Week after week, it gets tougher to drum up something to say about New Girl. It’s not because the episodes have been overwhelmingly bad; they are simply far less interesting than they used to be. At the show’s onset, New Girl was a subtle (relatively) play on gender politics. Somewhere in the second half of the first season, we became surprisingly adhered to the characters and got deeper, heavier episodes about the likes of Nick and Schmidt (we’ve yet to see Winston’s transformative episode, and I don’t think we ever will). But themes have waned, stories have tempered, and Season 3 on the whole has been a good deal less insightful than its preceding years. But the biggest crime is that the jokes just aren’t working anymore.
You can see where New Girl is trying to pack its funny: there’s a quick scene in this week’s episode, “Exes,” that shows a lonely Schmidt shouting playfully into his cavernous refrigerator at a bowl of elusive grapes, breaking down in tears moments later as he eats them. The joke is not very dissimilar from a Season 2 beauty that saw Nick giving life to a dish of nuts before he too erupted into hysterics. Maybe it’s because we saw a near identical gag enacted by the superior comedian Jake Johnson, but something about the Schmidt/grapes routine (which should, for all intents and purposes, be the episode’s best laugh) just feels forced.
The plot of the episode isn’t much better: Nick’s ex-girlfriend Caroline (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, from days of New Girl past) has gone bananas over the idea that Nick and Jess are now dating, accusing their relationship of spawning from an act of infidelity on Nick’s part and losing all sense of logical control. If we remember correctly, Caroline was never… psychotic. The show did hint that she might have been on the selfish side, but we didn’t understand her to be the sort of character who’d stalk and attack her ex-boyfriend years after the conclusion of their relationship over the presumption that he might have cheated. What gives, New Girl?
So, to resolve the issue, Jess phones her own ex Berkley (Adam Brody), with whom she has maintained a close friendship… a friendship that Nick insists is fueled by Berkley’s lasting desire to sleep with Jess. Of course he is proven right in the sort of cartoonish twist that sitcoms like this love to pull with ostensibly earnest characters like Berkley. But without many a laugh throughout the story (Brody does deliver a couple of good jokes, his send-off line being my favorite) it is all quite predictable, and all to very little end.
That little end of which I speak involves Nick’s revelation that he has been in love with Jess since the day he met her. He admits this to Jess and Caroline in order to clear the air and woo the viewing audience. Sure, it’s sweet, but doesn’t pack the same oomph that New Girl always used to. Maybe it’s because Nick, as we’ve known him, has been a character defined by his failure. His driving force was his desperation, and we watched him so vigorously to see if he might grab at a scrap of happiness or self-worth one of these days. Now that things are working out peachy for him, we don’t really know what to do. We’re glad for Nick and all, but the show suffers.
Across the hall, the gags are multiplied, in the Three’s Companiest way possible. Schmidt, Coach, and Winston all aim to use Schmidt’s loft to seduce strange women (in two cases that “strange” means “unfamiliar to them,” in Winston’s it just means “weird” — Bertie’s back!), going by false names, mixing up their bedrooms, and enacting as many other screwball playboy highjinks as you can imagine. It has its moments, though a New Girl in its prime could have done wonders with this idiotic plot. Still, it is a good showcase of the occasionally overshadowed talents of Damon Wayans Jr. (who is so funny that he earns a hearty chuckle with the throwaway line, “Don’t drink the water by the bed, it’s got my contacts in it”) and Lamorne Morris (“I am Frank Skabopolis! … Is this helping?”).
While New Girl hasn’t entirely lost its charms, we aren’t seeing the old magic that made it occasionally uproarious and occasionally quite sensitive. Falling in the realm of “passable” in both sections, we get an episode like “Exes.” Not bad, but not the best New Girl can do… we hope.