Nasim Pedrad, Lamorne Morris (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX)
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When Jessica Day discovers her roommates are stifling their Valentine’s celebrations to spare her feelings, she scoffs. “That ‘sad single girl on Valentine’s Day’ cliché? Do better!” And New Girl does better. Everything in “Operation: Bobcat” works together like a well-oiled machine. Or maybe it’s more like a many-month, multi-stage plan suddenly consolidated into one grand gesture. Either way, this Valentine’s Day episode explores the complex relationships and beloved characters of New Girl with sensitivity, humor, and unexpected but perfectly logical ins and outs.

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Jess convinces Winston to ignore Aly’s hatred for Valentine’s Day, and he’s uncharacteristically (and sweetly) restrained, showing up with a pizza and a stuffed koala, making goofy jokes about getting some “koala-ty time” together. Maybe diverting his affectionate scheming into his 21-stage proposal plan is what allows Winston to be so subdued—but it’s that subdued, silly sweetness that moves Aly to impulsively suggest they get married. And it’s his desire to see his grand plan play out that makes Winston respond with nothing but a drawn-out “… nahhhhhhhh.”

To salvage his relationship, and to salve Aly’s heart, Winston has to scrap his elaborate plan and propose right away. Jess volunteers to scrap her solo Valentine’s plans (“I’m finally going to use the celebrity chef dinner that I won at the auction and before that, I’m going to clean out my purse”) to help him. It won’t be easy. The first page of Winston’s binder details stage one of his 21-stage plan, which includes: erotic skywriting, procuring a ring in Atlanta, fireworks, food, surf, Las Vegas, trust fall, Old Faithful. “And in case you were wondering if I’m under budget? I am not. By thousands of dollars.”

“You really toe the line between sweetness and insanity,” Jess says when Winston explains his insistence on proposing in a bus-station bathroom while wearing a bobcat suit, and Winston agrees: “That’s the whole thing.” That’s not just true; it’s the essential truth about Winston, and about New Girl. As over-the-top and absurd as Winston’s proposal is, and as badly as it goes awry, ”Operation: Bobcat” never strays from the essential sweetness at the core of its zany escapades. Yes, Winston lures his girlfriend to a grubby public bathroom. Yes, he procures a bobcat costume before he gets a ring. Yes, he doubles down on an a cappella performance of “Alison,” a song remarkably unsuited to a proposal, and with a title Aly has already established is not her name. Yes, she reacts to a costumed creature leaping out at her by kicking him into the tile wall. Yes, he’s so badly concussed that Jess has to read his proposal for him.

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But Winston has a good reason to insist on this one preposterous plan. Early in their partnership, Aly laughed herself silly when they encountered a bobcat in that dingy bathroom, Winston tells Jess, “and it was that moment that made me realize I wanted to make her laugh for the rest of her life.” Then he pauses, letting his eyes show his trepidation as he waits for Jess’ reaction. Lamorne Morris makes his character’s broadest, oddest traits both hilarious and endearing, but it’s these glimpses into his unguarded heart that make Winston America’s sweetheart. (Hey, Jess says it—but if you disagree, you’ll have me to reckon with.)

While Jess is reckoning with Winston’s overwhelming plans, she’s too busy to ruminate much on her feelings about Nick. “I’m not sad!” is as introspective as she gets for the first half of the episode, but it’s obvious to all that Nick’s sudden commitment to playing “big-boy Cupid” for Reagan rankles. A celebrity guest star is a risky move, but Gordon Ramsay is a canny choice for Jess’ celebrity chef guest. He has just the right energy to spur her into admitting—into recognizing—her latent anger. When she yells again that she’s not sad, Ramsay goads her: “Then what are you?”

“I’m mad!” Jess—who beams with positivity and support, who rocks a lot of polka dots, who has baby farm animals on her checks—blurts out. “I’m mad that Nick just decided to be a great boyfriend!”

