“Raisin’s Back” opens with a demonstration of one of New Girl’s quiet strengths, emphasizing that its characters continue to interact when they’re offscreen. What we see on the show is just a fraction of their lives and, crucially, of their relationships. Integrating Reagan’s deadpan delivery and loner sensibility into loft life is a challenge almost as tricky as Jess learning to live with her ex and his girlfriend, or as Nick finding the sweet spot between smothering his live-in partner and neglecting her. “Raisin’s Back” eases into this long-awaited move by showing some history between the titular New Girl and the new girl.

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The opening establishes that Jess and Reagan text, they have inside jokes, they swap pics of bears wearing backpacks. As Nick bustles around, curtailing everyone’s plans to greet their returning housemate, Jess waits for her with a bag of “old-lady caramels, just a little thing that Reagan and I have.” These two women have a relationship, one the audience—and Nick—doesn’t know about until it comes up organically.

Maybe their friendship blossomed after Jess reached out to Reagan in “Christmas Eve Eve,” maybe it pre-existed those hijinks. Either way, the connection between them doesn’t just ease Reagan’s re-entry to the loft and the show. It’s another glimmer of submerged goofiness (like her rat voice from “Heat Wave” or her fuzzy pajamas in “The Decision”) that explains why Reagan fits with Nick Miller, and with New Girl, as well as she does. And this small, innocuous secret paves the way for bigger secrets to come.

Secrets, shenanigans, and misunderstandings are the nuts and bolts of sitcom plots, and “Raisin’s Back” is jam-packed with them from Nick’s first words, as he pleads with his friends (and himself) not to scare off Reagan by being excited to see her. Rather than playing those familiar beat straight, Eliot Glazer’s script self-consciously remixes classic sitcom maneuvers into something smarter and more sympathetic, with adept direction from Ben And Kate creator Dana Fox, who knows how to make the most of the nuanced chemistry New Girl specializes in.

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After feinting at the possibility that Jess drunkenly has divulged her feelings for Nick, “Raisin’s Back” pulls back and focuses not on Nick and Jess, but on Nick and Reagan. Through the episode, they’re at odds, deflecting honest conversation with diversions into minutia. When Reagan confronts Nick with the reality that she rearranged her whole life to move “across the country” to live with him, he goes full Chicago as he nitpicks, “You came from Seattle, pal. That’s down.” When Reagan shoots back a sarcastic “Are you a cartographer now?” Nick accuses her of speaking in code, and she is. They both are. They’re playing games and scoring points off each other instead of being vulnerable.

(Zooey Deschanel, Megan Fox) (Photo: John P. Fleenor/FOX)

Reagan’s dry restraint can get a little monotonous, so Jess and Reagan’s drunken night out is a welcome chance for Fox to loosen up a little. Her over-the-top shhh-ing when she mentions her second, secret apartment is a refreshing change, and it makes sense for the character and the story. Someone as guarded as Reagan is would only let this big a secret slip if she were plastered… or if she wanted to stir up some well-intended interference from a friend. Reagan doesn’t know Jess has pledged to distance herself from Nick and Reagan’s relationship, and that she’ll spend the whole episode trying and failing to live up to that pledge.

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Instead of Jess intentionally inserting herself into their difficulties, the episode shows her consistently, and uncharacteristically, trying to mind her own business. Over and over, she tells Nick and Reagan to talk to each other, not her, about their misunderstandings. She tells Cece, and only Cece, about the apartment; it’s Winston’s covert mic (picking up ambient noise for his EDM project) that betrays the secret to Nick.

When Winston and Cece team up to record a single that can fool electronica aficionado Schmidt, there’s more at stake than who gets to choose the music for the bar, and Winston’s failed Arthur Fonzarelli move is more than a convenient ploy to put the bar’s jukebox out of order and put their bet in action. It’s a nod to classic sitcom mechanics, the conventions that “Raisin’s Back” simultaneously masters and subverts.

