“What about this feels like a game to you?” a flummoxed Schmidt asks Jess during “Dice,” oblivious to the fact that he’s orchestrating a dating seminar with a Taboo buzzer. It’s a great joke snuck into a storyline about Jess and Schmidt’s differing dating philosophies: Dice, the episode’s titular Tinder surrogate, reduces courtship to an act carried out with the same strategy, dexterity, and finger gestures as a session of Fruit Ninja. Dice is a game (named after a game piece), only there are living, breathing people connected to the sprites that are being swiped up or swiped down. In other words: All of this should feel like a game to Jess.
A Tinder riff won’t age well, but it comes along at the appropriate time for New Girl: The writers hit the relationship reset button for all their characters, and that’s an opportunity to take on shifting dating rituals in the modern world. It’s the right fit for the show, too: Superficially, the popularity of hookup apps is like a swarm of real-world Schmidts running rampant through mobile technology. They’re technically matchmaking software, but the common perception is of shallow attractions and fleeting connections. A perfect match for Schmidt, in other words, and the perfect concept to run headlong into Jessica Day’s idea of romance.
“Character-driven” and “character-based” are terms that are thrown out without explanation in a lot TV reviews and recaps; “Dice” presents quintessential examples of such storylines. If the concept ever threatens to trip you up again, just think about it like this: We know Jess has traditional ideals when it comes to love and dating, and she’s trusting to a fault. Schmidt is a calculating operator who views sex (and everything else, really) as a competition that must be won. Wouldn’t it be crazy if those perspectives clashed onscreen for 22 minutes? It would be crazy. And in the right hands—the hands New Girl began this fourth season with—it’d be pretty funny, too.
The “Dice Diez” is a sitcom premise through and through, but it’s one that takes root in Schmidt’s unearned, inflated sense of self-regard. There’s the same sense in Nick’s behavior in the trifle of a drug freakout that makes up “Dice”’s other half: Having proclaimed themselves gurus, Schmidt and Nick both plunge their so-called students into situations they’re not remotely prepared to handle: Jess runs a gauntlet of Dice dates wearing flimsy armor made from Schmidt’s flimsy exit lines (“A prominent U.S. senator is trying to contact me.”) She’d do better to play Coach’s first-time-high game: Ignore The Guru. Rule No.1 of Ignore The Guru: Just enjoy the experience. Rule No. 2 of Ignore The Guru: Rush the guru out of frame when the guru kicks over a lit barbecue grill.
After writing itself in knots a few times in season three, part of New Girl’s refreshing season-four return rests on a renewed confidence in character and performance. At the barbecue, Lamorne Morris gets plenty of time (and multiple camera setups) to tell Winston’s Charlotte’s Web non-anecdote; Schmidt’s lecture drafts off the teasing rhythms of an actress and an actor who’ve been living with these characters for three years and change. (It drifts off the sonic, post-production rhythms of the Taboo buzzer, too, which set my comic-repetition receptors ringing.) Jake Johnson remains a generation’s greatest intoxicated actor, and while stoned Nick and drunk Nick are but a few insane theories and scientific inaccuracies apart (“No man or piece of scientific technology has ever been to the bottom of the ocean”), I’d watch this guy play altered states of mind any day of the week.
Your enjoyment of “Dice” will vary based on your expectations for its twin storylines: This is not the episode for anyone seeking verisimilitude in their stoner comedy or their fictional portrayals of hookup apps. You can nitpick Hannah Simone’s zombified daze or the unfeasibly eccentric qualities of the Dice Diez, but that’s beside the point: At this stage in New Girl’s life, we’re tuning in to see how these characters react to the games the writers set up for them. Worst case scenario, the highs and the lows of Nick’s buzz are a little extreme. Best case scenario: That spectacular sequence in the kitchen of the loft, in which Jess asks and answers all of her own questions about Dice, and it becomes quickly apparent that the other side of the scene will be all silent Max Greenfield reactions. Because you know what else about “Dice” feels like a game? How much fun it is to watch.
- “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms, nicknames, and alter egos: Please welcome Los Angeles’ proudest police cadet, Winston “Toilet” Bishop.
- One of the “raisin” varieties that the first Dice Diez guy “grows” is the Zweibel, and I can only assume that’s a reference to the esteemed founding family of Onion, Inc. I’ve reached out to my contacts at Fox for confirmation (while also doing my corporate-mandated duty by requesting the swift and appropriate compensation for use of the Zweibel name). Elizabeth Meriwether responded: “It was an improv from the actor (and my good friend) John Phillips. I just sent him an email asking him. I know he’s dating a woman from Austria, so I just assumed he had expert knowledge of Austrian raisins. But maybe it’s working on many levels…”
- Schmidt’s metaphor game is on fire this week; I liked this comment about the pot planning the best: “This is like watching a meeting of idiot 12-year-olds.”
- Turns out Jess is pretty gullible: “People tell me that and I have no reason not to believe them.”
- “A sun-kissed sweetie and a rugged semitic prince”—Results of a Dice-aided catfishing, or a buddy-cop team soon to be seen on the Fox network?
- More evidence that you’re watching a show that knows its characters intimately: The terms in which Jess and Schmidt argue: “If you are for one second suggesting that I don’t know how to open a musical…”
- Keep this one in your back pocket for the next time a friend needs to be bailed out of a potential romantic disaster: “Ma called! The bees are back!”
- What was that about Winston having difficulty in social situations? “What’s with your friends, Winston Bishop?” “They kicked over the grill and ran that way.”
- “Have you ever seen a hat pulled out of a rabbit?”—nope, and neither has the audience, fortunately.