The Crawl might be for all, but “The Crawl” is for Nick Miller.

New Girl’s best character hasn’t had the best season: He’s been dumped, he’s back to sharing a bedroom like he’s still in college, and he has to sit around and watch his friend/ex-girlfriend go through a relationship that just doesn’t have much comedic or dramatic potential. (Sorry, I may be projecting on that last count.) It makes sense that Nick would get the short end of the stick, because the short end of a stick is essentially the Miller family crest. But as Sam Smith inspiration Tom Petty once sang, even the losers get lucky sometime. This loser’s stroke of luck comes in the form of the misshapen smiley face encompassing all of the bars in the neighborhood.

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On the basis of ambition alone, “The Crawl” is a top-tier episode of New Girl. There have been a lot of those in the fourth season, and though season two will always the show’s golden standard for overall quality, season four (to date) has been New Girl’s new standard for funny. “The Crawl” combines the show’s comedic second wind with a can’t-miss premise: The gang will visit six bars in five hours, realizing a dream that Nick’s been running down for a decade. (Two Tom Petty references in three grafs—we’re into the great wide open here, people.) It’s a big task for the show, requiring five new sets and plenty of extras, but it also unites the regulars under a single, simple goal: Break Nick out of his funk by giving into his nonsense for one night.

I like to see New Girl challenging itself in this way—season two’s similarly structured “Santa” is a personal favorite—and “The Crawl” exemplifies many of the show’s boldest qualities: The go-for-broke staging of the bar crawl, the breaks in the funny business for emotionally honesty, the way Jess and Ryan’s discussion of a long-distance relationship slices through unrealistic romantic-comedy expectations. There’s a buzz to tonight’s episode, and it’s not just because most of the characters are hammered. “The Crawl” breaks from New Girl’s visual conventions to try some handheld camerawork, which brings a tipsy energy to the show without going over the top into Dutch-tilt-and-slow-motion territory.

And that challenge makes Nick’s personal victory all that more pronounced. He’s a master of deflection, but through The Crawl, he battles his demons with his demons, and discovers he can be the man of the people he claims to be. He does so by embracing the sort of folks that New Girl has always celebrated (if not always in such a large group): The weirdos, the loners, and the outsiders. (Or, in more specific terms: “The single, the lonely, the close talkers, the shockingly pale, the stank mouths, the fat boys in the back, the chubby fronts, the delusionally okay with themselves…”) In other words, the Millers, scrappy square pegs who find all the power in one another that they can’t muster on their own. Naturally, Nick’s crazy idea serves as a rallying point for the five weirdos he’s closest with, and “The Crawl” provides a nice full-circle/full-smiley-face moment when Winston pulls those six packs out of his “designated buddy” backpack, ensuring that the bar crawl’s first followers are also it’s last followers.

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With that rallying point in place, “The Crawl” nails one of its highest-degree-of-difficulty attributes: It’s a Valentine’s Day episode. Unlike the other holidays on the TV season calendar, Valentine’s doesn’t have much of an emotional range—it pretty much shoves the cartoon hearts right in your face (an ugly misrepresentation of the organ that the cardiologists of Los Angeles would like to dispel). Everyone’s driven by love, lust, or loneliness in this episode, but The Crawl elevates those feelings to epic heights. Coach meets a woman whom his nearly met his entire life—and then keeps running into her; Fawn publicly declares her feelings for Schmidt, and even brings him a massive, medically inaccurate-shaped box of chocolates. But in the context of The Crawl, it doesn’t feel like these things are happening just because it’s Valentine’s Day. It feels like these things are happening because, in a world where The Crawl is real, fate and true love can be real, too.

A long-distance relationship, though? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not the biggest fan of Jess and Ryan, but I might have been if Zooey Deschanel and Julian Morris had more scenes like the one in “The Crawl” where their characters bullshit their way through the “If we were ready to live in the same place, then we should be ready to live 5,000 miles apart” conversation. The job offer from Ryan’s alma mater probably spells the end of this love story, but hearing the characters convince themselves it’s not the end is devastatingly hilarious. Maybe the whole storyline was worth it for the hitch in Deschanel’s voice when Jess learns that the trip to Wellington is a four-hour car ride after the 11-hour flight. If not, then at least we get Morris’ terribly proper “I can learn to stay up late. Maybe I should try cocaine!”

It’s a funny bit of denial at the end of an episode that’s kicked off by a grand statement of denial. But everything must come to an end, be it a romance, Cece’s silence about her Schmidt feelings, or even The Crawl itself. We surround ourselves with friends like the ones on New Girl because it’s nice to have a backpack full of beer to cushion the blow.

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Stray observations:

  • Last week brought with it the news that Damon Wayans Jr. will depart New Girl for points unknown at the end of season four. It’s sad, but I’m not sure what I’ll actually be missing: Coach, or Damon Wayans Jr.’s maniac energy in the role of Coach.
  • It appears that there’s another loft-bound bottle episode on the show’s horizon—the February 24 episode, “Spiderhunt”—which was probably necessitated by the new sets required for “The Crawl” and next week’s “Oregon.” “The Crawl” smartly manages to keep costs down in ways that aren’t too distracting, though: One of the stops on The Crawl is the gang’s regular watering hole, while another is just a neon sign hung on an existing façade.
  • Nick spent part of his post-Kai sulk getting into the comic strip Cathy: “When she’s mad, she says ‘Ack!’”
  • The contents of Winston’s backpack all serve a purpose: “Small stick—speaks for itself.”
  • I’ve only lived in Northern Illinois for four years, but I’ve never heard anyone say “Don’t write a check your body can’t find.” Thought that doesn’t mean I’m not going to make sure people say it from now on.
  • Ryan drives a hard bargain with this “Move in with me” business: “I have my own home. You live in a loft with four guys and and urinal.”

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