(George Lako, Zooey Deschanel)(Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FOX)

“Es Good” makes several of New Girl’s recent weaknesses into strengths. In the opening scene, Winston poses a question to Jess and Robby “because I’m invested. Um, are you two exclusive?” They stammer through several non-answers before Jess announces she’d like to take it slow. “So what are we looking at here?” Winston presses. “Open relationship? Friends with benefits? The old dog-and-bone situation?”

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That’s just one out of the many things we don’t know about Jess and Robby, and one out of the, oh, everything we don’t know about Robby. I’ve mentioned before that Jess’ almost complete ignorance of Robby’s inner life—and, it turns out, his outer life—runs counter to everything we know about her. Instead of merely perpetuating that unlikely vagueness about her good friend, singles group co-member, and romantic interest, “Es Good” lampshades it.

Robby’s bland affability makes masks a fascinating history, one Jess is just starting to see. He designs factories. His home is spectacular, and he shares a gardener with Vin Diesel. He’s got a boat down at the marina. He worked as a studio musician, earning a gold record for playing bass on a Santana album while still in high school. He once saved Elon Musk’s life. There’s a PBS documentary about him. And he’s very popular with the ladies. Is it any wonder Jess asks, wide-eyed, “Who are you?” in the middle of their double-date?

“Es Good,” credited to writer Rob Rosell, reaps the advantage of all Jess’ previous ambivalence about Robby, playing for laughs her assumption that there’s not much under his unruffled surface. “You guys ask me surprisingly little about my personal life,” he tells Jess early on, undisturbed by their lack of interest. “The man is an enigma,” Schmidt says. “He’s my second-best friend and I don’t know anything about him.” (Winston’s calculations about where that puts him in the friendship ranking are hilarious and heartbreaking.)

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It’s not clear if Cece, who’s known Robby longer and better than anyone else, knows all these fascinating tidbits about him, because Cece is sidelined for much of the episode—but this time, intentionally. Again, New Girl is drawing attention to its previous fumbles, making a plot point of Cece and Winston’s frequently tangential connection to major storylines.

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After Winston spurs the double-date disaster and Cece pushes Jess into playing the field, they spend most of the episode listening in on Jess as she and Robby test each others’ boundaries, ready to jump in with advice when she needs them. If she needs them. Until then, they sit at various counters, watching and waiting. ”Yeah, we’re a very important part of this,” Winston reassures Cece, and himself.

Lately, this is Cece and Winston’s lot. When Cece asks, “What does this really say about us? We’re just so bored with our own lives now that we’re settled and in love?” she might as well be speaking for the writers, who seem to struggle finding stories for these two now that they’re happily paired off. But “Es Good” turns New Girl’s weakness into a modest strength, making Winston and Cece ruminate on their over-involvement in their friends’ lives. By highlighting their recent relegation to sidekicks and support systems, the episode makes their lack of story into a story. It also gives them a moment of gratification as it dawns on them that the monotony of their committed relationships doesn’t make them boring; it makes them happy.

This is a fun riff on Cece and Winston’s frequent second-string storylines, and I’m always in favor of a classic Winston-and-Cece mess-around, but this isn’t a mess-around. It’s a sit-around. These two characters haven’t become less compelling because they’re settled down. Lamorne Morris makes a virtue of Winston’s singular sense of disconnection, with his puzzles and his bird shirts and his ants, and Hannah Simone brings fresh humor and humanity to even the smallest moments. But there’s no reason they should have to subsist on those scraps—and, no matter how much of an in-joke it becomes, there’s no excuse for the show sidelining Cece from her own career change.

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New Girl still finds plenty of stories for Nick and Schmidt, both of whom are happily coupled up. One of the great love stories of New Girl is the bond between Nick and Schmidt, which often revolves around their distinctly different, ever-shifting grappling with their own masculinity. Unable to communicate effectively with his contractor, Schmidt recruits Nick to teach him how to speak to this “Joe Public, newspaper and dump kind of guy.” (Nick’s advice: “You’re going to want to adjust your pants a lot.” “I think you need to slouch a little bit because all these people have back pain.” “Here’s a way to give a compliment: You insult somebody. It’s a way to show affection, like, ‘Hey, you ugly piece of crap, you got humongous ears.’” “If you’re ever in a pinch and the moment’s getting on top of you, just mention the game.” And, of course, “Don’t say ‘ta-da’ around these guys.”)

