Some people hate year-end-list season. I get that. It dovetails with the December holidays, which also drive a lot of people nuts and for many of the same reasons: the oppressive omnipresence of it all; the feeling of mandatory participation; the convergence upon a single consensus choice that leaves a significant portion of the population feeling left out. (Merry Christmas, Walter White and/or Don Draper!) In recent years, both have been harder and harder to avoid as they creep past their traditional starting points and threaten to occupy the entire fall and early winter. Sure as some retailers can hardly clear out the Halloween candy before piping Christmas music into their stores, there’s a rush to be the first publication (or, increasingly, merely the first online presence) to declare the television shows, songs, movies, books, and all other manner of art and pop culture that were worth paying attention to during the last 365 days.
I understand the frustration, but I also think it’s necessary—and fun. (I’m mostly talking about best-of lists now, but some of the holiday parallels still apply.) Accuse me of being wistful for days that have just passed, but as the last calendar page stands ready to fall, I sincerely enjoy taking stock of the collective creativity of the year that was. A lot of times, that means making a point to catch up with an album or a film in the months to come, but it can also mean a deeply satisfying sensation of time well spent. And it’s that feeling—or lack thereof—that drives a lot of the extreme emotions the revolve around best-of lists. People love having their opinions validated, almost as much as they hate to hear their preferences disregarded or contradicted.
Now, I’ve been spending too much time with The A.V. Club’s own list of the top 30 series of 2012 (you’ll find no spoilers here, but it’s a doozy—watch for it under your Boxing Day Box) to see how New Girl is faring among other critic’s lists of the year’s best TV series. And, as such, I haven’t had a lot of time to use those lists to bask in the satisfaction of sticking with the series long enough to watch it have what was my favorite end-to-end run of 2012. Other series may have turned in stronger whole seasons, but the way New Girl came together in the second half of its freshman year—and then built on that momentum by playing to the strengths of its writing staff and the undeniable chemistry of its leads—completely took me by surprise. Beginning the new year with New Girl, I was looking forward to the refinement of certain elements I enjoyed: Schmidt, the physicality of Zooey Deschanel’s performance, the subtle jabs at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype—and little else. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like “Injured” or Theodore K. Mullins or the hysterical second-season heights of “Fluffer” and “Menzies”—and I certainly wasn’t anticipating True American.
Yet it remains: In 2012, New Girl hit upon the consistency and quality that makes TV junkies enter every new season eager to chase a fresh batch of dragons. It did so patiently, and its maturation from “good show with potential” to season-pass material cost the series several million viewers and a few points in the most coveted Nielsen demographics. But those who stuck by Jess, Nick, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece were rewarded with a spectacular year of television—and a great capper to that year in “Santa.”
Returning to that Polar Express train of thought: “Santa” is excellent television. I’m a cheap lay when it comes to Christmas episodes, but this is a half-hour that transcends its seasonal trappings to portray the show at its best. None of the characters are left out of the fun and/or drama (even the guy who doesn’t celebrate Christmas!). The laughs are big and plentiful. There’s a superb, heart-tugging scene between Nick and Jess, during which they each take on pseudonyms. There’s a romantic-comedy ending wonkily grafted on to the end of the episode, but that doesn’t matter because the saccharine is undercut by the entire cast forgetting the words to “O Come All Ye Faithful” in unison. And, yes, Winston gets a piece of cranberry stuck in his ear.
The episode even gets experimental in a new, old-fashioned way, setting up a marathon of parties in the cold open that merely ends up foreshadowing the three acts that follow. There’s a hint that “Santa” may attempt a little How I Met Your Mother-style time-hopping or a 30 Rock-like rush through the evening’s events, but that wouldn’t be New Girl’s style. Those are the devices of far zippier, more rigidly constructed shows—New Girl is all about patient character work and off-the-cuff riffing. It’s for these reasons that its regulars (with the addition of Olivia “Refreshingly Tolerable” Munn) make up the only cast on TV that could’ve sold that “O Come All Ye Faithful” moment. It’s not the endpoint of some expertly constructed farce. It’s the product of writers deeply invested in characters who think with their hearts first, as well as the fruits of a trust between the showrunners and the actors. It sounds like some ADR work was required to get the best of the improvised lyrics to pop (“O matzah ball / o David / o Hanukkah menorah,” “We’re gonna do / what you wanna do / when we’re gonna do it”), but the whole sonic stew gets laughs because each actor contributing to it is committed to the nonsense. That level of conviction isn’t a given on every sitcom.
