Here are the major plot points of New Girl’s latest episode, reported dryly and straightforwardly: The roommates get a landline. Nick feels lonely. Schmidt is profiled in a business periodical. When she learns that Coach is fraternizing with multiple school employees, Jess gives a lecture on proper faculty conduct. The lecture is complicated by her feelings for a new teacher. Things escalate from there.

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And here are those same plot points, embellished to reflect “Landline” more accurately: Because the corner of Nick’s room is the only place anyone can get cellphone reception, the roommates get a landline. Acting out of loneliness, Nick—whose work schedule keeps him at home when everyone else is at school, the office, or police academy—becomes the overzealous loft secretary. Schmidt is profiled for a magazine called Business, Man! (like Jay-Z’s verse on the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” remix), but because he’s not available when the reporter calls, smooth-talking old-school phone conversationalist Winston gives the interview. Coach is shtupping both the school nurse (Erin Hayes, barely out of Childrens Hospital mindset and dressed in a “sexy nurse” Halloween costume) and Angela’s Kinsey’s character, which leads Jess to address her bizarrely horny colleagues on how they should be not so horny. The lecture flies off the rails when she finds she can’t stop touching the junk of a handsome new teacher (Julian Morris) whose name, phonetically, sounds like “Goes in ya.” Things get unpredictably crazy from there.

It takes a lot for a show in its fourth season to be as surprising as New Girl is in “Landline.” Then again, “Landline” often feels like an episode of a completely different show. The parts that I found the funniest—Winston on the phone, Nick’s momentary obsession with being the loft’s “secretary,” Schmidt and Winston’s nonsensical phone salutations, the credits-tag Hail Mary from Judy—have little to do with established character traits or relationships. It’s a very, very strange episode, one that isn’t likely to inspire mild reactions. You’re either going to love the way “Landline” corkscrews into orbit, or you’re going to hate the way the characters are acting and long for something a little more grounded.

Count me in the former camp. “Landline” isn’t the type of episode New Girl should do every week (or more than once in a season), but it reminds a lot of one of my favorites from last year, “Big News.” You remember “Big News”: It’s the one in which Nick and Jess navigate choppy post-breakup waters by donning outrageous outfits and staging a “honey roast” in honor of Winston’s police-academy acceptance. In that instance, the insanity is clearly motivated by the emotional trauma of Nick and Jess ending their relationship; here, it comes across like leftover close-quarters madness from season three’s final episodes.

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And yet I find it difficult to fault “Landline” for going so looney. It’s character motivations aren’t as obvious as “Big News”’s, but its surfaces do reflect that episode’s fearlessness. This is not an episode of a show that’s getting complacent in year four; it might be a sign that New Girl is running out of stories to tell. Jess’ arc in “Landline” is essentially a repeat of her “Micro” arc, in which she’s disgusted by her roommate’s behavior, then spends most of the episode emulating that behavior.

But it’s also an inventive episode, enlivened by hilarious performances by Jake Johnson, Lamorne Morris, and Max Greenfield. Their teleconference sequence (featuring Schmidt’s two-thirds replica of Don Draper’s office) is some of the best work the three actors have done together since Damon Wayans Jr. turned their trio into a quartet. And like the later WarGames/Short Circuit/Splash exchange—which finds Cece exclaiming “I don’t know what is happening” from within the episode—it’s edited together in spectacularly rat-a-tat fashion.

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Also, if you peel the onion all the way to the middle (as Nick might say), “Landline” isn’t complete randomness. The loft is still a close-quarters situation, which is reiterated when all five roommates stuff themselves into the same corner of Nick’s bedroom. And despite that proximity to other people, some people are still feeling a little abandoned or a touch vulnerable. When Jess first expresses her attraction toward Ryan, she’s reminded that she hasn’t been with anyone since Nick. The nerves exposed by that relationship’s end are still understandably raw. Jess is frustrated with her inability to jump back into the dating pool, so she lashes out at her coworkers and their inexplicably sexy CPR poster. (“Why aren’t they wearing shirts? Are they drinking wine?”)

Nick, meanwhile, presumably latches onto the secretary thing because he’s been living without purpose in season four. Think about what he goes through in the four episodes leading up to “Landline”: He confronts the breakup head-on in a men’s room stall. He indulges in an old habit. In order for Schmidt to reclaim his former identity, Nick must give up his own. He’s not having a very good time, and he’s only starting to express that by taking phone messages and playing bartender from behind the kitchen counter.

After spending most of season three as the roommates who’d found a little satisfaction in their lives, Nick and Jess have had a rough go of it. To add insult to injury, “Landline” gives Winston a victory (his phone persona nails Schmidt’s Business, Man! Q&A) while doling out defeat to the exes (ethics prohibit Jess from dating Ryan; Nick is a terrible secretary). If “Landline” goes a little (okay: a lot) topsy turvy, we can see that as a reflection of New Girl’s post-“Mars Landing” world. Suddenly, everything has changed: CPR diagrams are making out with one another; a crazed golfer is standing outside the loft window, going all Lloyd Dobler with an old Elton John single. (Why “Levon,” Judy?) It all sounds strange, but only when the specifics are applied. And while those specifics threaten to undercut New Girl’s sense of reality, I’d argue that that sense of reality was fundamentally shifted the moment Jess and Nick decided they were no longer a couple.

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Stray observations:

  • “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl nicknames, pseudonyms, and alter egos: “Landline” conditions us to expect strangeness right off the bat, leading with that phone call in which Principal Foster first calls Jess “Dog.”
  • Programming note: New Girl is off for the next two weeks; it’s back on November 4 with an episode titled “Background Check.”
  • The LAPD academy has an extensive curriculum: “I’ve got a lot of police stuff to study: roads, laws, bullets.”
  • I don’t think Nick knows what a pop quiz is: “Pop quiz, hot shots: I miss you guys!”
  • Principal Foster, ever sensitive: “Don’t be alarmed, but his voice is going to sound kind of funny—it’s because he’s British.”
  • Nick Miller, master monologist: “I’m no idiot. I know I was let go because of the dang old machine. Story’s as old as time: A new piece of technology comes around and all of the peasants freak out. But one prince knows what’s going on. And he says ‘Don’t trust the technology,’ and all you peasants trust it. And then the machine becomes self-aware and destroys you all. And then I become the loneliest prince of all. Laughing in my golden tower.”
  • Is Schmidt a surname, or an acronym? Winston investigates: “Some Can Have Money, I Desire Thoughtfulness.”

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