Jessica Day, you should know better by now: “The Year of Us” (or any of its many, melismatic permutations) is doomed from the start. In a comedic fashion, that is. Like Penny Hartz or The Zombies before her, it doesn’t take long for Jess to discover that laying claim to a year isn’t the same thing as actually conquering it. She and her friends are in a better place than they were in the fall of 2014, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got everything figured out. There’s a long, beautiful stairway that says otherwise.

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Like the episode that contains it, Jess’ tumble down those stairs is an elegant solution in a slapstick package. With Zooey Deschanel’s maternity leave on the horizon, New Girl didn’t take a break after season four wrapped, jumping directly into season five’s first four episodes. Not only did this give the writers and producers a head start on their star’s absence—due to be filled by new new girl Megan Fox—but it also allowed them to draft on the momentum of the show’s comeback year. More time has passed in our universe than it has in New Girl’s, so “Big Mama P” comes complete with helpful reminders of the threads left hanging after “Clean Break”: The pending Schmidt-Parekh nuptials, of course, but also Schmidt and Nick’s foray into bar-owning partnership and Winston’s continuing adventures with the LAPD. Add a nod to Coach and a gag that gets the pregnant lady off her feet for a week, and the season premiere is ready to bridge the gap between the end of season four and the parts of season five that came after the show resumed production.

The Bollywood dance number and the long pratfall aside, it’s an unassuming start, but that feels right for a show that’s undergoing a cast transition and preparing to do without its female lead for a handful of episodes. (One of “Big Mama P”’s biggest laughs is even pegged to that transition: Lamorne Morris dropping into a Damon Wayans Jr. impression to read Coach’s engagement-party RSVP.) It’s a premiere of introductions and re-introductions: Anna George appears for the first time as Cece’s mother, Priyanka; ever-poised future Random Roles subject Fred Melamed debuts as the sublimely named CFO of Associated Strategies, J. Kronkite Valley-Forge; Rob Riggle and Nelson Franklin are back, respectively, as Big Schmidt and Robby.

But those aren’t “Big Mama P”’s only priority, so while the episode entertains Cece and Schmidt’s guests, it busies itself with proof that the main characters aren’t fully prepared for a milestone of this magnitude. Cece hasn’t told her mom she’s engaged. The Indian woman Nick picks up from the airport isn’t Priyanka. Winston might have saved a kid from being crushed by a car, but he still doesn’t know a) the proper time to pull a prank, or b) how to stage an effective, modestly sized prank.

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It’s familiar territory for New Girl, which has long tied its emotional core to the idea that maturity is something that’s achieved through experience and expertise, not age. Elsewhere, that familiarity stems from the standard-issue sitcom misunderstandings that drive the episode’s action, with Jess inviting Priyanka to the party before she’s informed of her daughter’s engagement, or Nick’s “Michael Bluth in ‘Charity Drive’” misadventure with “Not-Mom”—a car ride that mirrors the Arrested Development joke right down to the friendly gestures mistaken for murder threats. “Big Mama P” isn’t long on novelty, but isn’t short on amusement, either: The relaxed pacing of the episode allows for fun digressions like Winston trying on Nick’s Jesus wig or Schmidt making a big deal out of a routine salon appointment. It’s the sort of New Girl that didn’t have me laughing every minute, but did have me smiling for most of its running length.

But now I’m apologizing for an episode that didn’t do anything that requires an apology, so here’s this: Even though the happy couple is the crux of the Venn diagram shown at the episode’s end, “Big Mama P” re-establishes Jess as the glue holding these people together. That’s the episode’s major service as a season premiere. After several months off the air, at the beginning of the show’s fifth season, it’s a reiteration of Deschanel’s steadying hand within the ensemble. Jess knocks over the first domino when she invites Priyanka without first consulting Cece, but things truly start to spin out of control once Jess is immobilized. She’s the maid of honor who’s made of honor (yeah, that does work better in print), and the members of the New Girl gang are their best selves when she’s around. They’re an incomplete team without her. Her presence inspires courage in Cece and Winston, heart in Schmidt, and brains in Nick—and it makes them do some charmingly low-key dance steps, too. Jess might not have a grip on The Year of Us quite yet, but she does play a convincing Dorothy Gale figure. (Which would make the upcoming Megan Fox episodes the New Girl equivalent of the funky Oz books that don’t feature Dorothy.)

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There’s an entertaining game played throughout “Big Mama P,” where the episode sets up sweeping, unrealistic, Year Of Us-style reversals of fortune for its characters—before coming to its senses and refusing to let those reversals come to pass. At first, these are well-constructed punchlines: Winston’s “Call an ambulance… for MEEEE!” in the Carport Hero cutaway, or Jess and Schmidt cackling at the seemingly sincere thought of Nick “handling whatever task you gave him just fine.” Down the line, though, it’s a gut punch. The power of dance does not awaken the hopeless romantic in Priyanka, who denies the premiere’s uplifting climax when she doesn’t give Cece her blessing to marry Schmidt. Not-Mom doesn’t give her blessing, either, but that’s more to restore the comic balance of the scene and/or to feed Jake Johnson’s knack for playing off of silent, non-English-speaking characters. (Miss ya, Tran.)

But those two crazy kids still have the blessing of their family of friends. There’s a hidden meaning in The Year of Us: It’s the roommates’ time to shine, but it’s also time for the roommates to know that all they need is one another. That’s exactly how it’s represented on Schmidt’s pared down vision board, where the extravagance of Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and “the power gays” have been replaced by cutouts of the maid of honor, the best man, and groomsman No. 1. It’s a symbol of the simple pleasures of “Big Mama P,” and a peek at the most important ingredients going in to New Girl’s fifth season.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of New Girl’s fifth season! Let me be honest with you: About a year ago, I didn’t think I’d be here. Even as the show was experiencing a creative resurgence, I considered handing this beat to another writer once season four was over. I felt like I had written everything I had to write about these lovable bozos—but when it was announced that the fifth season wouldn’t debut until January 2016, I changed course. Like anyone who moves out of the loft, I couldn’t stay gone for long. I hope everybody out there still feels a similar affinity for the show (or a comparable inability to quit it), and I look forward to watching and discussing these new episodes alongside you.
  • “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: Prank Sinatra is the nickname Winston thinks he deserves, but The Carport Hero is the nickname he needs right now.
  • In a really smart bit of wardrobe and set-design synchronization, the colors Jess, Nick, and Winston wear in the cold open correspond to colors in the vision board’s Venn diagram.
  • Something shared by the weddings of Liz Taylor and Jackie O, according to Schmidt: The chemical element Francium.
  • It must be great fun to write this kind of dialogue for someone with the gravitas of a Fred Melamed: “I’m 62 years of age, was recently widowed, and I believe earnestly that, if we all work together this wedding season, we will get more boom-boom than a TNT factory.”
  • Nick Miller in a nutshell, part 95 in a continuing series: “And stop being so mean to me or I swear to God I’m gonna fall in love with you!”
  • Spoken wordplay continues to fail Jess: “I’m the maid of honor, but when I fell down the stairs, I wished I was made of rubber!”
  • Nobody comes up with terms of endearment like Cece comes up with terms of endearment: “I never thought I would fall for the slim, hip ghost of Tom Crusie.” (Excellent eyebrow work in Max Greenfield’s reaction to that line.)

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