Realizing he’s mistaken an original Bishop-Parekh track for “Swedish EDM demigod Avicii,” Schmidt yells, “This must be a shenanigan!” But on New Girl, a shenanigan is never just a shenanigan. This isn’t just a lost bet; it’s a crisis of faith. When the certainty of his taste is called into question, Schmidt—that self-made man constructed from from an elaborate construct of skincare regimes, menswear protocols, and behavioral tics—is shaken to the core. “If I don’t have my taste,” he asks, “then what’s real? Are cargo shorts gorgeous? Was I wrong about rubber awareness bracelets? Should I grow a goatee?”

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To Winston and Cece, this is a game. To Schmidt, it’s earth-shattering. He’s ready to burn all his gingham and trade in his cashmere socks for a 14-pack of tube socks from the grocery store. And he’s ready to take back the find he uncovered in “the chair district”: an authentic Hauberman, an angular and unforgiving piece of high design Schmidt selected as the centerpiece of their home-to-be. Robbed of his highhanded assurance in his own taste, Schmidt casts off his lifestyle accoutrements and retreats to their empty house, still under construction and now weevil-infested. (“Wow,” Winston says when they find him, “cowboy hat, hockey jersey, drinking from a styrofoam cup. You called it perfectly, Cece.”)

There, Cece delivers a moral that seems more suited to Winston, and specifically to the Winston of “Goosebumps Walkaway,” who recognizes his motherfreakin’ handwriting: “Your taste is your taste, it doesn’t matter who else likes it.” And the rest of them deliver that message in tangible form, bringing in Schmidt’s Hauberman. There’s no rationale for Schmidt’s crisis of confidence to be resolved so easily, but Max Greenfield sells the moment with his eyes as he sits on that ugly, spare seat (“Chair?” Nick says, “I thought it was the base of a fish tank”), and with his exuberant dance to Winston and Cece’s song.

The resolution of Nick and Reagan’s story is more logical and better earned, but no less touching. There’s something poignant about the image of Nick and Jess on one side of that security gate and Reagan on the other. It’s even more poignant to see Jess in close-up behind those bars, watching Nick walk away from her. The silly, self-sabotaging man she loved, and maybe still loves, is about to stop dissembling and let himself be vulnerable, and it’s largely thanks to her unflagging support of his new relationship.

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But like “Christmas Eve Eve,” “Raisin’s Back” drops a hint about Nick and Reagan’s future even as it resolves their immediate conflict. After they eschew the sniping and coded language of their quarrel, as they prepare to open up to each other, Reagan still isn’t able to give Nick the correct code to unlock the gate. It took Jess to lead Nick to Reagan’s secret apartment, and it takes a stranger (Kevin, who’s just trying to enjoy his supermarket salad on his balcony) to give Nick the entry code. Nick can’t quite get there on his own, and Reagan can’t quite let him in.

Stray observations

  • Do my eyes deceive me or is Nick drinking a beer with a whole pickle in it?
  • Schmidt’s dream chair, the Hauberman: “A print ad for it features a quote from David Strathairn.”
  • Schmidt calling Winston’s jukebox smash “the least Fonzie move ever! Borderline Chachi!” has a different undertone than it would have a few years ago.
  • As Schmidt lectures Winston that he prefers to call EDM “just M, because it’s the only music,” Cece is able to recite his words in unison, proving that Schmidt’s EDM rant is yet another oft-repeated piece of the New Girl universe that the audience is only now seeing.
  • Cece’s irrepressible gagging as hungover Jess stinks up her room is a great, uh, gag: visceral and evocative without crossing the line into gross-out.
  • A few of the candid recordings Winston considered for the hook of his single: Nick shaving without shaving cream, Schmidt rhapsodizing about his Hauberman, Furguson “going to town on Jess’ bunny slippers” (which is several seconds of silence) and Nick eating a microwave burrito (which sounds like a cat going to town on bunny slippers).
  • New Girl’s reality isn’t as absurdist as Lady Dynamites, but with its overt nods to classic sitcoms, its transcendence of those old tropes, and its emotional generosity, “Raisin’s Back” reminds me of “Jack And Diane.”

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