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New Girl: “Coming Out”

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To enrich the characters at its core, New Girl’s fourth season looks to external sources. The show has had a lot of fun, and continues to have fun, with its characters’ tight-knit bonds—but that sort of thing can get claustrophobic. To give itself new storytelling real estate, the fourth-season comeback looks beyond the loft: Jess takes on new responsibilities at school, which are complicated by a workplace romance. Winston turns out to be a great cop, and the job feeds his eccentricities in unpredictable ways. Nick finds a sugar mama, so Cece’s tending bar more often, which gives the writers a more organic way of incorporating Hannah Simone into every episode. These are all positive moves, and they keep the show fresh at a time when other series might settle into routine.

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Unfortunately, the instincts that opened all of those storytelling doors are kicked into overdrive in “Coming Out,” leading to a pileup of plot with wonky priorities. It’s a busy episode (a quality season four has mostly downplayed), and while there’s a lot of funny material for the guys, the big emotional beats for Jess don’t hit as hard as they should.

Getting straight to the point: It’s a small miracle that Jess and Ryan reach the “I love you” stage in their relationship without going through the usual sitcom rigamarole of who said it first whether or not it’s too soon to say it. The show already did that with Nick and Jess, and this time it doesn’t have Prince around to smooth the rough edges, so “Coming Out” takes the “Cooler” route and blazes forward, courageously and unapologetically. But I’m just not feeling it, and it all has to do with Mr. G.

I got into this a little bit in last week’s review, but my mixed reaction to “Coming Out” made it all the more pronounced: Like Coach and Cece, I don’t get Ryan. Julian Morris is putting on a perfectly fine display of British charm, but the writing for his character just isn’t there. It’s there to explain the connection between Ryan and Jess, but that connection doesn’t come through in the intangible, sparks-shooting-from-the-screen ways that Nick-and-Jess, Schmidt-and-Cece (volume 1), or even Jess-and-Fancy-Man did. The character feels like an interloper, and the way he puzzles the the non-Jess principals leads me to believe that the writers want us to see him that way, a guy who doesn’t necessarily belong here and is destined to figure that out—or be driven away before he can figure it out.

Of course, that would mean that the climax of “Coming Out” isn’t supposed to have any emotional punch, so this theory is probably all wrong from the get-go. But Ryan’s entire being is made up of characteristics atypical of a New Girl character: He’s too nice, too perfect, too prepared when proposing a field trip to Jess and his fellow teachers. Brian Posehn’s unhinged biology teacher Lorenzo runs away with his scenes tonight because his weirdo behavior is consistent with what we know about New Girl. (Also because his fake-phone-call game is top-notch, down to hold a mimed phone in lieu of a thumb-and-pinky receiver.) Ryan, on the other hand, wows the crowd with “Mission To Mars: Field Trip To Another World,” a slam dunk with no tricky words like “foliage” to block it. Naturally, to avoid looking like she’s playing favorites, Jess picks Lorenzo’s free-labor-landscaping trip.

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There’s a thinness to the school portion of the episode that feels reflective of a few almost there ideas being combined into a single storyline. Jess and Ryan going public with their relationship (and how that affects their jobs), Jess learning to wield authority, the staff taking their students on a field trip, Coach coping with the fact that he’s no longer the New Kid in Town—they’re all rendered into a slurry of institutional headaches and romantic angst that undersells the romantic milestone at the end of the episode. It looks even thinner next to Schmidt and Nick’s storyline, which is similarly frantic—Schmidt has an ulcer! Nick’s wasting potential! It didn’t used to be like this! Hey, remember Gina? What if Schmidt and Nick worked together?—but more confidently grounded in friendship and disappointment. In merely riffing off of their characters’ terrible business proposals (“Black Robot: the blackest robot in town. That robot’s so black, it’s the blackest!”), Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield hit upon something that’s more real than any of the moments shared by Zooey Deschanel and Julian Morris tonight.

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It’s too bad, because this is where the real meat of the episode is: In a streamlined version of “Coming Out,” the confrontation that leads to the Beer Teat flashback blends smoothly with the comedy of responsibility that unfolds on Jess’ field trip. Fortunately, in the actual cut of the episode, the mounting stress at Associated Strategies (and the masterful wincing it requires from Greenfield) still collides with the increasingly stress-free situation splayed out on the loft’s couch. This stuff is prime New Girl, scenes of pure silliness (Nick and Kai swaddling Schmidt; Schmidt “working” on an ancient Mac in the bathroom) that uncover some harsh truths about the characters. Nick and Schmidt are friends, but they’re also adults whose lives took separate trajectories, so a little drifting apart is inevitable. To fight that drift would funny; finding whatever middle ground still exists (as “Coming Out” does) is funnier.

“Coming Out” demonstrates the downside of seeking new inspiration outside of the loft: Sometimes inspiration only strikes part way. The beauty of using the same relationships to tell new stories week in and week out is that invention isn’t always necessary—this week, an entire Nick-and-Schmidt story springs from the characters’ odd-couple differences. The episode is not a complete loss, but going all the way out to the countryside (and back) for that big declaration of love might too far to travel in pursuit of getting away from the loft.

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Stray observations:

  • “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: Nice to see that Dr. Foster and Jess are sticking to that plan to give each other cool principal/vice principal nicknames. (That was a thing, right? This isn’t the first time they’ve referred to one another as “Dog” and “Bro.”)
  • Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy is all over the entertainment news today, and suddenly it seems like Jess is holding a lot of clipboards over her midsection and being framed behind the backs of peoples’ heads. When the show returns in February (it’s preempted by the State of the Union address next week, and “Landline” is being rerun on the 27th), I expect to see Jess carrying the first in a series of increasingly large boxes.
  • I could’ve watched an entire episode about Winston and his crystal. It must have magical powers, because it improved every scene it showed up in—even the one in which Jess tells Ryan she loves him.
  • The Macintosh betrays Schmidt: He’s not working, he’s playing Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?
  • The wasps are a bit over the top, but I do love how quickly the field trip devolves into a chain gang, complete with work songs about the principal.
  • Coach on Ryan: “The boy looks like he was raised in a muffin.”
  • Another gem from Coach, describing the state of his face and the state of his mind after the wasp attack: “So say hello to the new me, who’s basically a street lunatic with a face made of fire!”
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