(Zooey Deschanel, Rob Reiner) (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

Let’s get a couple of things straight. One, “Misery” is a utilitarian episode of New Girl, and a utilitarian episode of New Girl is still better than many sitcoms. Two, the fragmentation that bogs down “Misery” is right on theme for an episode about frustrating failures of communication. But knowing it’s intentional doesn’t make it funnier or more fun to watch.

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The cold open lays on the exposition a little thick. “Honey, you just fled to your dad’s house in Portland,” Cece reminds Jess, and us—as if Jess doesn’t know and we wouldn’t remember or couldn’t figure it out from contextual clues like Jess being at her dad’s house in Portland, or Jess repeating that she’s at her dad’s house in, or Jess’ dad (Rob Reiner) showing up to tell her half-heartedly how great it’s been to have her at his house. (In Portland.) But few viewers who aren’t already up to speed on Nick and Reagan’s obviously doomed relationship and Jess’ “very tasteful, very stately skedaddle” would care about the inside-baseball (inside-True American?) episode that follows this brief conversation. It’s really more of a loft thing.

Indeed, “Misery”’s strengths (and there are some) come from relying on the viewer’s familiarity with this assortment of oddballs and their weird, intense dynamic. Having Schmidt and Cece, so recently established in their own house, just show up and make themselves at home is a sly idea. It demonstrates that change isn’t as easy as it seems, it plays smartly on the family-like relationship the roommates have, and it puts these two characters back in the mix just when their absence might be most keenly felt, with Jess away (at her dad’s house in Portland, in case you forgot). In an episode with scattered stories, Schmidt and Cece’s casual intrusion into their former home—cemented by Max Greenfield’s and Hannah Simone’s understated performances, half taking umbrage at the lack of welcome, half just standing around making sandwiches—helps hold everything together.

Some of the lack of communication in “Misery” is intentional, like Winston trying to shield his over-protective mother Charmaine (the returning Anna Maria Horsford) from learning that he’s a cop. Enlisting Aly in the over-elaborate fiction that he’s still a radio-show host provides plenty of would-be classic Winston moments (the episode-ending outtakes of Lamorne Morris filling airtime on Winston’s imaginary show are not to be missed), and it’s as good a way as any to introduce Aly to his family, but it all feels a little (episode theme alert!) disconnected, right down to the pat revelation that Winston’s father was a cop, too.

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Some of the lack of communication is doggedly determined, like Nick and Reagan’s… well, everything. “We’re not all couple-y like you,” Reagan tells Schmidt and Cece, and Nick agrees: “We don’t gab all day like a couple of Italian grandmas hanging their laundry.” But once Nick gets talked into meeting some of Reagan’s pharm-rep friends at a “drug party” (a campaign launch for a new anti-anxiety drug), it becomes obvious that they don’t talk about anything. Ever.

Nick doesn’t know Reagan was a classically trained ballet dancer, he doesn’t know about the accident that changed her career path (she shattered both ankles, both knees, and “a little bit of my pelvis” in “this thing I refer to as ‘The Crackening’”), and he doesn’t know about the fantastic job offer she’s been considering for a month. And now that he and Reagan are barely cracking open the door to better communication, Nick realizes he wants someone who wants to gab with him all day about the big stuff and the small stuff. Someone like Jess.

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And some of the lack of communication is self-serving, like Jess’ insistence that she’s staying with her father for his own good, or his equally bogus insistence that she shouldn’t neglect her life at home, when what he really needs is time alone to enjoy his judge shows and his fish sticks and his naked time. This is what I was getting at last week when I mentioned Jess putting her feelings first. I didn’t specify that even when she puts her own feelings first, she has trouble admitting to it.

Only when everyone stops deflecting does “Misery” find its balance and heart. When Jess admits to her dad that she’s avoiding home because she’s in love with her roommate, he opens his arms and his home to her for as long as she needs. When Winston tells his mother the truth about his dangerous work, and when Aly reassures her she’s got Winston’s back, Charmaine begins to open up about his father. When Cece and Schmidt push Nick into talking with Reagan, he sees what he really wants in a relationship. When he turns to them for solace, they feel vindicated for camping out in the place that’s no longer their home.

Every show has to spend a certain amount of time lining up the puzzle pieces involved in (for example) writing out a live-in love interest or reigniting a long-simmering will they/won’t they. For all its wackiness and adorkability, New Girl is usually both smart and earnestly emotional, cloaking the machinations of plot in character moments. “Misery” doesn’t live up to that reputation, which is doubly a shame since it’s one of the last episodes in season six, and possibly in the series. (Jake Johnson has since clarified, “Let’s be clear. I have no idea if NG is coming back.”) It’s a little too disconnected, a little too broad in its comic beats, and a little too clumsy at putting its plot points in place.

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Let’s get this straight: ”Misery” is not a bad episode of television. It’s fine. But New Girl has spoiled me. I expect better than “fine” from this show. Nick says it best: “You stupid idiots made me realize that I need more than that.”

Stray observations

  • In Misery, Paul Sheldon is nursed against his will by his number-one fan, who is responsible for his worst injury just as Jess is responsible for her father’s bruised toe. (Okay, not just as.) Misery was directed by Rob Reiner. This episode is entitled “Misery.” Moonlight Sonata, covert trips to the kitchen, violent retribution. You get it.
  • I laughed really hard at the reveal that Nick’s raffle prize is a human-sized replica of the anxiety monster from the Zifacil campaign. Of course he dragged the anxiety monster home with him, and of course the shot turns to show it looming between him and Reagan.
  • “Aly, I found a roly-poly in these pants. They gave me 80% off.”
  • Reagan’s VP of North American sales position “comes with a great salary and a vaccination for the coming elk flu, the flu that you’re going to be hearing about for the next decade.”

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