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Four years ago, the producers of New Girl faced a crucial decision. With Damon Wayans Jr. contractually obligated to return to Happy Endings for its second season, they’d lost their Coach. Another actor could’ve filled it, but that would’ve required a massive overhaul of New Girl’s pilot episode. Instead, Lamorne Morris was brought in as Winston in “Kryptonite,” which hobbled the show (and the character) for a spell, but resulted in a beautifully weird, consistently funny presence distinct from what Wayans brought to the first episode. And in the event that Happy Endings ended and New Girl remained on the air, Wayans could still return to the loft as Coach.

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The possibility of such a return felt remote in 2011; even when news broke that Wayans would reprise the role in New Girl’s third season, it was unlikely that he’d stay as long as he had. But stay he did, relocating the intensity of his original performance, then digging deeper to find the other things that made Coach funny—things beyond the volume of his voice.

The Coach we met in the pilot could move out of the loft between episodes. After all, we barely knew him. But the Coach that Wayans and the writing staff created in the last season-and-a-half deserves a proper farewell, and “Panty Gate” clears the runway for that farewell. And after getting to know the guy a little better, I believe “Panty Gate” is just the type of moniker he’d want for such an occasion.

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Its title refers to the fallout from Councilwoman Fawn Moscato’s “Par 5” faux pas, but “Panty Gate” belongs to Coach. He begins the episode affecting the sort of post-relationship bluster that blew him back into the loft in “Coach”: He acts unfazed by May’s impending move and the dissolution of their relationship because he’s Coach. The only relationships Coach ever needed are the ones he has with booze and Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.” “You treat an outside wound with rubbing alcohol, you treat an inside wound with drinking alcohol,” Nick tells his friend, words that Myles may as well be singing in that slow, Southern, Canadian style.

But New Girl knows Coach better than that. The guy has insecurities—not baked-in, been-around-for-four-seasons insecurities, but insecurities nonetheless—and “Panty Gate” pulls the curtain back on his tough guy act almost immediately. The show isn’t done with Wayans just yet, but it treats his scenes tonight as highlight reels for the actor. Histrionic voice modulations, unpredictable inflections, wild physicality: They’re all there, whether he’s giving an ill-fated lesson in sexual education or straining against a phalanx of female dancers. When Coach isn’t responsible for some of “Panty Gate”’s funniest material, he’s the subject of it: “The kids did learn that sex is emotionally complicated, so it was a good class,” Jess later reflects.

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And “Panty Gate” is a good class in honoring a departing cast member. Coach’s second exit comes as no surprise: The trades were reporting on it as early as February. That story was timed with Meaghan Rath’s debut as May, so viewers have had two months to grow accustomed to the Coach-May romance. Dating being pretty much the only thing that moves anyone into or out of the loft, the cross-country relocation isn’t novel—but the emotions it stirs up are. This isn’t the fake-out farewell of “See Ya” or the kiss-off that’s been given to the show’s periodic boyfriends and girlfriends. This is Coach, who moved around so much as a kid and only just found a place he can call home, preparing to pack up and start all over in a new city. The hugs and the roommate pizza party are sitcom warm-fuzzies at their most earnest, but New Girl put in the time to make those warm-fuzzies mean something. Playing to Damon Wayans Jr.’s strengths, “Panty Gate” emphasizes what the show won’t have without him.

Also: what it’s had because of him. At the end of the episode, as Coach looks around at the four weirdos squabbling over pillows and pornographic-DVD etiquette, he’s not smiling just because he’s going to miss Winston talking about being in a fight with Furguson. He’s also smiling because his absence means that those four weirdoes could come together in the first place—and they’re going to be able to stick together without him.

“Panty Gate” doesn’t spell the end of Fawn Moscato’s political career, but it does draw her New Girl term to a close. The episode draws a lot of power from questions about who the characters think they’ll wind up with when they’re old and gray, but it’s also adept at parting words. Fawn’s fate, like that of all New Girl love interests, was sealed from the first—but she’s the rare significant other who’s such a blast, it hardly matters that she’s doomed.

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In her last appearance for the foreseeable future, Zoe Lister Jones plows confidently through a checklist of why Fawn and Schmidt should and shouldn’t be together. (Beyond the fact that their Portmanteau Couple Name, “Fawmidt,” sounds so much like “vomit.”) They’re both ambitious people, but only Fawn’s ambitions could produce the parade of humiliations Schmidt endures for the sake of Fawn’s career: The speech that pins Panty Gate on his made-up perversions, not her genuine power moves; the lingerie-store photo-op that he’s required to faux-sulk through. Like Coach’s storyline this week, the outcome is a sign of Schmidt’s development: He’s still being kept in check by the Douchebag Jar, but he can recognize when a relationship is truly unhealthy. So long, Fawn: For what it’s worth, you still have my vote.

Which brings us to “Panty Gate”’s other incident of major runway clearing: The only remaining obstacles to a Schmidt-Cece reconciliation are Mount Shasta and Jess and Winston’s ability to keep a mutual secret. One of those is significantly easier to overcome than the other, and that’s not a potentially active volcano on the horizon—it’s a season finale. If there’s any one element that New Girl should bid adieu to, it’s Schmidt and Cece’s will-they/won’t-they/they-did/they-don’t-anymore. But at the end of Schmidt’s most comically satisfying relationship, and in a season when Hannah Simone has stated Cece’s case so affectingly, the romance deserves another shot. Because if Coach made so good on his second chance, why can’t Schmidt and Cece?

Stray observations:

  • Who’s that girl? This week in New Girl pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: I’m as skeptical as any of the roommates that all of Jess’ recent romantic ups and downs were meant to give her insight into other people’s relationships. Still, it’s a smart way of tying “Panty Gate” into an arc that extends further back than “The Crawl.” It’s also a great source for an unearned nickname: “The Love Doctor.”
  • Even better is Nick’s reaction to Jess’ suggestion that she’s become a romance expert: “I just might be an expert in love, like a ‘love doctor,’ if you will.” “I will not!” “Panty Gate” is a great episode for “Listen closely or you’ll miss them” Nick Miller punchlines: He lands another right before introducing the “Who do you see yourself growing old with?” test: “Really, I thought it was just a regular breakup. But in all fairness, I hadn’t thought about it that hard.”
  • Good call on the prop department’s part: When the Dora The Explorer lookalike turns around, she reveals the googly eyes on her backpack.
  • Strongest candidate for Coach’s replacement among the regulars: Bearded jukebox hero/naked-lady-bottom enthusiast Sid.
  • Coach in a nutshell: “Can any other sperms sport this much green and still look dope?”
  • The line Schmidt reads off the back of Cece’s book is too perfectly bizarre to not be an ad lib: “‘Roughly the same length as The Pearl.’ How is that a pull quote?”
  • The wonders of inflection: The enthusiasm with which Max Greenfield delivers the first line of Schmidt’s prepared statement—“I am a sick man!”—turns a shameful confession into a joyous declaration. (He pulls a similar trick here: “The Belly Laughs didn’t do improv—they reinvented it!”)
  • Coach has simple desires for his place of residence: “I like my sun on the right and my ocean on the left—that’s a rule of mine.”
  • And the last word goes to the man of the hour: “Honestly, right now in my head, I’m just picturing, like, a beanbag chair with a wig on it.”

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