“Prince” is an episode with an elevated degree of difficulty—the highest since New Girl’s beginning. It’s serving multiple masters: As Fox’s encore to the Super Bowl, it has to portray the series as the worthy crown jewel of the network’s sitcom slate. It’s a chance to remind a massive audience that Fox makes comedies that aren’t animated—an audience that contains thousands of people who haven’t sampled New Girl since its premiere (if they’ve sampled it at all). And yet “Prince” also has to please fans who’ve stuck with the show, viewers who are staying up late for a “special night and time” installment. There needs to be a reward for those who opted not to DVR the half-hour.
Considering all the external factors—and the fact that it strands Schmidt in another go-nowhere plot—“Prince” performs exceedingly well. And Prince, the person, does, too: An electrifying stage presence with a limited acting range, the musician kills as a cartoon superhero version of himself. It helps that he’s walking into such a supportive environment, making his series TV debut in an episode that was directed by one of New Girl’s steadiest hands (Fred Goss) and filmed at the guest star’s house. Everything’s in place to put the man at ease, and he claims some of the biggest laughs in one of season three’s most consistently hilarious episodes. And they’re not even the unintentional Purple Rain kind of laughs—though that dramatic over-the-shoulder glance at Hannah Simone has to be a nod toward The Kid.
Another key to the episode’s success is the way it was put together. These reviews contain no shortage of praise for Steve Welch and the show’s editorial team, but “Prince” is one of those New Girl episodes where smash cuts and montage work make all the difference. It’s an energy thing as much as a quality-control issue: Prince, smooth motherfucker that he is, plays it quiet and low-key in most of his scenes. There’s a risk of dead air there, but Welch plays it to the episode’s advantage, letting the awkwardness hang over the tableau of Jess, Prince, and Nick on a bench, or lingering on Deschanel’s deer-in-headlights take after she tells her host “You’re stupid.” The cold open—which holds for some drawn-out beats and goes for Rake Effect laughs with its differing pronunciations of “panties”—expertly sets expectations for this kind of comedic push-and-pull. But it also acts as an introduction for the way “Prince” plows ahead into full-tilt silliness: You can’t squeeze in a montage where The Purple One plays guru to Jess without Jess first stumbling upon the underwear-removal process and declaring “You know what—I don’t care.” There’s a really smart pun in that visual punchline, too, since part of the conversation that leads to that attempt is about the other way to remove someone’s underwear. (Fitting for an episode featuring the guy who wrote “Jack U Off,” there’s a lot of talk about taking pants off in “Prince.”)
Really, I think “support” is the key term for this episode. The show has Prince’s back the whole way, and the guest star improves a plot that would feel like rote rom-com filler without him. A figure like Prince could pull focus away from a show’s true reason for being, but here he gets to inform a new angle on Nick and Jess’ relationship. When Nick tells Jess he loves her before either is “ready” to hear it, it induces temporary panic in both boyfriend and girlfriend. By introducing the objective, outside opinions of Prince, New Girl puts a new spin on a storyline that countless other TV shows and movies have tried out. Playing the open-minded sage with a taste for pancakes (Chappelle’s Show callback?), none of the predicament makes any sense to Prince. “You want to know why you can’t tell that nice dude you love him?” he asks Jess, as if the contrived rules of a romantic narrative have never penetrated the Paisley Park bubble. It’s enough to wish for a spin-off in which Prince cuts through similar rom-com complication (rom-complication?) bullshit. “There’s no such thing as ‘a break’,” he’d tell Ross Geller, before disappearing in a cloud of violet smoke.
Prince’s scenes heighten the ridiculousness of an episode that’s at its best when it’s given the freedom to go crazy. Take Schmidt’s plot, for example: Tied as it is to the character’s ongoing search for independence, it isn’t fully realized until he jumps into the game of Lemon Mouth. Prince’s eccentricities might be dismissed as shallow quirk by some viewers—but whatever the dude’s doing, there’s no doubt that he’s having a blast while doing it. I think that’s the case within the context of “Prince” and without, which makes him my favorite kind of artist: The kind who doesn’t shut down a crazy idea, no matter how dubious its quality. It’s an eccentricity that plays well with New Girl, even when it lapses into a cheesy conclusion that finds Jess singing alongside Prince and his “Camille” mic.
“Prince” has a healthy emotional core, but part of its high degree of difficulty involves putting aside the season-long arcs for Nick’s “Trojan horse” act or the sight gag of Prince’s purple frisbee. This is a very, very funny episode, which is important to keeping the show afloat in season three. But it’s also important for courting an audience that isn’t tuning in every week, without alienating the viewers that have been there from the start. If Prince hasn’t written a song that applies that logic to a romance, at least he got to contribute to an episode of New Girl that does.
- “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms and alter egos: Fire and Ice aren’t wholly separate personas from Coach and Winston, but they are a warm-water generating duo that I wouldn’t mind following in that Prince-centric spin-off mentioned above.
- Adventures In Selling Out But Not Selling Out (And What Does Selling Out Even Mean?), part 74 in an ongoing, multi-show TV series: Nick can’t figure out why Coach spent the whole ride to Prince’s house talking up his Ford Focus, and he finds it off-putting. I’m just happy that it leads to that weird, theatrical exchange between Winston and Schmidt about the day Winston was turned on by gas mileage. “When was that?” “It was a Thursday, that’s all I remember.” “A Thursday?” “Yeah.”
- Schmidt the sartorialist, on cargo pants: “Hey, guys, how are we going to transport all this cargo? Oh, great, we have Nick’s pants, we’re saved.”
- Ham and Cheese don’t have the same improvisational skills as Fire and Ice: “The last time I saw him, I was out in the desert and he was putting my mother into a prison.”
- Jake Johnson, TV’s great comedic babbler: “That was very much of the flavor of humor.”
- “Anything beautiful is worth getting hurt for.” “That’s very well put.” “You know who said that?” “No.” Me.” Something else Prince once said: “Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read.”