(Zooey Deschanel, Nelson Franklin) (Jennifer Clasen/FOX)

After almost a month off, New Girl is back, and it’s ready for change, at least temporarily. “Ready” opens on Jess ready to stop pining over Nick and start dating again. Nick’s ready to turn the bar over to Cece so he can write full-time while she implements changes. Cece’s ready to take on the extra responsibility, even if her only idea was to restock the toilet paper. (“And I want you to implement that as manager,” Nick tells her encouragingly.) Schmidt, who took a break from the gym during wedding planning, is ready to get back into his routine before his “chiseled 10” becomes “a dumpy 7 breathing down 6’s back.”

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“Single And Sufficient” reveals the chemistry between Jess and Robby (Nelson Franklin). In “Ready,” a trip to Jess’ gym rekindles it. Okay, Jess concedes to a scoffing Schmidt, maybe she was never exactly good at dating, but “I had a thing a certain type responded to.” Robby enters on cue, already responding to her thing, because he sure is that certain type. These two dorks seem perfect for each other—so perfect that when Jess keeps scoping out other men, Schmidt does a double take and asks, “Are you doing a bit right now?”

It seems inevitable that Robby and Jess will explore their intense chemistry, but New Girl is great at sidestepping the seemingly inevitable. By the end of “Ready,” their romance looks downright… evitable. They have an easy rapport. They have a shared sense of humor. They have a great time together even when they’re the only table not celebrating a birthday in the brightest, noisiest birthday-specific restaurant in town. But they don’t have magic. Jess wants magic, the kind she sees in the couples around her: Cece and Schmidt, Nick and Reagan, Winston and Ferguson—I mean, Winston and Ally.

Written by New Girl veteran staff writer/story editor Noah Garfinkel, this episode weaves together most of its story elements with a deft touch and an affectionate grasp on its characters, regulars or not. Robby’s goofy appeal comes across, and so does a vulnerability that’s sometimes winning and sometimes overwhelming. Even Donovan (Trent Garrett), the hot new bartender hired by Cece to bring in more female customers, has a sweet vacancy. (When Cece glances over his modeling contract and tells him he’s getting screwed, his throwaway “awwww” is an endearing touch.)

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“Ready”’s A-story gets Schmidt into the gym where he can offer encouragement to Jess and exposition to the viewer. Their later conversation over Robby’s leftover not-birthday cake helps Schmidt realize his happiness with Cece has freed him from his relentless pursuit of physical perfection. The B-story of Cece taking over as bar manager seamlessly transitions into a story about her hidden talent, even as Nick and Winston each follow their own minor storylines in the background.

These stories fit together with a flow as soothing as the sound of the rainstick some flirtatious woman gave Winston. A moment of connection as Jess spots Robby’s weightlifting session turns into disaster with inescapable logic as she bends down to kiss him and the weights crash down on both of them. Early laugh lines about Robby’s injury and his new routine (“classic genie workout, just let your legs waste away until they turn into mist,” Schmidt snaps) set him up for later disaster; when Jess settles in to break up with him, she breaks him instead. Between the dropped weights, the leg reduced to “two pieces connected by a skin tunnel where his knee should be,” and the barstool entanglement at the end, “Ready” packs some rough physical comedy, but Nelson Franklin makes Robby’s agony and his split-lipped smile improbably comic.

With such thoughtful architecture of the intersecting characters and stories, it’s disappointing to see one element badly short-changed. Cece’s shrewd dealing with exploitative modeling professionals makes perfect sense, and Hannah Simone’s performance gives Cece’s gift for cutthroat negotiation a potent immediacy. With such a powerful development for her character, it’s disappointing to see Cece’s agency undermined almost immediately by the writing. It’s Nick, not Cece, who realizes she’d make a good manager for aspiring models; it’s Nick who collects her first prospective clients and presents them to her as a fait accompli. All Cece does is accept Nick’s idea. His good idea, but still his idea.

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That go-with-the-flow passivity wasn’t out of character for the Cece of years ago. In “Table 34,” one of Cece’s potential matches asks, “So, do you think through any of your decisions?” Then, the answer seemed to be no. But that was season two, and Cece has grown up and grown in confidence since then. She‘s also grown as a character, and her motivation coming from within, not from her friend’s suggestion, would have been one more way to demonstrate that growth.

This episode that initially seems full of powerful changes ends up with not much changed. Schmidt’s happiness remains, but seeing the rippling six-packs of Cece’s new clients drives him back into the gym and onto his diet. Nick promotes Cece so he can back off from the bar to focus on writing, then spends the entire episode in the bar not writing. Winston enjoys a newfound burst of confidence and the flirtations that come with it until Nick knocks him back down a peg. Jess starts to connect with Robby, but by the time she’s smashed his wheelchair into a barstool, he’s probably ready to drop the connection. Cece’s new career is the most powerful change in this episode, and likely the only lasting one. Despite her experience and acumen, making it Nick’s idea takes a lot of the power behind that decision out of her hands.

Stray observations

  • Sam Malone, one of Elizabeth Meriwether’s favorite sitcom characters and a likely inspiration for Nick Miller, makes an appearance as Nick’s sole reference point for masculine good looks. “I know that this was the most attractive man in America for ten years. I know that because magazines told me so.” Nick even keeps his picture taped up somewhere in the bar for reference.
  • “Well, I do find Robby very funny, and he’s as tall as you can be before it’s weird.” “See, I’d put him on the wrong side of that line.”
  • “I’m going to put my push-up bra on! That’s not actually a bra that pushes my breasts up, it’s actually one that I do push-ups in. Smash these babies down!”
  • It’s sweet to see Schmidt burst into congratulations when Cece tells him about her new career. He only considers his own ego after he’s showered her in praise.
  • “The old Pittsburgh goodbye”: a chuck on the arm and a handshake.

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