Jessica Biel (left), Reid Scott, Zooey Deschanel
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New Girl’s third season was never going to match the delirious heights of its second. The euphoric rush of Nick and Jess’ courtship was like rocket fuel for the back end of the show’s sophomore year, and by the time the series came back for season three, it was understandably operating on fumes. The writers also had certain cliffhanger obligations to honor: Not only the decision to go “all in” on a romance between their two main characters, but also a volatile love triangle involving Schmidt, Cece, and Schmidt’s ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth. The latter storyline set the beginning of season on shaky ground, a wobbliness that was finally corrected by Damon Wayans Jr.’s return as Coach. (And that presented a whole new set of challenges, as creator Elizabeth Meriwether tells Alan Sepinwall in this interview.)

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Then again, New Girl has never had great luck with premieres: Season two finished strong, but its opening two-parter felt like Meriwether and company shaking off the cobwebs. To put together a premiere worthy of its best moments, the show had to return to the setting of its first good episode: a wedding. But “The Last Wedding” doesn’t just serve as New Girl’s best season opener to date—it’s also a well-executed reset for a sitcom that’s in a completely different place than it was in the fall of 2013.

As such, it’s fitting that one of the last wedding invitations trashed at the end of “The Last Wedding” was sent by Cece and Shivrang. This episode isn’t a “gas-leak year” moment for New Girl, but it does a lot to clear the slate for season four. Nick and Jess are comfortable with their “just friends” status, there’s a solid quintet living in the loft, and Cece left Buster in Australia. Of equal importance: Schmidt feels like Schmidt again. Last season, when the show juggled the love triangle before focusing on making Coach more than a humorous shout, Max Greenfield’s character suffered the most. He had too much heart, then he was heartless; he had his own home, then he was homeless. “The Last Wedding” begins by restoring Schmidt’s mojo, letting one of the attitudes that shaped New Girl set a wildly filthy course for the premier: No one goes home alone. In the moment, Greenfield is like Coach Taylor taking a cue from Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack: “Hey everybody! We’re all gonna get laid!

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There are a lot of unfussy, back-to-basics notes within “The Last Wedding.” Greenfield gets in an extended callback to “Eggs” with the metaphors Schmidt uses to draw Nick into a proposed four-way with two bridesmaids. (“You’re just the handsome prince covered in salty sea spray.”) Jake Johnson does some classic overreacting, receiving the news of Cece’s break-up by predicting Schmidt’s response, hilariously grunting through it all. Zooey Deschanel, meanwhile, prepares for the final wedding of the summer with the most obscene onscreen gesture of this young TV season, a horrifying image that’s also the perfect cut-to-credits punchline.

Working from a foundation of what the show knows (and what the show does well) opens the opportunity for an ingeniously structured premiere. It’s like a slasher movie minus the death and the gore (and maybe a touch more innuendo): As the night wears on, the roommates hopes for not going home alone are systematically dashed. This sets Jess up as a sort of Last Girl in a cocktail dress, the her only hope for survival pinned on a clumsy seduction of best man Ted (Reid Scott). Scott slots expertly into this goofy little world—it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe New Girl in which the Veep co-star plays either Schmidt or Nick—as does Jessica Biel, playing the cold, calculating scientist who also has her eyes on Ted. The Jess-Kat rivalry is hardly a Jess-Julia thing, but it’s a fun use of guest stars (I wouldn’t mind seeing Reid and Biel around these parts again) and a good method for showing that Nick is all the way out of Jess’ system.

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You see, the most important scene of “The Last Wedding” doesn’t involve “sex fist” or “Bidening” or Winston’s various aches and pains. No, the most important scene of “The Last Wedding” is the conversation between Nick and Jess in the men’s room, the reiteration of the only status quo New Girl ever needs to maintain. The friendship between these characters and the obvious, natural affection between Deschanel and Johnson made the Nick-Jess coupling such a no-brainer, and it’s always going to be at the core of this show. If season three did anything better than season two, it was the way it portrayed intimacy between the characters in terms of their relationships as well as the spaces they shared—and it doesn’t get more intimate than sharing a stall in the men’s room. Much as Schmidt, Winston, and Coach will forever represent New Girl’s funny bone, Jess and Nick will always be its heart—whether or not they’re “fridge people” or “toilet people.”

The big lie of this episode involves any of these characters going home alone. Four-way or no four-way, they were always going to come back to the loft with several people who were into them (if not, you know, into them.) Little moments like the episode’s stationery-destroying conclusion or the table-wide laughter throughout the wedding scenes demonstrate the warm, emotional grounding that allows “The Last Wedding” to be so profoundly crude. (Not that the episode’s all ribald sex comedy: The clicking of Nick’s tap shoes is funny throughout the episode, partially because it’s the type of sound-effect gag that snuck up on me and surprised me every time.)

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New Girl’s strength has always been in its willingness to barrel forward, to lock itself into a challenging trajectory—be it a romantic pairing, Winston’s escalating eccentricity, or invented traditions like True American or the Honey Roast—and not look back. There are aspects of “The Last Wedding” that look like the show reversing course from its second- and third-season boldness, but there’s a comparable amount of daring involved in making this type of fresh start. And it’s a promising start, too, one cleverly symbolized by a de-cluttered refrigerator door, behind which lie untold surprises ready for discovery.

Stray observations:

  • Hi everybody! Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of New Girl. How was your summer? Mine barely felt like it happened. But that’s no matter, because we’re here to discuss New Girl. Please register all praise, complaints, interpretations, and criticism in the comments—and if you want to continue the discussion started in this review, you can always track me down on Twitter.
  • “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms, nicknames, and alter egos: Sore from police training, Winston has a hot date with a couple that lives in the medicine cabinet: Mr. and Mrs. I.B. Profen.
  • Keep your eye on Schmidt after he finds out that Cece is single again. The “something weird” Cece predicts manifests in some weird, physical comedy from Max Greenfield.
  • Farewell, Buster. You were… the shape of a human that showed up on our TV screens?
  • Autumn and winter are dangerous “Are you going to gamble on the unknown contents of a bulky sweater?”
  • Kat is very accomplished: “I lost my virginity to Malcolm Gladwell.”
  • It’s a minor runner, but Coach encountering several of his previous wedding hook-ups makes for some great one-liners. I was especially fond of this one, which sets up a whole story in a few words: “I rented Best Man Holiday—you’re not in it.”
  • Jess has some unique emotional triggers: “Sometimes I cry when newscasters wish each other ‘happy birthday’ on-air.”
  • Nick goes overboard while trashing previous weddings: “Look at that, Laurie and Mitchell: They had a cash bar. I hope they can’t have kids.”

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