None of that is meant to take away from the power of “Santa’s” script (the first season-two script credited to writers’ room all-star Luvh Rakhe, he of “Jess & Julia” and “Normal”), which, without throwing off a half-dozen spokes from the A-story, manages to give each of the regulars their own, satisfying mini-arc. Some are of greater stakes than others—Jess and Schmidt’s romantic quandaries are given, oh, a smidgen more weight than Winston’s temporary hearing problem—but they all feed off of and support each other so, so well. The cranberry in Winston’s ear gives Jess a chance to run interference on Sam (but then leads to her undoing), for instance, while her reluctance to believe Sam’s pleas prompts a conversation where Nick confronts his Angie-related fears. It’s still shaggier than the average “ideal” sitcom script, but it’s definitely one of New Girl’s best. It provides a lot of great stuff for episode director Craig Zisk to work with as well—of particular note is the blocking in the scene where an arguing Schmidt and Cece camouflage Jess, requiring Zooey Deschanel to peek into the negative space between Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone’s interlocking glares.
The mad bobbing and weaving Deschanel does between her coworkers is indicative of “Santa’s” final, year-capping triumph: Let’s all agree to move forward into 2013 liking this show because of its star, rather than in spite of. There’s a tinge to the conversation surrounding New Girl’s growth that suggests Deschanel and Jess had little to do with the series’ uptick in quality—and that’s bullshit. Sure, as Schmidt became the breakout character of season one and Jake Johnson emerged as season two’s MVP, it became easier to downplay Deschanel’s contributions. But just because the rest of the ensemble has gained equal footing in terms of billing doesn’t mean that New Girl could feasibly ditch its nominal star. She’s still an essential member of one of TV comedy’s finest casts, and “Santa” is the latest sign of her versatility. She nails the dramatic beats (her “Why do you think you can just kiss me?” is a heartbreaking show of strength in this department) and forms the crucial, steady core to the episode’s big musical sendoff.
And her character gets her due, too—Rakhe’s script underlines the Christmas theme with a spot-on distillation of Jess’ POV: “I just believe things and go on believing them. If someone tells me a fat man is bringing me dolls every year, I just don’t question it.” That’s not naïveté, and it’s not some innocent, eye-opening wisdom, either. It’s faith. And when that faith is called upon later in the episode, it’s not as if it hasn’t been butting heads with her better judgement all night, either. The rehab work performed on Jess in 2012 is just as remarkable as the show’s progression. She’s not some gingham-clad wood sprite, just someone who believes the best in people [Cue Schmidt: “Thank you, Professor Cliché—just in time for the holidays.”], but accepts that that best usually doesn’t shine through. But the fact that it could keeps her going.
And that’s what keeps the desire to keep watching a TV series afloat as well: It falls short of faith, but it’s definitely some cracked form of optimism. To see something in a show’s earliest goings that suggests an endeavor that’s worth your time every week. It’s an investment, and you can see the returns reflected in this month’s deluge of best-of lists—or if you’re not inclined toward list-making, you can see them in an episode like “Santa.”
- Seriously, whittle the 26 episodes of New Girl that aired in 2012 down to a solid season of 18 to 22 half hours and the show would’ve earned top honors on my personal year-end ballot. Good season-opener in “The Story Of The 50,” better season-closer in “Santa,” with the “Fancyman” arc forming a nice midpoint. Unfortunately, you need to keep “Tomatoes” and “Bathtub”—which I graded harshly last week only because I knew the show was capable of better and I was immediately vindicated—for some of that “season’s” best episodes to make sense.
- This week in New Girl pseudonyms: Hijacking the broadcast booth at the KQTO party, Nick and Jess respectively affect the personas of radio shrink Dr. Gavin Daytona and his latest caller, Wendy. Also, Winston may not say the name “Theodore K. Mullins,” but LaMorne Morris definitely adopted Mullins’ mannerisms and speech patterns (“Say goodbye to paradise, honey!”) when Winston faux-breaks up with Jess.
- Schmidt has a complicated relationship with the big man from the North Pole: “We were on very strict instructions from Rabbi Shmuley not to say a word until the last Christian kid found out about Santa Claus. Ruining Christmas: very bad for our brand.”
- Every punchline from the cold open is a winner, but this Winston/Nick exchange deserves to be singled out for illustrating the hysterical hypocrisies of Nick Miller: “Look who’s talking: You’re the guy who only eats mayonnaise on game days.” “Well, that’s how you make the Chicago Bears win.”
- Only the finest for the second party on the “Santa” itinerary: “Are they just going to play computer music all night?” “What are you talking about? This is a really respected DJ who was also an actor on Boy Meets World.” So much musical talent on that cast.
- Not pseudonyms, but great nicknames for Schmidt and Nick nonetheless: “Metrosexual Jones and Sweatshirt Guy over there.”
- Get it printed on a T-shirt: “Nick Miller: Turning lemonade into lemons since 1981.”
- Until we meet in 2013, New Girl wishes you a festive… something: “Happy Hannukah.” “Happy Moon Festival, Cece.” “Nope, not a thing.” “Happy Carnivale.” “You should stop while you’re ahead.”