Everyone has the potential to be a shark and a dolphin.

The characters of New Girl believe things are less flexible than that: You’re either a ruthless, perpetual-motion killing machine like Schmidt and Councilwoman Fawn Moscato (guest star Zoe Lister Jones) or an aquatic creature who uses their intelligence to friendlier ends, like Jess or Winston. That’s where the primary conflict of “Shark” comes in, because “Shark” sees things differently from the roommates. The episode concerns people playing predator one minute and prey the next, an outside-the-loft perspective that explains why the councilwoman and Cece perform “Shark”’s most effective manipulations.

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For a big-hearted sitcom like New Girl, manipulation is a story element with a high level of difficulty. But “Shark” works because it’s grounded in some series fundamentals: Friendship and vulnerability. The characters of New Girl aren’t manipulative by nature, but each has a good read on the others’ weaknesses. In tackling the noisy nuisance of a nearby night-construction project, Jess thinks Schmidt’s smarm will be his undoing. Schmidt, in turn, thinks Jess is too earnest to get the job done. In the lead up to Officer Bishop’s first day on the job, Nick and Coach are convinced that Winston is too sensitive for police work. In the gulf between these perceptions and “Shark”’s realities, you’ll find the funniest parts of the episode.

You’ll also find a decent encapsulation of Schmidt circa season four. Seasons two, three, and four are a rocky, uneven road for Max Greenfield’s character, but he’s remained consistently insecure throughout. This insecurity is the source of his buffoonish confidence levels, his immaculate over-enunciation (when told he’s not the Hilary Clinton to Moscato’s Bill Clinton: “I am too Hill-err-ee”), and his knowledge of tailoring. Schmidt is the dolphin in shark’s clothing, and he’s energized by the fear of being found out.

That’s important in the wake of “LAXmas,” in which Schmidt and Cece appeared to finally reach a level of platonic contentment. Their flame could be rekindled yet again, but until that happens, New Girl needs to find a different source of motivation for Schmidt. In “Shark,” the show returns to a reliable well: As Councilwoman Moscato, Lister Jones is the latest high-powered, no-nonsense woman to terrify and excite Schmidt in equal measure. (Think of Carla Gugino’s character in season two, or Schmidt’s occasional workplace nemesis, Beth.) They’re the sharks that sniff out the dolphin in Schmidt, though they’re never going to get him as good as Cece can: One remark about cuff length from her and Schmidt’s entire pro-night-construction case falls to shambles. It’s a great moment for Greenfield, but a better statement about Schmidt and Cece’s friendship. Lister Jones can affect the right type of crazy for this show, and Fawn might have a temporary council seat inside Schmidt’s head, but Cece’s the one who truly knows him—and Cece’s the one who’ll stay (to be friends, unless/until they fall back in love).

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“Shark” is a good episode for the dolphins overall. Winston gets his badge, and Coach and Nick get a safe place where they can go to worry about Winston having a badge. (The name of the support group they attend at the end of the episode is presumably Let’s Be (Concerned About) Cops.) And in thinking like a dolphin but acting like a shark, Zooey Deschanel has a standout week, killing it with a sea-mammal impression and expertly turning the intimidation tables on Schmidt at episode’s end. “Shark” provides ample chances to see different sides of the roommates—conniving Jess, compassionate Nick, cat-bowl-personalizing Winston—and three years after she grew out of being “adorkable,” it’s nice to see Jess putting her sincerity to such savvy ends.

There’s an obvious difference between the ways Jess and Schmidt see the world, but New Girl doesn’t always play that difference for antagonism. “Shark” is propelled by these differences of opinion and philosophy, like a throwback to season one’s Lizzy Caplan arc. Those episodes were enjoyable in a “young show challenging itself” way; this one is fun because it’s evidence that the show hasn’t lost that willingness to explore. In doing so, it does some things it’s done before (including the way future Moscado appearances are left up in the air) and hints at a potentially Buster-like future for Ryan. (More on him in the stray observations.) But quibbling matters aside, “Shark” carries the season-four winning streak into 2015, displaying the tenacity of its titular animal and the wit and warmth of the dolphin. See, you can be both at the same time.

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Stray observations:

  • “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl psuedonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: Fawn Moscato earns an honorable mention this week. Not a fake name, but funny enough to be one.
  • Outside Dave is a tasteless joke, but it’s a tasteless joke that’s getting much, much funnier. It helps that he has an established relationship with the roommates; it also helps that he’s just vaguely eccentric, rather than suffering from some specific ailment. But I’ve really come to welcome his appearances because of Steve Agee’s performance and the extreme enthusiasm he brings to the character. That quality goes a long way toward making a “laughed at” caricature of a homeless person into a “laughed with” member of the New Girl ensemble.
  • I think Cece speaks for a lot of us—the New Girl staff included—when she says “I’m having a lot of difficulty nailing you down, Ryan.” The writers of this show have a lot of characters to care for in a given episode, and while they’ve done a great job of that in season four, it doesn’t leave much room for Julian Morris to do much beyond take his pants off this week. From the looks of things, he’ll factor more prominently into next week’s episode, but in “Shark,” it would’ve made more sense if he just made a brief appearance at the police academy graduation, like Kai. (But I’m guessing Morris’ arrangement with the show requires more than a quick pop-in. At least putting passed-out Ryan on the couch feeds that great exchange in which Jess dictates who gets to storm out of the living room.)
  • More thoughts on “Shark” guest stars? Sure! Nasim Pedrad is a lot of fun as Winston’s training officer, Aly Nielsen, whose name must be a Police Squad!/Naked Gun joke and whose presence is another sure sign of Mulaney’s demise. In riffing on Winston’s graduation bouquet, she transitions nicely from being irritated by John Mulaney to being irritated by Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. “Or are those tress? I can’t tell, I’m so smaaaall!”
  • Winston is very physically sensitive: “I am. Paper cuts give me headaches.”
  • Schmidt takes issue with Jess’ impression of a beloved advertising mascot. “The Jolly Green Giant? He doesn’t stomp on people—he encourages them to eat their vegetables.”
  • Dire predictions for what happens when you upset the Los Angeles sewage lobby: “They shoot poopie everywhere?”
  • I’d humbly request a flashback based on this non sequitur about Jess’ shark phase: “I felt like Evil Winston. Remember when Winston was evil for that week?”

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