New Girl used to be terrible at sex talk. As a freshman sitcom, the show dug a huge hole for itself with “Naked,” a.k.a. “The One Where Jess Can’t Say Penis.” A month later, it debuted “Bad In Bed,” a low point in the Justin Long arc (good luck with that one, Mom!) that forced some “naughtiness” onto a show that clearly wasn’t ready handle it. Looking back on those two early missteps, reluctance about the conclusions of “Cooler” or “Virgins” go beyond concerns about will-they/won’t-they clichés. From this lens, it’s entirely possible I didn’t want Nick and Jess to get together because I didn’t want them to have their own variation on the awkward-but-contrived sequence in “Bad In Bed” where Long and Zooey Deschanel contend with Jess’ weblike tangle of lingerie.
But on New Girl as in real life, matters of coitus come down to experience. The New Girl of those first-season episodes was a timid newbie, still figuring out what worked for it and what it should never, ever do again. By the time of “Cooler,” “Virgins,” “Quick Hardening Caulk,” and the other second-season episodes that dealt with the honeymoon period of Jess and Nick’s relationship, New Girl had figured its shit out. It knew who these characters were, how they would behave in a romantic scenario, and how to organically derive comedy and pathos from those situations.
The sequence that gives “The Captain” its title feels like a mulligan for “Bad In Bed,” an improved show displaying the full extent of its talents. One of those talents involves being more playful with chronology: In a shrewd bit of editing, the episode skips right over the traumatic encounter between Jess, Nick, and The Captain—whoever or whatever it may be. The act itself comes from the True American school of comedy, withholding the specifics only to dole them out as scattered non sequitur. (Schmidt’s blender-bleeping being a shortcut to allowing the nastiest details to exist only in the viewer’s head.) It’s an elegant device in a superb back-to-basics New Girl, one that takes the most direct, most effective route to addressing the shifting dynamic within the loft.
It’s slightly disingenuous to say that season three has been building to an episode that mostly hangs around the loft, but the drawing-room qualities of “The Captain” stand in stark contrast to earlier season-three entries that traveled to Mexico, Jess’ new workplace, and a trendy Peruvian eatery. It’s not a bottle episode in the strictest sense of the term (I doubt the hallway outside of Cece’s apartment is a standing set, and there are no budgetary savings in setting a scene at a pet shop), but restricting the action to Apartment 4D pushes the roommates toward truly confronting their feelings about Jess and Nick going “all in.” As a group as well as individuals: This is felt most acutely by Nick Miller himself (as it should be in a J.J. Philbin script), who moves even closer to becoming the male version of his girlfriend through the liberating sensation of talking nonstop about his each and every feeling. Fortunately, “The Captain” still allows Jake Johnson to retain the essence of Nick while doing so—he’s becoming a more emotionally open person, but his soundproofing solution still has a ring of “fancy fix” to it.
More importantly, tonight’s episode gives itself over to a notion that’s been churning beneath the surface of season three thus far: Winston and Schmidt’s increasingly erratic behavior can be partially chalked up to a four-person living arrangement abruptly becoming two-guys-plus-a-couple. That’s not a switch that’s easily flipped, and though “The Captain” continues this season’s curious pattern of third-act Winger speeches, Winston’s talk about private space and public space does a nice job of addressing how the positivity emitted by Jess and Nick is also a bothersome, low-frequency hum that’s driving the other roommates batty. (Maybe the show’s becoming increasingly reliant on this device because it’s the kind of thing Nick and Jess used to talk about at the end of an episode, but their current situation no longer allows for.) The foursome was already a little batty to begin with, but as Lamorne Morris so righteously intones, something’s seriously wrong if the guy running a “cat brothel” out of his bedroom is coming off like the sanest of the bunch.
It’s the culmination of a smart, hilarious game of projection and deflection (kind of like True American), in which Winston interprets his own loneliness as Ferguson’s and Schmidt compensates for his ruined relationships by ruining the one between Nick and Jess. “The Captain” resolves some of the out-of-character strangeness that, I’d wager, has some New Girl fans keeping season three at arm’s length. It also throws open a door to an intriguing plot thread: If Nick keeps inching closer to Jess’ idealized version of himself, is that truly the Nick she wants? Or will she compensate for his changes by picking up some of the curmudgeonly attributes he’s shedding? (Lending credence to that theory: “The other great thing about talking about our feelings is that we don’t need to do it… all the time.”) Whatever happens after it, “The Captain” ought to be the episode that stops you from worrying and teaches you to love New Girl’s third season. At the very least, it ought to be the half-hour that finally washes the taste of “Bad In Bed” out of your mouth.
- This week in New Girl alter egos: I’m not sure who gets to be The Captain during The Captain, and I’m not sure I want to know, either.
- Here’s a fun idea: Let’s start channeling our misgivings about the show’s handling of Winston through LOLcats macros starring Ferguson. I’ll start:
- Schmidt leans against a smoothie blender: A great Max Greenfield tableau, or the best Max Greenfield tableau?
- Important tips on making things funnier, via “The Captain”: Don’t be afraid to withhold details (a la all “descriptions” of The Captain), but also don’t be afraid to give nothing but details (Nick spilling his feelings all over his roommates). If all else fails, just let Jake Johnson babble. At this moment, he’s television’s premier comic babbler, and Nick’s first attempts at summarizing his feelings about The Captain ought to at least get Johnson a cameo in a “Drunk Uncle” spot on Saturday Night Live.
- Garfunkel & Oates’ Riki Lindhome puts in a great guest shot as the woman Winston doesn’t realize he’s asked on a date. However, she bears almost too much facial resemblance to Mary Elizabeth Ellis to be featured in the first episode in ages to mention Nick’s ex, Caroline.
- Jess has something to show Nick in the bathroom: “Yeah, it’s tiles. I’m so bad at lying—it’s for sex.”
- Schmidt knows a real man makes his own luck: “After he saw the movie Titanic, he started the Billy Zane fan club. Look it up, they’re called The Zaniacs.”
- A decent dodge on describing The Captain gets elevated to quotable levels thanks to Zooey Deschanel’s pronunciation of the word “uncomfortable.” “I was uncomfortable with some of the specifics of what we just did. For example, when I said, ‘You like that, huh?’ I felt like you really, really didn’t like it.”
- Real talk from Winston: “You’re having sex, you’re not inventing it. It can’t be that good.”