(Jake Johnson, Zooey Deschanel, Max Greenfield, Jon Daly) (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FOX)

“Rumspringa” opens in classic New Girl style, with a made-up celebration and a momentous announcement. Together, Jess and Schmidt are hosting Big Dinner, “where the news is big and the dinner is regular-sized.” With awkward ceremony, they exchange tokens of their new career milestones: Jess presents Schmidt his new business cards declaring him Associated Strategies’ new director of non-television, non-radio West Coast marketing, and Schmidt presents Jess with her “principal’s blazer,” which she’s been saving in anticipation of this day.

It’s a strong opening, and one so characteristic of New Girl that if it were less distinctive in voice, or less knowledgeable about its characters, it could easily lapse into cliché. But everything works in these first few minutes, from the familiar gathering around the table to the derailing of their joint announcement by their roommates, who can’t wait to chime in with their own not-so-new news. (“Ding-ding-ding,” Winston announces: Since he’s marrying Aly, he needs to get a divorce from his prank-wife, Rhonda. “Ding-ding-ding-ding,” Cece pipes up, “Real quick: I hate Rhonda.”) It’s a pitch-perfect assembly of intentionally awkward pauses, disproportionate pomp (complete with the strains of “Pomp And Circumstance”), and punctured ceremony. Even the long hold on Jess squirming around, trying to get comfortable in the blazer she’s finally allowing herself to wear, is perfectly imperfect.

That makes it all the more disappointing when the rest of the episode feels just a little bit off. There’s nothing terribly wrong with “Rumspringa,” but there’s a lot that’s not quite right. It’s reaching for big, broad comedy—something New Girl often does well—but the balance is off. Like that blazer, it’s just a bad fit. And the more Jess channels her nervous energy into altering the blazer, the worse it gets, until she realizes in a moment of despair that she’s added two extra sleeves. In the case of “Rumspringa,” those two extra sleeves are two big comedy tropes: the big prank and the locked room.

With Winston and Aly engaged, Rhonda has to be dealt with as a character and as a plot obstacle, and I’ve been dreading it. Rhonda’s pranks are large-scale wacky-sitcom pranks, Rhonda is a large-scale wacky-sitcom character, and both feel out of proportion to New Girl’s sensibilities and ensemble. But Sonequa Martin-Green (of The Walking Dead, and soon to be Star Trek: Discovery’s Lt. Commander Rainsford) gives a great performance. Rhonda’s character is as outsized as ever, but Martin-Green is just right, whether she’s playing the gentle-voiced mother cradling an infant son or the victor crowing over another successful prank. As she leans in to Winston, who gazes adoringly at the baby he thinks is his son, and whispers, “You… got… Rhonda’d,” the shift of tone manages to feel both inevitable and enormously welcome. (I spent a lot of that scene muttering, “It’s a prank, it’s a prank” under my breath, but the reveal was still a huge relief.)

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It’s just as inevitable, and a lot less welcome, that Rhonda then ropes Winston, Aly, and the reluctant Cece into one of her most elaborate pranks. Though it leads to an even greater connection between Aly and Winston as she learns the appeal of pulling pranks, too much of the episode’s time and energy is spent on Rhonda, and on a plot that feels more like generic sitcom hijinks than a New Girl story.

When a B-story goes big with a guest character like Rhonda—and even in the world of New Girl, nobody goes bigger than Rhonda, who splurges on a portable OB-GYN bed complete with custom cut-out for Aly’s head—it makes sense to balance the episode’s tone by going small elsewhere. Unfortunately, “Rumspringa”’s A-story goes big on set and setting and small on character connections and development.

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Trying to distract her from her worries, Nick and Schmidt drag Jess to the old-timey Danish village of Solvang, which Jess sums up as “candy apples, windmills, no minorities.” But knocking back aquavit and peppering old-timey re-enactor Professor P.P. Hornsyld (Jon Daly) with questions doesn’t lessen the looming responsibilities of adulthood, and neither does stuffing yourself with abelskivers. Soon, in an attempt to prolong their avoidance of adult responsibilities, they find themselves locked in the distillery cellar overnight.

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Even in a weaker episode, New Girl distinguishes itself through smart comic timing and playful self-awareness. The ostentatious slam of that cellar door can’t go unnoticed by the audience, and it doesn’t slip by the characters, either. Just as Winston notices Rhonda’s disappearing-ink joke the moment it’s too late to stop her, Schmidt, Nick, and Jess all exchange glances just as the door shuts behind them, and the desultory gestures they make to deny their predicament make it funnier than it has any right to be.

Trapped in the cellar, Jess further infects Nick and Schmidt with her anxiety, and finally casts blame on Nick for trying to distract her from her worries. “Maybe this worked when you were 20,” she says, compounding his fear of seeming childish, “but we’re adults now, and you can’t handle adult problems by forgetting about them.”

But “Rumspringa” handles its problems by ignoring them. Winston is finally divorced from Rhonda, but the goal was to remove her from his life, not to have her on record as Aly’s adoptive mother. Jess makes it to the school in time for her inaugural morning announcements (and having practiced her morning announcements voice), and Schmidt will make it to his first day as boss, but they’ve both been up drinking all night. Nick is newly reassured by Jess that he’s adult enough for her, but that doesn’t address his fear that Reagan thinks he’s childish, and it ignores Jess’ earlier criticism.

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The chemistry of the actors and characters holds this outsize, under-characterized episode together, but it’s a weak outing for New Girl. Too much of the episode is focused on externals: on a minor recurring character and her pranks, on the creation of the Danish village. This episode is Jess’ principal’s blazer, or Nick’s attempt to create a new, adult vision for his room. There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly, but it’s missing that distinctive New Girl flair, and the more you mess with it, the worse it gets. This is New Girl trying to jam itself into a wacky-sitcom tropes, and it just doesn’t fit, so they add an extra arm or two.

The ending of “Rumspringa” once again underlines how much Jess and Nick accept and appreciate each other just as they are (and how much Reagan wants Nick to change, or at least how much Nick thinks she does). The quaint quilted jacket he bought to turn into a pillow—to win Reagan’s approval—turns out to be the principal’s blazer Jess needed all along, and it’s a perfect fit. We get it: Nick’s the raisins in Jess’ trail mix and Jess is the glue that binds Nick’s pages together. New Girl is clearly marking time until it can reunite them. So stop marking time. Let them, and us, out of the cellar already.

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Stray observations

  • “Rumspringa” goes too small by truncating Professor P.P. Hornsyld’s re-enacting spiel, then goes too big by wedging him in as the deus ex machina who chauffeurs Nick, Schmidt, and Jess back to L.A.
  • “Absolutely it’s a bottle of Clue Claude De Salmonier.”
  • “She’s got a real cat-in-a-bathtub vibe.”
  • Disapproving Cece is the best Cece: “All of us are coming down from this a little too quickly, because what that guy did? Is a felony.”
  • “A grown man standing around a bunch of 10-year-olds holding bottles of his own urine, what could go wrong?”

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