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New Girl: “Girl Fight”

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Assuming there haven’t been any significant changes behind the scenes, a sitcom in its fourth season is in an enviable position. Theoretically, enough episodes have been produced (or will be produced) to guarantee a big syndication payday down the line. In good news that’s less mercenary, a show with 80 episodes under its belt (a milestone that New Girl passed a few weeks back) should have such a firm grasp of its characters that it can weave them in and out of one another’s storylines with relative grace. Check out what a utility player Winston is in “Girl Fight,” carrying his own story (the police-academy exam is coming up, but he can’t make himself study) while sharing scenes with Nick and Coach without derailing what those two are up to (separately) this week. Later sitcom episodes reap what prior episodes sow, and if you spend enough time finessing your characters in the early years, you don’t have to lean so hard on premise and situation later on. In this show’s case, the characters even provide compelling, funny stories about a seemingly un-compelling, unfunny topic: Avoidance.

That versatility, that elegant weaving, has been a big part of New Girl’s successes this fall. But it’s something the show only could’ve pulled off this fall, because of the unique way its ensemble has evolved. The show is well on its way to having its best season ever, because season four is the first season of New Girl that hasn’t moved in fits and starts. This is a show that’s better summarized in phases than seasons: So many components have been added or subtracted (lose a Coach, gain a Winston; lose “adorkable” Jess, gain flawed human Jess; re-gain a Coach, grow a Winston) that these 10 episodes have been the most comfortable New Girl has ever appeared. It’s an extended stretch in which no one has to be introduced or written out; the agitation of such development is still present, but in this state it gets channeled into entertaining one-off stories like the sudden release of two decades worth of passive-aggression between Jess and Cece.

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And that’s the type of story best told at this stage of the show’s life, because we’ve known Jess and Cece long enough that their friendship passes a smell test—but there’s still something fishy about how they’re never truly upset at one another. Even though it tees up the glorious debut of Theodore K. Mullins, I’ve always had trouble buying the Jess-Cece shouting match in “Secrets,” because it’s a requirement of a narrative, not a function of a relationship. What happens in “Girl Fight” is truer to the characters: These aren’t people who blow up at each other, so they’ve bottled up a ton of volatile emotions across the decades. The yellow purse is a MacGuffin, because “Girl Fight” expertly gives the impression that anything could’ve prompted the baby shower throwdown. It just need the intrusion of a dum-dum like Schmidt.

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“Girl Fight” hinges on generalization, but its jokes land because none of these characters have the answers they think they do. They’re all following bad leads, like Winston’s procrastination investigation into Kai’s living situation: Coach thinks he knows women because he grew up with three sisters (I’m hoping this becomes a running thing with him, because the exasperation it prompts is great), but Schmidt feels like his 19 years as a platonic sounding board gives him the advantage in this area. “Girl Fight” doesn’t set about to prove either character correct, because the only women here who know how women fight are the women who are doing the fighting. The true thrust of the episode is more specific and more general than that: Passive-aggression is unhealthy, but Jess and Cece practice a form of passive-aggression that is double-syringe-emoji lethal. There’s catharsis in that baby-shower finale, but it only goes to the extremes of breast-pumps-to-Cece’s-eyes because of all the repressed rage being vented.

Bad for Cece’s face, but good for us. (And good for the makeup department, which gets to mock up some of the more hilariously improbable TV injuries in recent memory: Burst capillaries caused by mechanical suction cups.) “Girl Fight” addresses tension between characters in a natural, naturally humorous fashion, in a way that informs (and is informed by) Jess and Cece’s relationship. That’s 80 episodes of TV at work, but also 20 years of friendship—a number we only know because it’s in the script, but a number we believe because of Zooey Deschanel and Hannah Simone’s investment in it. There’s space to do that kind of thing on New Girl now, just as there’s space to give Coach the three-sisters backstory; the anxiousness to introduce and invent has been replaced with the confidence to build and develop. Winston’s the most obvious beneficiary of this change, though for all of his ludicrous feet dragging this week, Lamorne Morris gets beat in the laughs column by Damon Wayans Jr. The guy can deliver a line, and he forges one of “Girl Fight”’s funniest out of a simple list of Great Plains states. “Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska—need I say more?” Yes, actually: I wouldn’t have minded if that gag roped in the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and a handful of Canadian provinces.

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That’s a trust in character, story, and performance that a sitcom needs to earn, and New Girl has done its share of earning to get to this, its Rebound Phase. The show will always be beholden to romantic couplings—hence Nick and Kai this week, a reverse Lindsey Bluth-Thomas Jane scenario that’s cuter than it is comedic. But that also provides the win Nick has so badly needed in recent weeks, all while providing Winston with another corner of “Girl Fight” in which he can procrastinate. (And then there’s the part where Nick describes his bedroom in palatial terms—you know what, that storyline ain’t so bad.) It’s been great to watch the show work toward this point; it’s been even better to witness what it’s done (and continues to do) while it’s here.

Stray observations:

  • If I can make the time, I’ll compile an inventory of the New Girl “phases” alluded to above on Twitter. Until then, here are some of the major ones: Adorkable Phase (pilot through “The 23rd”), First Ensemble Phase (“The Story Of The 50” through “Katie”) Second And Funnier Ensemble Phase (“Fluffer” through “Eggs”), Nick And Jess Phase (“Pepperwood” through “Keaton”), Third Ensemble Phase (“Coach” through “Exes”), Rebound Phase (“The Last Wedding” through present).
  • The image of Coach’s mean sisters simultaneously chopping off their braids and tilting their heads is spoooooky.
  • This year, dozens of dates will be ruined by sweater shoulder. Don’t let yours be one of them: Layer properly, and layer often.
  • The fourth season has been weirdly good about keeping track of the passage of time. In “Background Check,” Nick’s back acted like a sweaty clock; in “Girl Fight,” Schmidt is told he can’t see Cece for three days, and then those three days pass while Nick and Kai are on the couch. I guess what I’m saying is Nick Miller’s slovenliness is so dependable, you can set your watch to it.
  • New Girl will not bend to your preconceived notions: “I went back and I bought the purse because I love it. I love purses, and that doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist, either. I’m a damn feminist who loves purses. Where else am I supposed to keep my feminist writings? In a purse, that’s where.” Which prompts Coach’s other great matter-of-fact “Girl Fight” punchline: “Lena Dunham! I don’t know…”
  • Kai instantly vaults into the New Girl Significant Other Hall of Fame with these personality quiz responses: “Gorilla or monkey?” “Gorilla, hands down.” “Miranda or Carrie?” “Gorilla.”
  • I love the honesty in this exchange—and it’s a clever echo of the one above: “Does Nick have a girlfriend?” “Yes, so weird.” “You okay? Yes, so weird.”
  • Nick discovers why Kai works irregular hours: “It’s a scam called ‘consulting!’”
  • Winston makes an unfortunate discovery during exam prep: “Massaging is illegal?”
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