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Gordon Ramsay’s a fitting choice here for more than his notorious irascibility. Accustomed to both the pressures of professional kitchens and the motivational rough-and-tumble of reality shows, Ramsay doesn’t need to understand the specifics of Jess’ situation to draw out her real motivations and encourage her. “Winston shouldn’t have to give up his dreams for me!” she says; with no idea who Winston is, what his dreams are, or why he’d give them up, Ramsay cheers, “So don’t let him!” (His out-of-focus reaction when Jess tells Winston she’ll meet him at the bus-station bathroom with the bobcat suit is a nice touch confirming his utter cluelessness—and its utter irrelevance to him.)

The precision with which Max Greenfield embodies Schmidt’s quirks and vanities gives the character a presence far beyond the (admittedly inventive, attentive) part as it’s written, but recently that admirable performance has felt a little overblown. “Operation: Bobcat” lets Schmidt’s peculiarities recede just enough to remind us there’s a real person in there, a competitive, driven career man with relationships outside the loft, but also a man who knows the relationships inside the loft are what’s most important.

After so many episodes sidelining Cece, it’s a relief to see her actively engaged with the plot, even (especially?) when that plot leads inevitably to disaster. Inspired by Nick’s surprisingly enterprising Valentine’s surprise for Reagan, Cece steps up when Schmidt has to abdicate planning their bone-iversary celebration. Her botched rooftop seduction neatly gets Schmidt, Cece, and eventually Nick out of the loft and out of Winston’s abbreviated proposal plan. It also gives Jess time and space to dig into her real feelings, and gives Zooey Deschanel time and space to let those feelings breathe. Nick and Schmidt have both evolved into outsized characters, and it’s refreshing to let them step into the background a bit.

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This episode gives even Schmidt’s hard-nosed boss Kim (Gillian Vigman) some layers. Her rooftop cry could have been lazily (if economically) waved away with the lonely career woman cliché, but Kim’s tears have nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. “I just met my birth mother,” she begins before realizing, “I don’t have to explain myself to a chimney sweep.” The writing also acknowledges that Schmidt’s bootlicking is part of the reason Kim doesn’t usually show him those layers. When Schmidt admits he’s taken part of the night off to celebrate his and Cece’s bone-iversary, knowing it might cost him a coveted promotion, Kim tells him,“You know, this is the first conversation we’ve ever had where you weren’t lying to me. It’s nice. I’m not flaming with rage.”

“Operation: Bobcat” reinforces the strengths of this show, and this ensemble, which lie in the ability to balance big, broad comedy with unembarrassed emotion. As big as these characters are, as goofy as their schemes get, their affection for each other—and the creators’ affection for the characters—comes across. Sitting on her living room floor eating pizza and making each other laugh, Aly tells Winston, “You’re the most ridiculous person I ever met, but, you know… I honestly never get tired of you.” I feel the same way about New Girl, celebrity guests, bobcat costumes, and all.

Stray observations

  • Have you seen a better TV rivalry than Winston versus that Mylar balloon? Greenfield’s physical comedy gets a lot of (deserved) attention, but Morris’ cannot be beat.
  • “Say what you want, that woman can shuffle.”
  • Nick’s Valentine’s Day plan for Reagan, who’s in Minnesota on business: “At 11, an 11-ounce steak will be sent to her room. At 12, a single rose will arrive. At 1, the hotel manager is going to come, he’s going to tell her there’s a problem with her room, and he’s going to take her to another room. When she walks in that room, boom, it’s filled with roses!… It’s a slightly worse room, but it’s right near an ice machine.”
  • Nick’s off-the-cuff explanations for his presence on the roof: “I’m a window washer and I finally got the to top floor. You don’t like that one? How ’bout this one: I’m a traffic guy and I fell out of the news copter.” “I’m a chimney sweep. And all these are clogged. Clogged, clogged, clogged.”
  • “How long have we been waiting for this elevator? What are we, in the lobby of Sterling Cooper?”
  • “Sparkles are in. Sparkles are in!”

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