When New Girl first aired on Fox nine years ago, television was a very different landscape. For one, women were not widely written as the multifaceted, morally complex, antihero-potential-having characters that currently populate our screens. For another, sitcoms were just starting to move beyond the multi-camera format, relying on quick-and-easy laughs to keep viewers interested.
In hindsight, there was little to no chance that New Girl would become what it did — after all, its original marketing tagline was “Simply adorkable.” Eventually, however, adorkable turned into endearing, and the formula of the quirky girl (Zooey Deschanel) and her four male roommates became something much more than the sum of its parts. If shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother gave us the sitcom as a reflection of stumbling youth, New Girl took that and added a tenderness that was wholly of the 21st century — Friends for Zoomers, if you will. Whether it was the way the show unabashedly tackled the dynamics of modern-day male friendship, or tackled race better than I’ve ever seen it done in a sitcom (see Cabin, below), New Girl showed an emotional consciousness that was centered in the relationships between the characters and their love for each other, but also in a rapidly changing world that sees love take many forms.
Remarkably, the men of New Girl brought to life a new kind of masculinity, one where a man could be branded as a womanizer and also kiss his best friend on the lips (Schmidt, played by Max Greenfield), have absolutely no real-life redeeming qualities but still be seen as a sex symbol (Nick, played by Jake Johnson), or be an absolute fucking weirdo but love himself unconditionally (Winston, played by Lamorne Morris). New Girl understood its audience; it was meta; it exuded a pained awkwardness and self-knowledge that people growing up in the digital age could relate to. Nothing exemplifies this more than the internet’s collective thirst for Nick Miller, the grumpy, bitter bartender who is Jess’s roommate and love interest throughout the show. He crumples under the slightest pressure, keeps his money in a Ziploc bag, and has a self-described “Coney Island fat-strong” body, but is redeemed by the way he loves the people around him. Nick Miller raw-dogs life with the kind of instinct and heart that we can only hope to have in a world that’s increasingly reliant on image — and a result, he’s sexy as all hell.
The characters, as eccentric as they are, are complex; they traverse miles of emotional and psychic space in places you would least expect, without ever even brushing up against “dramedy”. New Girl creator Liz Meriwether gets that pain is deeply, deeply funny; that there is nothing more comedic than trying to love and be loved by other people, and nothing more meaningful than trying to do it alongside your friends. I’d like to think that New Girl and the cultural moment it ushered in are at least partly responsible for the love that remains at the core of my generation’s nihilistic sense of humor, however deeply buried.
These 15 essential episodes of New Girl are the ones that best capture that sentiment. And because the show is full of iconic one-liners, and I’ll also be including my favorite joke from each episode on the list.
New Girl is streaming on Netflix.
“Naked” (Season 1, Episode 4)
The show’s third episode is where Jess’s adorkable-ness is met with its first real challenge, and it plays out in perfect New Girl fashion, fueled largely by Nick’s intense anguish at Jess seeing his penis.
More specifically, she laughs at his peernis (she can’t bring herself to say the word penis) as he’s dancing to Jamaican music to hype himself up before a date. Schmidt has never seen Nick’s penis, and becomes jealous of Winston because he has seen it.
This episode lays out on the table the kind of casual vulnerability that makes the show so great. Schmidt desperately wants to see his best friend’s penis to validate their years-long friendship. Nick wants to have casual sex with a girl from the bar, but the fact that his female roommate laughed at his penis makes him self-conscious about his body. The episode ends how it started — with slapstick genital humor — but along the way, creates emotionally fraught setups and character traits that set the tone for the rest of the series.
Favorite line: “Jess, you can’t laugh at a naked man, especially Nick. Nick is delicate … like a flower. Like a chubby, damaged flower who hates himself.”
“The 23rd” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Let’s face it, holiday episodes are always the best ones. It was hard to pick just one, but New Girl’s first Christmas episode is pretty essential viewing.
The episode starts with Paul (Justin Long), the dorky teacher Jess is dating, telling Jess that he loves her, to which she responds, “Thank you.” Ouch. The gang goes to Schmidt’s holiday party, where Schmidt, as the only man in the office, is forced to dress up as sexy Santa. Nick accidentally tells Paul that Jess doesn’t love him, then accidentally traps himself outside with them both while they have the breakup conversation.
This episode is also notable because it’s the first time the show really makes use of its artier, single-camera format. The shot of Jess and Cece sitting on the floor of the bathroom is one that’s burned into my memory.
