Apr 16, 2014

Please, Please, Please (Don’t) Let Them Get What They Want: On New Girl’s Third Season

By Josh Oakley

There are some characters that function better in good times, when they’re accomplishing their goals and in the middle of healthy relationships. This allows the work of art to dig into them in a calm state; there’s a base for them to return to, so any deviation from that base functions as an obstacle rather than a net loss. Then there are characters that work best when they’re not allowed to have the things that they desire. These characters don’t necessarily deserve unhappiness, but it’s the context in which they’re most fascinating to watch. Nick and Jess certainly deserve to be happy, in the sense that they’re generally good people with their hearts in the right place. But man, are happy Nick and Jess kind of a bummer.

After the great, consistent heights of New Girl’s second season, this third year has been a considerable letdown. There have certainly been highlights, and nearly every episode has enough to heartily laugh at (often thanks to the cast, especially Jake Johnson who continues to give the best comedic performance on TV). But the thrill has been gone for quite a while. What made season two so exhilarating was the push-and-pull between the show’s central couple. Episodes like “Cooler” and “Quick Hardening Caulk” brilliantly portrayed sexual tension ratcheted as tight as humanly possible.

Complaining that a will-they-or-won’t-they couple got together and lost the spark is hardly a revelatory stance. Why does this inevitable step in the story fall flat so often, though? More specifically, why didn’t it work here, when the initial hookups were so potent and lively?

I think it comes down to the idea that when Nick and Jess are happy, there’s so much less to say about the two of them. Of course nearly every episode this season threw some wrench in their relationship, as a sitcom is wont to do. But as mentioned above, there’s a difference between a slight departure from happiness and being in a place of heartbreak. It’s the difference between a fight over where to get dinner and one that stems from cheating. The emotional gap is huge, and the former has been utilized plenty over the course of the season. The latter, however, is just now emerging, and it’s some of the best stuff the show has ever done.

Even when Nick and Jess were hooking up, they still weren’t at the exact place they wanted to be. That isn’t a moral knock against people casually sleeping together, but something the show made clear the deeper their relationship got. These two wanted each other, and though they were having sex, they still didn’t get what they wanted. That’s in opposition to say, when they fought over Nick’s financial standing, or whatever other roadblock the show forcefully put in their way. Here, the (often inorganic) problems hindered their happiness but were quickly solved, in the ways sitcoms often do. This wasn’t all terrible, with a couple recent episode actually being quite good (“Clavado En Un Bar” and “Birthday” among them), but even at its best it never felt vital, in the way we all know the show was capable of.

With their break-up, New Girl is returning Nick and Jess to their places of longing, where the worst parts of them can get in the way of their happiness. It turns out that this is simply the most fascinating lens through which to view them. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is true, but, for example, Schmidt is much more intriguing when happy than when cruelly lashing out due to sadness. (Winston operates on a level beyond that which can be recognized by the human emotional scale, though it was deliriously fun to see him in success mode in “Big News”).

Maybe it’s just that some of us yearn and some of us have. Or, more accurately, some of us are at our best when we’re reaching and going for something, and some of us flourish in the arms of comfort. Whatever the case may be, the show does seem to be recalibrating. The reunion of Schmidt and Cece seems imminent, and the break-up of Nick and Jess will hopefully lead to each of them exploring new angles of themselves. With “Big News”, New Girl may be on its way back to being one of the best shows on TV. And even if it stumbles, at least this episode give us its most poignant image in nearly a year: Nick and Jess, singing the same sappy ballad, inches and one closed door away from each other but miles apart.

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