With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
New Girl could enjoy a 20-season reign at the top of the Nielsen ratings, and the Fox sitcom would still be haunted by two words: “Simply adorkable.” Affixed to a photo of series star Zooey Deschanel demonstrating the International Sign for whimsy—shoulders slightly hunched, coyly avoiding eye contact, a smile that says “Mischief’s afoot!”—the tagline was a poor introduction for an Emmy-nominated hangout comedy about thirtysomething weirdos who are still reinventing themselves long after their peers had settled into adulthood.
But that’s not what the network was marketing. The network was marketing Deschanel, the indie-film (and indie-rock) darling who was only a few years removed from her big-screen breakthrough as the title character in Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer. A fickle, Smiths-loving sprite who only exists to give meaning to the life of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (500) Days protagonist, Summer was a prime example of a certain, troublingly common cinematic archetype. Who could blame anyone for looking at ads for New Girl and thinking it was actually called Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The TV Series?
But that frequently misused coinage never truly applied to the show, either. Developed from a pilot called Chicks & Dicks, New Girl came from screenwriter and playwright Elizabeth Meriwether, who was fresh off the success of the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. (Working title: Fuckbuddies.) 20th Century Fox Television sparked to the concept of a woman moving in with three men following a breakup, and booked Deschanel for the role of kindhearted-but-blindered Jessica Day. In the first of the show’s many evolutions, Chicks & Dicks became New Girl.
Jess’ fish-out-of-water status and emotional frailty is central to the pilot, where her sunny disposition and sunnier wardrobe clashes with conceited Schmidt (Max Greenfield), hot-headed Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.), and curmudgeonly Nick (Jake Johnson). Coach was replaced with flighty Winston (Lamorne Morris) after the 11th-hour renewal of Happy Endings, and New Girl had all the makings of a potential hit in its first three weeks on the air. A World Series hiatus put a permanent dent in the show’s ratings, but that’s for the best: Out of the heat of the spotlight, New Girl reduced its emphasis on Jess’ idiosyncrasies and started playing up the peculiarities of its entire cast. Greenfield honed Schmidt’s over-enunciations and bizarre pronunciations while Meriwether and the writers molded him into a distinctly 21st-century alpha male: a chiseled exterior with a gooey, sentimental core and a “Douchebag Jar” intended to police his behavior through financial penalties. Winston accumulated so many eclectic pursuits and peccadilloes that The A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt began joking that the character—who becomes an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department in later seasons—is secretly a serial killer. Even Jess’ best friend, skeptical model Cece (Hannah Simone), revealed her vulnerabilities, ditching the runway to go back to school, paying for it by bartending alongside Nick.
The most exciting developments involved Nick, who over time became both a love interest for Jess and the soul of the series. New Girl is an ensemble show, but Nick Miller is its crowning achievement, a beautiful mess of a comic character played to stammering, yammering perfection by Jake Johnson. Meriwether is an avowed disciple of Cheers, and she didn’t just give Nick the same occupation as Sam Malone—she gave him some of Sam’s prickliness, too, which set the character up for a sizzling love/hate relationship with the persnickety interloper who breezes her way into his life in the shows’ pilot. Only Jess is more apt to sing her feelings than Diane Chambers ever was.
With its partially improvised looseness, single-camera format, and sexual frankness (you can definitely see why this show could’ve been called Chicks & Dicks), New Girl is an obvious product of its time, but it contains multiple strains of classic sitcom DNA. In further Cheers parallels, character interaction is frequently prioritized over plot, and a lot of that interaction occurs over drinks. Over the course of the series, Deschanel shows a knack for physical comedy in the Lucille Ball vein, with a wardrobe of disguises and costumes to match Lucy Ricardo’s. The characters rack up pseudonyms—Rebecca “Two Boobs” Johnson, Theodore K. Mullins, Julius Pepperwood—faster than anyone this side of the Seinfeld gang. And that’s all without taking into account the fact that only How I Met Your Mother has done more and gone for more seasons with the “friends on a couch” setup popularized by, er, Friends.
Chalk it up to the malleability of New Girl, which is more of an asset here than it would be for other sitcoms. A network-television show can have all sorts of unpredictable pitches thrown its way during the course of production—a regular cast member departs; a former cast member returns; the lead actor takes a leave and is temporarily replaced by a movie star, and then the show has to air an entire 22-episode season in the course of four months—but New Girl has managed to maintain a commendable batting average. All due credit to actors and writers who knew their characters, know them well, and can use them to anchor the show in the most trying of circumstances. “It’s a really nice experience to see how deep our group is,” Johnson told The A.V. Club during Deschanel-less run of episodes in 2016. “The voice of New Girl is stronger than any one character. There’s a tone to it, there’s a feeling of it. If somebody’s not in the episode, the show still goes on.”
The voice of the show is more than one character, and it has a wider range than “simply adorkable,” as evidenced by the 10 episodes below.
