for the show to figure out its new rhythms now that Cece and Schmidt are halfway down the aisle. For the second week in a row, though, the double episode has been surprisingly effective. Although "Dress" and "Return to Sender" don't reach the same purposeful balance of last week's episodes, it's helpful to spread the character beats around a little more.
In "Dress," the goofs take the floor. Calling back to an earlier episode where Cece buys a horrific wedding dress and jury-sequestered Jess promises (via poster-board) that she can fix it, "Dress" picks up with Cece eagerly asking about her progress. Unsurprisingly, Jess has done almost no work, and she can't seem to crack it while Cece constantly peeks in to see how it's going. Schmidt, terrified that the dress will be a disaster, sets up Jess in the men's room at his office.
That may sound odd, but Schmidt's office is almost entirely staffed by women (except for one guy whom he pays to use the restrooms at the big box store across the street). So, Schmidt has turned the men's room into his wedding office. Alas, Jess's arrival coincides neatly with the moment Schmidt's boss, Kim, finally realizes how little actual work he's been doing. Trying to keep Schmidt's cover, Jess gets conscripted to pick up Kim's monstrous children after school, but Kim inevitably stumbles on everyone in the bathroom and fires Schmidt.
While Schmidt's secret wedding office lingers like a bubble waiting to burst, there's some parallel secrecy over at the police station. Winston and Aly are struggling to hide their relationship from the bosses, who won't let them be partners if they're romantically involved. The wedding office and Schmidt's eventual firing feels pretty daffy and predictable, but this police station story line works better. Winston's obviously terrible at hiding his feelings, and he and Aly end up making out in an evidence locker. Daniels, apparently the nicest guy at the station, discovers them, and they beg him to help keep their secret.
There are two beats here that I love, which elevate this plot past its fairly staid setup. First, Daniels keeps his nice-guy persona while also admitting cheerfully that he's a degenerate gambler (who apparently lost $60,000 on a game of I Spy?!) and demands $5,000 to keep quiet. Winston and Aly are gobsmacked. My second favorite detail is how swiftly Aly rejects the idea of being blackmailed, and instead yells to the whole department that she and Winston are together.
Although Schmidt's boss discovering his secret and then firing him feels humdrum in sitcom-land, it's refreshing to have Winston and Aly's secret just spill out. Of course, one of them is going to have to partner up with Daniels now that their boss knows about the relationship, but that's a problem for next week. And happily, Schmidt manages to get his job back once Jess realizes that Kim wants to get her horrible children into Banyon Canyon. (Speaking of: Jess, I'm glad you were able to use your job to help Schmidt. But shouldn't you have been at that job this whole time? I guess it's spring break? Ah well.)
The last plot in "Dress" is a tiny one: Nick tries to reach out to Reagan so he can invite her to Schmidt and Cece's wedding. She blows off his text, leading him to purchase an escalating number of burner phones to get in touch, before she finally admits she knew it was him all along and turns down the invitation. (She's busy with work.) It's a very small thing, and it mainly preps us for Reagan's return at the end of the season. I've found myself nostalgic for the brief Reagan era, and even her one snide response to Nick ("you idiot") made me think of her fondly. Miss you, Megan Fox!
If "Dress" puts goofs first, "Return to Sender" does the kind of character-based work I like best in New Girl. (Even if, as we'll get to, its ending is exactly the opposite of what I'd wished to see.) Sam's having a birthday party, and it turns out his old friend Diane is in town. Jess immediately picks up on the camaraderie between them, and quickly busts in to claim Sam as her territory — she practically licks him at the dinner table.
When she and Diane adjourn to the ladies' room, inspired by a life-saving Heimlich maneuver, Diane admits that she does love Sam. She even has a seriously romantic backstory to prove it, and plans to tell Sam during his party. Jess is torn. On the one hand, she wants Sam and Diane to be together, because the story is so good! Because … Sam and Diane!
As Jess debates the prospect of destroying her relationship in the name of true love, Schmidt is tasting wedding wines with his father. (When Gavin walked into the apartment, did I stand up from my sofa and yell, "PETER GALLLLAGHERRRR!" as if I were Oprah? Maybe.) Of all of the stories in this two-episode block, this one is my favorite. It's got Nick trying to protect Schmidt's sensitive heart. It's got wedding prep. It's got Peter Gallagher's eyebrows, milkshakes, and college flashbacks. It's even got Schmidt, happily looking at his father and his best friend sharing a bourbon and saying, "Look at the two of you, bonding over the thing that numbs you." Most movingly, it has a truly sweet monologue from Nick, begging Gavin to be a better father. "Be better! Be his dad!"
This plot, at least, ends the way I'd hoped it would. Initially it looks like Gavin will once again bail on his son, so Nick arrives with the traditional cheer-you-up milkshake. But instead, Gavin shows up late after retrieving Schmidt's security deposit for the slaughterhouse/wedding venue (and also chasing off a gang of urban dancers), and instead offers up his vineyard. Schmidt's just SO happy, you guys. It's adorable.
The Jess/Sam/Diane plot, though. I like it! It's far and away the most invested I've felt in Jess and Sam as a couple. By giving Jess a difficult decision to make about Sam (rather than having her run through a car wash like she's in a Mr. Bean sketch), I remembered why it can work to have Jess as the show's emotional moderator. But honestly, I was hoping that Sam would walk in and tell Jess that he decided to give it a shot with Diane. They're Sam and Diane! Even their little moments laughing with each other were more persuasive than Jess's boastful description of sex so good that she needed a snack afterward.
This ambivalence toward Jess's relationship with Sam is written all over "Return to Sender." Diane's entire existence suggests it, but even the parts meant to convince us of Jess and Sam's rightness backfire. Jess has a nice conversation with Cece about the possibility of true love. Would she be standing in the way of Sam and Diane's big romantic reunion? Every line of dialogue in the scene inadvertently listed a reason why Sam and Diane should get together, capped with Jess shrugging, "… but I do love him." When she asks, "But what if I lose him?" Cece replies, "Well then you'll at least know, babe. It's not your love story."
I was prepped, New Girl! This would have been tragic but understandable for Jess, a nice ending for Sam and Diane, and a cute way to talk about Cece's new love of romance. In spite of that, Sam walks into the loft and tells Jess that setting him up with Diane was "the most selfless thing anyone has ever done for me." The time for him and Diane has passed.
And so, Sam and Jess live on. Luckily, thanks to the double-episode whammy, one slightly disappointing moment doesn't crater everything else. Each character got a chance to be both silly and emotive, so my unmet need for Sam and Diane's happy ending is tempered by Daniels the Blackmailing Gambler, Winston and Aly's ridiculous "Squeeze You Tight" song, and Schmidt explaining "Humpty Dumpty" to Nick. And Peter Gallagher's eyebrows, of course.