At the end of the episode, Jess is feeling down, so Nick decides to miss his flight and show her Candy Cane Lane — at 3 a.m., demanding that the neighborhood turn its lights on so she can cheer up. Gang merriment ensues.
Favorite line: “This is my nightmare.”
“Injured” (Season 1, Episode 15)
At the beginning of this episode, Nick injures his spine in a game of touch football. After Jess’s gynecologist friend (June Diane Raphael) checks him out and points out a lump in his throat, they all fear it might be cancer. While they wait for the ultrasound appointment, Nick and the gang are left to deal with the fallout of Nick’s hypothetical impending death.
The show is at its best when it mines life’s most serious moments as well as its funniest (and recognizes that they’re often one and the same). At the end of the episode, the gang goes to the beach so Nick can finally jump in the ocean. It’s a tender moment that shows that real friends are there for you in times of real need, even if in the moment they’re more concerned about their car, or their crush’s butt print in the sand.
It’s iconic for a number of reasons, but mostly for the scene where the gang get drunk at the bar and sing sad songs dedicated to Nick. The cast’s chemistry and talent for improv are off the charts here, and I implore you to watch the bloopers.
Favorite line: “’Cause the ice in my glass represents the tears from my eyes, I love you, dog.”
“Tomatoes” (Season 1, Episode 22)
Something New Girl gets so right about modern relationships is the sheer amount of anxiety they bring to every aspect of our lives. How do we know if we’re doing the right thing? How do we know if we’re making decisions based on our own happiness or on what’s expected of us?
In this episode, Jess makes the pivotal decision to break up with Fancyman, a.k.a Russell (Dermot Mulroney), the wealthy father of one of her students. In a later episode, Jess reflects on this decision, saying, “What if I have some idea of love in my head and it’s just totally wrong?
At the end of the episode, Nick chooses to reconnect with Caroline, the ex who broke his heart at the beginning of the series. Jess challenges him on his decision, and a hilarious blowout ensues. It’s perfect because we’ve all been Nick, the poor decision-maker, and we’ve all been Jess, the well-intentioned friend.
Also, it would be a crime not to include the episode where Schmidt has sex with Nadia (Rebecca Reid), Cece’s unhinged Russian supermodel roommate, and breaks his penis.
Favorite line: “In America, honey, okay, Mickey Mouse, he’s earthbound.”
“Katie” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Jess meets a hot doctor named Sam (David Walton) and pretends to be his internet date so they can have sex. She simultaneously misleads Bearclaw (Josh Gad), and it culminates in a bathroom showdown that’s, dare I say, Shakespearean.
This episode was a pivotal one for us card-carrying members of the Horny For Nick Miller cult. Nick meets an old man at the bar who convinces him he’s Nick from the future and who tells him, “Hey, tell her you’re sorry.” Nick makes Jess an old-fashioned. She forgives him for the hypothetical future offense, and the romantic tension between Jess and Nick starts to build.
“It could be bad. Like me getting drunk and peeing in your closet on all your pretty dresses.”
“I forgive you.”
Oh my God.
Favorite line: “Oh, no. Autocorrect changed ‘body’ to ‘meat bar.’”
“Fluffer” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Jess wants to have a casual relationship with Sam, but needs to have some conversation beforehand so she doesn’t feel like it’s completely detached. Naturally, Nick agrees to go on dates with her and becomes her emotional fluffer. It’s a genius excuse to get Nick and Jess to go on a date without killing the sexual tension. They finally acknowledge their attraction to each other and establish boundaries so they don’t ruin their friendship, but nothing romantic happens between them just yet.
New Girl was originally going to be named Chicks and Dicks, and nothing makes that more clear than this episode. It establishes a new trope of “man teaches woman how to have casual sex” (but with heart!), and the tension continues to climb.
Oh, and Schmidt pretends to be Mitt Romney’s son.
Favorite line: “This place is fancy and I don’t know which fork to kill myself with.”
“Models” (Season 2, Episode 5)
In this episode, both pairs of best friends (Jess and Cece, Schmidt and Nick) go through their biggest challenges yet. Jess reluctantly agrees to go out with Cece and her model friends, who make Jess reevaluate Cece’s life choices and their entire friendship.
In a parallel story line, Schmidt gets Nick a cookie for no reason at all, and Nick responds the only way he knows how: by retreating into his hard shell and rejecting Schmidt’s tireless expressions of platonic love, triggering a fight about their friendship that I still think should have earned Max Greenfield an Emmy.
The inevitable question comes up: “Do you ever wonder why we’re friends with these people, Jess? And, worse, if we met them now, you think we’d still be friends with them?” At the episode’s end, the question is answered, literally by Jess and also by the emotional resolution: It doesn’t matter, because we’re friends now.
