‘New Girl’: A Show That Used to Be About Gender

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The humor in New Girl has been waning all season, so we won’t even tackle the general unfunniness of this week’s chapter, “Thanksgiving III.” Instead, we’re inclined to focus on an even stranger calamity incited by the episode — one about which we have mixed feelings.

In some ways, “Thanksgiving III” is an accomplishment for latter day New Girl, allowing the show to get back in touch with its thematic roots. It wasn’t just a grab at quirky affability that led Elizabeth Meriwether to her program’s title. When Jessica Day entered the lives of Nick, Schmidt, and Coach, it was as a fresh, unprecedented representation of the feminine perspective. She was there to leaven the stronghold that masculinity had on each of the boys (not men) in question.

Coach’s was the most on-the-nose of the conflicts in question — he was anchored down by the age-old tropes of manliness: competitive, abrasive, consumed by strength and athleticism.

Schmidt’s was a more modern masculinity, but a deafening one nonetheless: his affinity for grooming and cleanliness were tools pointed toward the craft of winning over as many women as possible — a triumph that would define him as a man.

And, of course, we had Nick. Averse to vulnerability, growth, and change of any kind. Vices all intrinsically buried in the fears of “man,” a forever weakening figure hanging tight to his grasp on a power once untethered.

So who could be better than Jess to reform this trio? She’s a beacon of feminine value, exhibiting emotionality, open-mindedness, understanding. The pilot planted seeds of how she might bring each of these fellows to a platform of liberation from the constrictions of gender.

But then came Winston. Damon Wayans Jr. retreated to Happy Endings (where his comic talents were better utilized than they seem to be on this show, so far) and Lamorne Morris entered the picture without the parameters of character. The biggest victim of Winston’s ambiguity was the show’s central conceit — the disfigurement of the toxic gender boundaries. It’s not as though the themes died out straight away. Halfway through the first season, we saw Jess come to blows with Lizzy Caplan, playing a recurring love interest for Nick, over their conflicting ideas about femininity. But somewhere along the line, New Girl effectively stopped being about these pulsing, interesting ideas. It kept on being funny for a while, and built up its characters affectionately, but lost a good deal of what made it a story in the first place.

Until “Thanksgiving III,” arguably the first episode to really tackle gender since Season 1. Nick, feeling undone by his relationship with Jess, demands that the whole gang go camping for Thanksgiving to assert himself as a man. The conclusion, as anyone who has been watching these past several weeks of New Girl might predict, is Jess convincing Nick that he’s the sort of man she wants, and Nick taking one more step up the staircase of maturity. Meanwhile, these themes course through a story involving Coach, Schmidt, and Cece — modern man Schmidt feels threatened by former Eagle Scout Coach’s traditional masculinity when he proves himself adept at handling the dangers of the California wilderness, and Cece proves her own gender-relevant experiences of making clothing ropes to sneak out of her bedroom window as the true source of heroism when things get heated in the third act. But none of that really matters.

On the one hand, we’re excited to see New Girl get back to the themes that birthed it (although we can’t imagine that, even with Coach’s return to the program, we’ll be seeing this become a throughline element). On the other, we can’t help but call “Thanksgiving III” a regression. This is a plotline New Girl should have given us two seasons ago — after living with Jess for two-and-a-half years and dating her for however many months (undergoing a series of personal changes in the meantime), if Nick is still the same thick-headed dumb bell who thinks he needs to go on an ad-hoc hunting trip in order to feel comfortable as a male specimen, then it’s as if nothing was introduced into the canon of New Girl when Jess Day showed up at the loft that fateful day in 2011.

By now, had New Girl kept to its inceptive identity, the show should be tackling issues of greater complexity than the most surface value of all gender restrictions. Nick shouldn’t be dismissing his ill-conceived desires to go hunting (that’s Step 1 of the reformation process), he should be figuring out how to tell people he loves them (Step 6, give or take). But there’s that old saying about having cake and eating it too. We took one step forward with the themes of gender as fuel for “Thanksgiving III,” and two steps back with the execution.

And then another step back for Winston’s leggings.