There was a time when Tuesday night was New Girl night. After the ramping-up period, back when The Mindy Project was an infant and Brooklyn Nine-Nine was just someone’s pitch for Andre Braugher holding puppies, New Girl got good. It grew nuance and originality along with silliness, and cultivated a gift for amazing throwaway lines. It developed characters so weird that you had to love them. It had something going. And now, in its third season, it’s lost its way.
The last season of New Girl was incredibly exciting. Among other plot points, the writers leaned hard on the developing romantic relationship between Jess and her roommate Nick, with thrilling results. The story was exciting; Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s crackly, grown-up chemistry was exciting; and the writing was really exciting. The writers approached Nick and Jess’s story with the kind of abandon—one might say recklessness—not often seen on network sitcoms. Instead of drawing out the will-they-won’t-they, they went for it, all at once, and it was a glorious thing to watch.
In comparison, this season is dead in the water. Nearly everybody’s flailing, looking for an arc and not finding anything of substance. Schmidt moved out, and then back in again, for reasons I don’t really remember. Winston, never a character of great purpose in the first place, continues to have harebrained schemes that never go anywhere (though I hope he becomes a cop, and stays one; there’s lots of material there). And Coach, the roommate who was replaced by Winston after the pilot, has resurfaced for reasons nobody seems to get, other than the cancellation of Happy Endings and the availability of Damon Wayans, Jr. Cece is working at the bar with Nick—potentially a fun move—and fostering a mostly platonic soft spot for Schmidt, but she isn’t going anywhere. None of them are.
The thing is, though, that there are two characters who aren’t really flailing, and they are Nick and Jess. They’ve lost the urgency of last season, but their relationship remains the best part of the show—they’re funny, they’re sexy (except when they’re deliberately not, a la Nick’s nightgown), and their storylines stem primarily from the drama and humor inherent in two weird humans trying to establish a life together. This is huge: by far, the biggest killer of television couples (and, sometimes, television shows) is the temptation to manufacture drama externally, as if human relationships were somehow not interesting enough. It’s this impulse that brought us Luke’s long-lost daughter April, Luke’s inexplicable desire to keep her a secret, and a totally unnecessary breakup on Gilmore Girls; it’s this impulse that replaced Lois Lane with a frog-eating clone a million years ago on Lois and Clark; it’s this impulse that made a serial killer force Booth to refuse to marry Brennan, and not tell her why, on Bones. It’s an infuriating instinct—and on New Girl, the writers have mostly avoided it, apparently getting that these two characters have enough neuroses and conflicting pressure points to keep an enterprising sitcom writer busy until the next winter Olympics, at least. It’s a slowed-down version of what they started last year, and that’s understandable; what they were doing last year wasn’t sustainable. I suspect not everybody is enjoying the monogamous setting-up stage of Nick and Jess’s relationship—but it’s keeping them focused, and in motion, which is more than anybody else on the show can say.
Maybe The Nick and Jess Show in its barn-burning heyday sucked all the energy from everybody else’s storylines, and we were all so busy watching them that nobody noticed. Now, when everything has normalized, we notice, and adjustments need to be made. At its best, this show invests in all four roommates, and regardless of what Fox tries to tell us, Jess can’t carry the show alone. This week may have been a step in the right direction, with Schmidt moving back into the apartment, forcing Nick and Jess to continue sharing a room despite realizing they’d rather not. This reshuffling is a chance to refocus the action in new ways and go back to some established routines, and maybe find new arcs with new setups and new payoffs. Let’s hope a little proximity and a little reset button can breathe some life back into apartment 4D.
This is the first of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Coming soon, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project.