This episode works within the limitations of gender-specific stereotypes surrounding friendship, and transforms them into something deeply heartfelt. When Jess (and the viewer) learns that much of her conflict with Cece is rooted in internalized misogyny and self-hatred, or when Nick finally takes it upon himself to reciprocate love to his straight male best friend, even though it makes him uncomfortable, those are character-driven moments on a network television sitcom that I’m not sure existed before that time (2012!).
Favorite line: “You gave me cookie, I got you cookie, man!”
“Cabin” (Season 2, Episode 12)
New Girl knocked it out of the park with guest stars, like Dermot Mulroney as Russell, Rob Reiner as Jess’s dad, and Megan freaking Fox as Nick’s love interest in season five (more on this later), but Olivia Munn as Nick’s three-episode stripper girlfriend takes the cake for me.
In “Cabin,” Nick has just started seeing Angie, a stripper who challenges him to be more adventurous. Nick and Angie tag along on Jess and Sam’s cabin getaway, and Angie’s daredevil nature makes the weekend more chaotic than was intended. The next morning, Angie leaves without saying good-bye.
But the real reason this episode deserves a mention is Winston and Schmidt’s story line. Back at the loft, Schmidt becomes anxious that they aren’t letting Winston “be his blackest self.” To mess with him, Winston convinces Schmidt to go on an adventure to score some crack. Schmidt, full of well-intentioned white guilt, goes along. Winston ends up teaching Schmidt an important lesson about race, which is that being black means whatever he wants it to mean. The beautiful thing is, there’s a deeper message here about how interracial friendships can be fraught with the kind of objectification and prejudice that is often disguised as “wokeness” or expressed by white neoliberal anxiety, but the bit doesn’t work without the genuine chemistry between the two close friends.
Favorite line: “I tell you what, there’s nothing like the feel of a fire, a fresh-baked cookie, and that sweet, sweet taste of crack in your lungs.”
“Pepperwood” (Season 2, Episode 14)
This one’s also for the cult. Jess gets a job teaching adults, and she connects with a student named Edgar who writes a violent story. Nick begins to suspect that he’s creepy in real life, and they follow Edgar to his house to uncover dirt on him. Through it all, Nick insists on going undercover as Julius Pepperwood, a middle-aged man who is very decidedly from Chicago.
It’s great because you’re truly just watching Jake Johnson invent Nick inventing Julius Pepperwood in real time, and it is a treat from beginning to end.
Favorite line: “Thin-crust pizza? No, thank you, I’m from Chicago.”
“Cooler” (Season 2, Episode 15)
“Cooler” is one of those episodes of television that seems serendipitous in the way that it wraps together moment-to-moment comedy and longstanding narrative threads. It’s my definitive pick for best episode, and a master class in building and releasing tension.
Nick and the guys go out to pick up girls, leaving Jess at home by herself because she’s their “cooler.” But after she gets scared and lonely and at home, she convinces the guys to come back. Enter True American, the gang’s favorite drinking game, which Jess describes as “50 percent drinking game, 50 percent life-size Candy Land.” True American has become a fan
obsession, probably because anytime the gang plays, it’s just pure chaos onscreen.
After a night of drinking in which they almost kiss on a dare, Nick and Jess finally kiss in the last minute of the episode. There’s a reason it’s considered by many to be the best kiss scene in TV history — it’s breathtaking, visually striking, and it has to be watched to be understood. For a rare moment, the show’s pace slows all the way down, no gags, jokes, or quips in sight, and all the tiny moments where Nick and Jess show that they care about each other manifest in one explosive moment. Immediately afterward, Sam appears in the hallway to toss out the Nick effigy Jess made when she was alone, shattering the seriousness of the moment. But God, is it a good kiss.
Favorite line: “Jess, for some reason, that girl out there is sexually aroused by other people’s misery. Do you understand the position that puts me in?”
“Parking Spot” (Season 2, Episode 17)
Two episodes post-kiss, Nick and Jess are still trying to navigate their undeniable attraction to each other while also living together. Schmidt discovers a parking spot, which the members of the loft have to fight each other for with increasing desperation. In classic New Girl fashion, the stakes are raised to absurd proportions. The episode’s comedy is fueled largely by Schmidt’s frenetic dedication to beating out his roommates for the spot, hitting Nick with his car and peeing himself in the process.