“The Story Of The 50” (season one, episode 10)
Jess is New Girl’s protagonist, but Schmidt is the first roommate the show completely figured out. That sure sense of character plays to “The Story Of The 50”’s benefit, as the episode unspools the tale of how Schmidt came to make a $50 deposit in the Douchebag Jar. Despite featuring a pair of midseason interlopers—Rachael Harris as Jess’ first principal, Tanya, and Lizzy Caplan as Julia, the original and most potent of New Girl’s anti-Jesses—“The Story Of The 50” is the first major step in New Girl’s evolution from single-cam quirkfest to winning ensemble comedy. The structure is novel, but the party hijinks are fundamental, as is Nick’s fumbling summation of the core roommates:
I tease them all the time. Schmidt’s a d-bag, but not in a bad way. Jess is a total nut. And Winston is like this competitive maniac who loves Sister, Sister and he’s, like, afraid of thunder.
And Nick is always sticking his foot in his mouth, because Winston’s right behind him when he says all of this.
“Injured” (season one, episode 15)
Of course, “The Story Of The 50” is also the story of people dealing with the progression of time, at an awkward age where they’re not too old for roommates, but old enough to feel like no self-respecting adult has three roommates. Nick Miller wanders into that nether region in “Injured,” where he’s promptly tackled by Jess (during a touch football game—and they’re on the same team) and sent into the hypochondriac spiral. The disclosure of a lump on Nick’s thyroid reveals the size of the show’s heart and its deep affection for its characters, a tricky tonal task handled remarkably well by a show with only 14 episodes under its belt. (The teleplay was crafted by J.J. Philbin, who’s responsible for most of New Girl’s best Nick episodes.) “Injured” introduces a key artifact to the show’s mythology—Nick’s perpetually in-the-works zombie novel—but more importantly it establishes the connection between Nick and Jess, a will-they/won’t-they that seems inevitable, but never looks forced.
“Fluffer” (season two, episode three)
New Girl ended its first season strong, then returned even stronger the following fall, with a string of episodes that play out the consequences of Jess getting fired, Schmidt and Cece breaking up for the first (but not the last) time, and Nick grappling with his feelings for the no-longer-new-girl. That mental wrestling match turns into a knock-down/drag-out of Sam-and-Diane proportions in “Fluffer,” an episode that gets its name when Winston points out that Nick is doing all the emotional heavy lifting in Jess’ casual fling with another guy. (The guy, incidentally, is a tall drink of water with great hair who shares his first name with a certain towering, follicularly blessed owner of a Boston tavern.) A mid-episode, post-IKEA shouting match ignites from the natural spark between Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson, who, in happier scenes, poor on the charm over a thermos of white wine. Even without that romantic heat, “Fluffer” earns its place in the New Girl pantheon through Schmidt’s most despicably hilarious pick-up ploy: pursuing an attractive Republican by posing as the lost, improbably named son of a then-current presidential nominee. Yes, that’s Tuggb Romney—“two ‘g’s, silent ‘b’.”
“Cooler” (season two, episode 15)
A game changer in more ways then one, this episode sums itself up in a handful of sound bites: “So much weird crap happens at this apartment.” “A clear and present threat of tongue.” “Not like this.” After the guys ditch her for a night of cavorting—an effort inevitably sullied by Nick’s dependency on an ill-fitting trench coat—Jess summons everyone back to the loft, attempting to successfully wingman Nick and shed her reputation as his “cooler.” Naturally, they end up half-dressed and locked in a room together until they can provide proof that they’ve kissed. But if “Cooler” were merely the resolution of all that Day-Miller tension, it wouldn’t be listed here. It makes the cut because of the trench coat, the guest turns by Brooklyn Decker (as a woman attracted to sad men) and Brenda Song (an ideal fit with this ensemble—curse you, Dads!), and the presence of New Girl’s greatest non-character creation: True American, the incomprehensible drinking game that leads Jess and Nick behind “the Iron Curtain.” And then there’s the climax, a goosebump-inducing highlight-reel moment that New Girl, for better and worse, has spent the rest of its run building off of and trying to live up to.
“Keaton” (season three, episode six)
Claustrophobia is one of the not-so-secret comedy engines of New Girl. The main characters’ living space is fancifully vast, but the sense that they’re living on top of each other is palpably real. That sense would come to fruition during the season-three arc in which Nick and Jess are dating but Schmidt and Cece aren’t, leading to the type of close-quarters self-loathing that serves as the inciting incident in “Keaton.” Seeking to restore order and boost his friend’s self-esteem, Nick reaches into a flashback for a foolproof method of breaking Schmidt out of his funk: A message from his old chum Michael Keaton. Never mind that it’s all a disguise, Nick pretending to be the cinematic Batman from beneath the mask of firstname.lastname@example.org, It’s a neat metaphor for a Halloween episode and a sign that, no matter their proximity to one another, these are friends who are willing to impersonate an Oscar nominee just to make one another happy. “Keaton” kicks down the door to let in the rest of the show’s underrated third season, all the while contributing a pair of all-timers to the canon of punny sitcom Halloween costumes: Jess as the CBGB/YA hybrid Joey Ramona Quimby, and Schmidt as a scaly bureaucrat, a.k.a. the “public serpent.”