But the central message of “Es Good” is that there are no types. Robby’s not the only person this group is taking for granted. Nick and Schmidt think Jason (Billy Gardell, who brings a deft touch to a role that could feel hammy) must be the salt of the earth based only on his job and his gruff exterior, then they assume he’s a stereotypically crooked contractor, ready to rook them for everything he can get. They’re wrong both times. He’s not goldbricking, he’s not ripping off Schmidt, and he’s certainly not judging their masculinity, however insecure both Nick and Schmidt are.

Instead of the stolid meat-and-potatoes type or the crook they take him for, Jason (“Just call me Jason, what’s with the Mister Jason?”) is a conscientious businessman, an environmentally conscious vegan, a quick crier, and a man who just wants to build other people’s dreams. And, unaccustomed though he is to it, he gives a heck of a hug. Schmidt sums up the theme of the episode as he apologizes: “If we hadn’t been so hung up on labels, we would’ve been able to see each other for who we are.”

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Even the pawns Jess and Robby choose for their double date can’t be entirely reduced to types. Sure, Jess can dismiss the brainy, beautiful Babs (Brytni Sarpy) as “some movie scientist!” and she knows next to nothing about Stavros (George Lako), the carpenter she picks up at Cece and Schmidt’s house. But she also knows next to nothing about Robby, whom she’s known a lot longer and with whom she shares a language. Both characters are undeveloped but written with a pleasing gameness that goes beyond mere plot contrivance. When Robby plunges without warning into “Knockin’ Da Boots,” Babs is right there, ready to harmonize. Stavros could be just the butt of a joke and a symbol of the failed communication at the center of “Es Good,” but in practice, he seems to have no trouble making himself understood.

To Cece and Winston, Jess admits she’s not afraid of how her love story with Robby will end; she’s afraid of how it began, how much convincing it took to get her past her hesitations. Nelson Franklin makes Robby’s genial blank slate immensely likable, and the writing makes him a good match for Jess (hey, they both love pre-movie trivia and local ads!), but Jess and the writers alike have long seemed ambivalent about him despite their early chemistry. That indecision damages not just the consistency of character that has long been characteristic of New Girl, but the audience investment in their possible future. Jess is dead right that “there’s no love story called Hemming And Hawing.”

In the final act, Robby yells to Jess across the noise of a Greek rave that he doesn’t care about their relationship’s rough start: “I just care where it goes.” And where it goes, at least for this episode, is encouraging. “Es Good” ends with the two of them snuggled down on Robby’s couch as Jess asks him to tell her “literally everything“ about himself.

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That’s promising, and so is the head-on examination of Cece and Winston’s secondary roles. But it’s not enough. In the words of Schmidt’s contractor, “Es Good” throws some sawdust on the puddle, but it’s still wet. New Girl needs to look under the surface of this sweet, goofy, secretly glamorous character or let him go. And the writers need to better balance the show’s stories among all its regulars.

Stray observations

  • Nick and Jason’s first conversation: “That’s a nice grain.” “Great grain.” “Gotta cut with the grain.” “Always.” “Watch the fingers.” “It’s a livin’.” “Get the hands dirty.” “Eh, y’know, early bird gets the worm.” “Clean ya jeans.” “Ask ‘er what time it is, she’ll tell you to build a watch.”
  • Schmidt trying to channel Nick’s “crass Chicago street smarts” by scowling and mussing his hair is even funnier because his hair proves nearly unmussable.
  • “Hey, what’s up, dum-dum? Sorry I gave you so much balls before.”
  • There’s a moment after they start drinking Stavros’ hallucinogenic homemade wine, when I feared “Es Good” was going to retread the double-date issues that arise in “Cabin.” Phew.
  • “I’ve got sausages and brats, all the sports meats.”

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