Nick is forced to choose between Jess and Schmidt to give the spot to, and has to reconcile his burgeoning feelings for Jess and the fact that he signed a “no-nail oath” at the beginning of the series. There is another huge Nick- Jess fight turned romantic moment at the end, but before they can come to any conclusions, Schmidt bursts in on the scene.
Meanwhile, Winston only has a short window of time to have sex with Daisy (Brenda Song), and has to hunt all over the city for a condom. In an act of pure friendship, the gang gives the parking spot to Winston, who needs a win.
Favorite line: “Goddamn! I’m the dumbest boy in school.”
“Chicago” (Season 2, Episode 20)
You wouldn’t think that the death of a parent could make for a good sitcom episode, but New Girl does it exceedingly well. When Nick’s father, a flaky con man with whom Nick had a complicated relationship, dies, the gang goes to Nick’s childhood home in Chicago to prepare for the funeral. To Jess’s surprise, Nick is the most dependable member of his family, and he is put in charge of planning the funeral and writing a eulogy.
Nick Kroll, Margo Martindale, and Bill Burr also make appearances as Nick’s insane family members, and somehow, even though the episode is quite literally about death, it is never not funny. Even the moment Nick learns his father is dead is played for comedy — and it works. The way the writers approach tragedy so head-on mirrors the muted understanding between friends who know each other so well that big life events like these are not uncomfortable or awkward.
Favorite line: “I’m just trying to figure out the level of Elvis impersonator we can afford. And I think a white one’s out of reach.”
“All In” (Season 3, Episode 1)
In the first episode of season three, Nick and Jess have just decided to be in a relationship, and will do anything they can to prolong the high of that realization. The writers appear to make up for all the time spent building up the will-they-won’t-they, and catapult Nick and Jess’s honeymoon phase to new heights — still in their clothes from Cece’s wedding, Nick and Jess drive to Mexico to be together. After they steal from a vacation resort, Nick has to be bailed out of resort jail by Winston and Schmidt, and the new couple is forced to return to the loft and all their obligations and responsibilities.
It’s a whirlwind of an episode, with deeper implications about how relationships can never exist in a vacuum; the anxiety that a relationship will be irrevocably affected by the outside world and the expectations of others is a universal one. But at the end of the day, Nick and Jess are saved from their own carelessness by the very people they sought to escape.
Favorite line: “Winston, if you think those shoes are brown, what color do you think you are?”
“Background Check” (Season 4, Episode 6)
When I asked people their opinions on the best New Girl episode, “Background Check” was by far the most popular response. This particular episode has earned some virality on social media for being one of the funniest episodes of the show, and on TV in general. (It’s no coincidence that “Background Check” is one of three New Girl episodes directed by Hustlers’ Lorene Scafaria.) It’s just gag after gag, every one of them hitting their mark, absolutely no subplot in sight. It exudes the kind of confidence that’s only possible in a show that’s hit its comedic peak. The result is perfect television.
A tough-talking police sergeant (a perfectly calibrated Cleo King) comes to the loft to conduct a background check on Winston, which he needs to pass in order to become a cop. Unfortunately for everyone, Jess suspects that she has a bag of meth in her closet, which the gang desperately tries to dispose of behind the inspector and Winston’s backs. It has everything: sweat-back Nick singing “Landslide” with his eyes and ears covered, Jess stuffing her bra full of meth (later revealed to be aquarium rocks), Coach recruiting a fictional boy named Duquan to make Winston look better, and the list goes on.
Season four through seven of New Girl don’t really hold a candle to the beginning of the series, but one of the few highlights is that Winston finally gets a weighty narrative of his own. As he commits himself to his goal of becoming a police officer, the gang frequently bands together to help him succeed, and he breaks out of his role as just the wacky wild-card character.
Favorite line: “Would you like a green grape shoved in your … given to your mouth? Handed to your mouth?” “No thanks, I’ve already had my grapes.”
“Heat Wave” (Season 5, Episode 9)
While Jess is away on jury duty, Nick develops a crush on a pharmaceutical rep named Reagan, played by Megan Fox. Reagan is cool and mysterious, everything Jess is not. But as the season progresses, Reagan does yield to the gang’s crazy ways, and it is revealed that she does have a weird, tender heart all along.
In “Heat Wave,” Reagan and Nick try to get each other to admit that they have crushes on each other. What better way to do that than by trapping the characters in a situation in which they are forced to band together to avoid literal heatstroke? It’s no Nick and Jess, but the tension between Nick and Reagan is pretty irresistible in this episode, and it culminates in a sweaty, steamy kiss that is pretty satisfying nonetheless.
Favorite line: “I hope that the Chicago Cubs win the World Series while you’re in a coma.”