A disgraced celebrity chef, a silly courtroom sketch, and a dash of “I can’t believe…” exposition: So begins the Jess-less New Girl. “No Girl” kicks off a daring gambit, one wagering that the show is well-rounded enough to carry on without one of its main characters for a few weeks. This is where New Girl proves its ensemble-comedy mettle: Are Nick, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece still worth watching without the person who brought them all together?

In those terms, “No Girl” almost sounds like a writers’ room experiment: Subtract one of the show’s essential building blocks, then watch how the story, characters, setting, or tone adjust to compensate. It’s a chain reaction that snakes its way through the episode, leading Nick to pursue a burdensome moneymaking scheme while Winston seeks a new sounding board for his romantic woes. Nature abhors a vacuum, and “No Girl” puts in the work to fill the vacancies left by Jess and Zooey Deschanel. It goes about this in a number of ways; let’s see how they stack up.

Guest stars

A proven method for distracting from the absence of a familiar face is the addition of different, similarly familiar faces—remember the battery of talent that filtered through Dunder Mifflin after Steve Carell exited the manager’s office? New Girl has its own Deangelo Vickers on deck in the coming weeks, but Megan Fox can move in, “No Girl” has Fred Armisen and Steve Rannazzisi warming up the couch cushions for her. The former initiates Nick’s crisis of the week, while the latter helps him solve it: At the thought of college non-friend/pen-spring heir Todd (Rannazzisi) bankrolling Schmidt’s “Vegass” bachelor party, Nick panic moonwalks his way to promising a “bachelors’ party” in Japan. Of course, international travel is very expensive (and 100 percent non-refundable), so Nick lets his newly awoken capitalist instincts drag him into a cost-deferring solution: Open apartment 4D to tourists looking for a place to stay in L.A. And not just the room that Jess has left open—the entire loft, a ploy that attracts world travelers like Brendon, the writer portrayed by Armisen.

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With other guests showing off their Al Pacino impressions and mistaking Nick for a prostitute (when they’re not singing the Frasier theme), the big names are fairly limited in their screen time. Rannazzisi makes little more than a cameo, appearing in a flashback and one poolside chat, but that’s all that’s really required of him to sell Todd’s unpleasantness. (Pretending to choke on a piece of shrimp is a nice coda.) Armisen gets more substantial scenes, but they’re more spread out: Brendon’s sudden appearance at the urinal, a fit of glass-breaking while he reads a thoroughly un-erotic love scene from his book, and the crossdressing credits tag. It’s standard-issue stuff for the Portlandia star—if anyone could put a copyright claim on popping into frame, it’s Fred Armisen—but it fits his talents and the spirit of New Girl.

Most importantly, though, both fulfill the role of filling in for Jess. (Physically in Armisen’s case—but then where did he get that wig?) They give Schmidt and Nick somebody else to interact with in “No Girl,” keeping the world of the show from suddenly crashing in on itself while getting in some jokes and adding some definition to the show’s existing relationships. The look that Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield exchange before Nick offers himself up to the cold slap of Todd’s left hand is so perfectly New Girl, so perfectly Nick and Schmidt. Their devotion to one another cannot be tested by financial ruin or testicular trauma.

Cece as Jess

The “substitute Jess” angle is even more pronounced in Cece and Winston’s storyline. When KC (who was into Winston but not into law enforcement in “Par 5”) posts a picture of herself with another guy, Winston worries that their budding romance is in jeopardy—and he finds himself without the roommate he’d otherwise turn to in this situation. Enter Cece, whose plan to combat suspicion with suspicion detonates the relationship, prompting some top-notch comedy crying from Lamorne Morris, and a conclusion where Hannah Simone serves some righteous comeuppance.

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The beginning and end of that story might mirror something Winston would go through with Jess, but the idea here is that Cece is not Jess—and nobody should expect her to be. By setting up parallels between the characters, “No Girl” winds up defining some of their fundamental differences. Cece’s too blunt to give good advice in this situation. She doesn’t know what teas are soothing, and what teas are stimulationg. She is not a nurturer. These qualities are not Cece’s, because Cece goes for the jugular—and “No Girl” recognizes that. Winston mistakes that aggressiveness for “We should make KC cry,” but it’s properly redirected when the guy from the photo shows up on KC’s doorstep. The turn in Simone’s delivery at that moment is delicious: Her voice crackles with incredulity, her eyes narrow in on their target. Once more, the episode demonstrates the intensity of the bond between the roommates.

Winston defuses the tension soon enough, because he’s the all-nonsense to Cece’s no-nonsense. Simone and Morris are a good duo for that reason, their onscreen energies serving their characters’ complementary natures: Cece’s hyper confidence, Winston’s general foolishness. It’s a pairing that the show doesn’t get to go to very often—but there are increased odds that it might in the coming episodes.

“Whenever Poochie’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?’”

The one knock on the Winston and Cece plot is that it underlines the fact that Jess isn’t around. Otherwise, “No Girl” does a pretty good job of showing that life at the loft proceeds even with an absent roommate. This isn’t the Itchy & Scratchy Show of Homer Simpson’s imagining, where a missing character needs to be commented upon in every scene—it maintains the illusion that these characters exist independently of one another, with inner lives consumed with showing up jerks from college, overthinking a breakup, or managing a vacation rental property while the majority of the tenants are still present.

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The particulars of Nick’s crash course in hotel management get a little cartoonish, but they’re held together by the New Girl fundamentals: The whole thing starts because Nick wants to do something nice for Schmidt (in his own, not-completely-thought-out way), and it gives Max Greenfield space to play finicky, control-freak notes. (Clearly Nick is the Martin Crane in their relationship—Schmidt is already Frasier and Niles rolled up into one.) None of the ensemble members are interchangeable, and they’re not replaceable, either. But this is a show that knows itself well enough that when one player steps back, the other four step up. What is intriguing in theory turns out to be worthwhile in practice.