Now that’s more like it.
It can’t be easy to break a guest arc like New Girl’s “Sister” trilogy. Bringing Abby into the show’s orbit involves a lot of introduction: Who she is, what the characters know about her, how the characters react to her. It’s in that process that “Sister” and “Sister II” stumbled. The first episode compensated with a very funny, very solid Schmidt plot, and the second relied on the regulars to an even greater degree. But both still amounted to a lot of scenes where relationships between characters had to be alluded to or established with lightning speed, and that took a lot of wind out of the episodes’ sails. Give or take a “Jess & Julia” or a “Coach,” this sort of midstream introduction has never been New Girl’s forte. (Especially when the Millers get involved.)
Coming at the end of Linda Cardellini’s three-episode stay in the loft, “Sister III” reads to me like a meta-commentary on the awkwardness of this process. The watchword this week is “too fast”: Characters apply the phrase directly to the momentum of the Schmidt-Abby romance, and when Nick and Jess come to terms with not living living with each other, it’s implied that they too were being hasty. Elsewhere, the fresh-but-intense connections shared by Schmidt and Abby and Cece and Coach are used as punchlines. In the funniest of these instances, the episode’s brand-new besties underline the weird, bogus nature of sudden television companionship. “Cece, darling, how long have we been friends?” Coach asks. “A week or so?” Cece replies, the conviction in Hannah Simone’s voice belying the fact that friendships only develop that quickly within kindergarten classes and TV ensembles. It’s a great line reading in a plot that feels like it could’ve arisen from the difficulty of tossing a high-profile guest star into a cast whose rhythms and dynamic were finally settled from the last time a new face showed up. Schmidt beats any possible audience disapproval to the punch: “You two as friends is a real bummer. I’m not into it.” (Sorry, Schmidt, but I am into it, especially the way that Coach relishes the bond, rather than going the clichéd route and panicking about his non-macho behavior.)
In real life, there’s no ticking contractual clock or narrative necessity that brings people together—it’s an ineffable chemistry that New Girl and other long-running comedies either know how to synthesize or stumble upon over time. (Usually the latter, through the capricious trial-and-error process that makes the first six to 13 episodes of many shows such a frustrating slog.) In “Sister III,” that comes down to a question of comfort as much as anything else. Contentment is the enemy of invention and comedy, but watching New Girl get comfortable with Nick and Jess getting comfortable with each other is the most consistent facet of this third season. As they pass milestone and settle into coupledom, each new development appears geared toward avoiding those three pivotal words from “Cooler,” words Nick repeats at the end of tonight’s episode: “Not like this.” Cohabitation is forced on them anyway—because these “Sister” episodes were also the scenic route to the destination of getting Schmidt back in the loft—but let’s face it: They were roommates before they were dating, so there can’t be that much more they have to hide from one another. And if any more secrets come out of the woodwork, at least they’ll be secrets like Nick’s “long shirt,” the comfortable, antiquated pajama option that brings Jake Johnson into a Porky Pig-like fashion trend that Damon Wayans Jr. originated over on Happy Endings.
Similar material aside, there are beats of “Sister III” (hell, entire chunks of the last three episodes) that Happy Endings would’ve churned through in a single tossed-off punchline. But that’s because that show had a hair trigger whereas New Girl, being keenly aware of its performer’s strengths, prefers to wait for its moment and take the right shot. Outside of Abby’s scenes with Jess, the show never found that moment for Linda Cardellini, but “Sister III” still manages to key in on the specialties of Wayans and Zooey Deschanel. Both are physical performers, but in different ways: Wayans, for example, is uncannily in tune with the way his body moves, selling jokes in tonight’s episode with just a sharp snap of his neck or a well-deployed squint. I hate to keep bringing Happy Endings up (not true: We should keep bringing Happy Endings up until its untimely death is avenged), but I thought of the long take from that show’s second-season Valentine’s Day episode each time Coach and Cece have a moment in “Sister III.”
Deschanel, meanwhile, has a well-documented gift for flailing, and when “Sister III” needs a little mid-episode pick-me-up, Jess is set loose on the hotel room her sister and Schmidt failed to sully the night before. There’s a lot about this episode that comes across like a conversation with the show’s past; punctuated by tears and screams of “I’m alone,” Jess’ big night in is a riff on the singing, dancing, and crying jags that characterized the very first episodes of New Girl. The current writing staff knows it can’t do this type of thing every week, but it’s pretty funny to watch Jess celebrate being alone, two-plus years after that was the character’s biggest fear.
Turns out that similar fears drive Abby’s loose-cannon ways, a notion that surfaces when the Day sisters are granted the kind of heart-to-heart I would’ve watched two or three more times during Cardellini’s New Girl stay. It plays so easy and natural, and though I understand why a TV show can’t be composed entirely of characters nakedly, comedically baring their souls, it’s also the kind of scene that the show’s star and guest star are really, really good at. It’s sweet and sour in the right New Girl way, with honest confrontation mixed up with dialogue about Nick’s cult-leader feet.
If Abby ever comes back, that scene ought to serve as the blueprint for the ideal interaction between the Days. Their differences drive “Sister” and “Sister II,” but it’s when Jess and Abby find common ground that “Sister III” finds its true power. At separate times, the Day sisters descended upon the same group of people and stirred things up—but only Jess could stay, because only Jess fits. If there’s a note of apprehension at the end of “Sister III,” it comes from the sense that the specifics of that fit continue to change. And that’s where New Girl will find the agitation to move forward while its characters learn to get more comfortable with one another.
- Fun with “real” audio: Sound editing is responsible for two of the biggest laughs in “Sister III.” First, there’s the “ding” of the elevator that goes off when Jess realizes she could have a hotel room all to herself; later, Cece’s growing annoyance with Coach’s “girlfriend” act is emphasized by the clatter of coffehouse mug hitting coffeehouse table.
- Winston is consumed by police-academy training this week—though his struggle with the rings ends up playing a critical part in the Nick-Jess plot—so it’s only fair that “Sister III” also marks the return of the long-absent Ferguson. LOL! LOL! LOL! LOLFerguson! HO!
- It is no surprise that Nick has a problem changing in front of other people: “When you’re naked, you’re powerful and it’s glorious. When you’re changing, you’re hunched over and cowering—like an animal.”
- The 14th reason Nick can think of for not sharing a room with Jess: He has to organize his Garbage Pail Kids cards: “How you gonna put art like this in a box?”
- Jess’ description of Nick in his longshirt makes it sound like she found the period-piece porno she was looking for: “You look like a little match girl wandering around Victorian England selling matches for a penny.”
- Jess believes Abby has an exotic romantic history. Her own? Not so much: “All my lovers could fit in one SUV. And yes, maybe somebody would have to sit on someone’s lap. But they would fit.” (Sam’s clearly riding shotgun here, because David Walton’s too tall for any conventional backseat setup. And you know Fancyman’s driving, so at least it’s a nice SUV. Probably has cup holders and everything, which Nick will find impressive.)