“Basketsball” (season three, episode 12)
Damon Wayans Jr.’s relationship with New Girl traces the vagaries of network-TV programming: Book a series regular role one season, watch that series get burned off in the spring. See the cancellation writing on the wall, book a role on a different series, then see that first series receive an unexpected renewal. When Happy Endings met its untimely demise in 2013, it all but guaranteed Wayans’ return to New Girl the following year. He’d stick around for the remainder of season three, setting up the best example of a story New Girl has had to tell more frequently than most sitcoms: Eager-to-please protagonist yearns to bond with new presence in her life. After finding the keys to Nick’s, Schmidt’s, and Winston’s hearts in food, clothes, and onesie pajamas, respectively, her path to friendship with Coach is laid by basketball—or “basketsball,” as she calls it, seeing as there’s more than one basket. By connecting him with Jess, “Basketsball” brings Wayans back into the New Girl fold, then cements its status as one of the show’s purest comedic triumphs with the sacrilegious sight gag of a woman wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey macking on a man in a Detroit Pistons jersey.
“Landline” (season four, episode five)
New Girl’s truest embodiment of its main character was in how deeply silly the show got in its fourth season. After spending the previous year hunkered down in the plot trenches with the Jess-and-Nick romance, the show returned with a renewed sense of playfulness, egged on by a seasoned cast that now contained six regulars. With a bare minimum of story—“the loft gets a telephone,” basically—“Landline” spins inspired lunacy involving Jess’ disastrous sexual-harassment seminar, Winston’s mastery of phone conversations, and Nick serving as loft secretary in order to maintain his connections to Schmidt and Winston. (The last musters up legitimate tenderness, too.) Opening with an image of the cellular-reception-seeking roommates cramming into Nick’s bedroom window, and supported by a bevy of sitcom ringers, this is New Girl at its most crowded. But it’s also New Girl at its purest, as all the space that’s not devoted to maneuvering long-term arcs instead goes to the cast bouncing off of one another and indulging in unapologetic wordplay like the title of a magazine that wants to profile Schmidt (“Businessman Magazine?” “No, no, no, check that out: Business, Man! Magazine”) and an attractive male teacher whose Francophone surname proves to be a powerful double entendre.
“Background Check” (season four, episode six)
When people talk about the importance of character and relationships to TV comedy, they should point to an episode like “Background Check,” an example of the New Girl cast’s ability to lift the show over the highest of premise hurdles. (See also: The “Winston gets sympathy PMS” episode “Menzies”; the “new roommate promises to sleep with one of the other roommates” episode “The Decision,” discussed below.) In this riotous bottle episode, that hurdle is the giant bag of contraband Jess inconveniently reveals on the day of Winston’s police academy background check. Lie stacks on top of lie in a farcical house of cards meant to hide the stuff from hard-nosed LAPD sergeant Tess “The Fish” Dorado (Cleo King), illustrating that even in increasingly close quarters, the roommates can still keep a few secrets from one another. The ultimate secret of “Background Check” gives Winston a well-deserved check mark in the “win” column, but not before he and the others do everything in their constrained-to-the-loft power to keep from blowing their cover with his two characteristic tells: Profuse perspiration and the anxious dance known as the “panic moonwalk.”
“The Decision” (season five, episode eight)
In a most fascinating example of New Girl’s improvisational spirit, the show’s fifth season dealt with Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy and subsequent maternity leave by placing Jess in a sequestered jury and adding yet another new roommate to the fold. The cast and the writers skillfully molded themselves around Reagan (Megan Fox), a crafty pharmaceutical representative who rekindles Nick’s habit of falling for the woman sleeping in the bedroom across the hallway. “The Decision” hinges on his attempts to join her there, but the episode as a whole is less about Nick’s lust and more about Reagan acclimating to the loft’s Island Of Misfit Toys. She delights in messing with the guys—declaring that she’ll sleep with either Nick or Winston, but only to make a point about their indecisiveness—but she’s not above shenanigans like “The Decision”’s climactic Boyz II Men singalong. The four episodes with Fox and without Deschanel could be easily dismissed as a “Tori Paradox”-style detour, but the guest star’s gameness in “The Decision” makes the arc essential to New Girl.
“Landing Gear” (season five, episode 22)
One part sitcom hijinks, one part quarter-life anxiety, one part drunken party, and one part tearjerker: Wedding episode “Landing Gear” cinches a great New Girl romance—and suggests that there’s some heat left in another. The former is Schmidt-and-Cece, the latter is Jess-and-Nick, and thanks to the intervention of the air-travel industry, the happy occasion winds up taking place right where it all began: in the loft. Reuniting all seven principals from the show’s run—including Wayans and Fox—“Landing Gear” has enough full-circle moments to function as a series finale. (When the rabbi co-officiating the ceremony requests a glass to break, Nick produces the most meaningful prop imaginable.) It’s the ideal situation for Jess to revisit her feelings for Nick, which she word-vomits in a line that’s just as telling as “not like this.” The script, by longtime New Girl hand Luvh Rakhe, finds Jess trying to reason her way through these resurgent feelings, but as she makes plain to Reagan at the reception, reason, logic, and planning have never been priorities for this show or its characters. Or, as Schmidt says at one point: “Look, if it made sense, it wouldn’t be my wedding.”