New Girl has been on a nostalgic tear in recent weeks, calling back to past jokes and old storylines at least once or twice an episode. They’re not quite Arrested Development-level Easter eggs—it’s much more akin to a group of friends reminiscing about days gone by. In “The Apartment” alone, there’s a reference to Schmidt’s “broken penis” and brief cameos by the models who used to live with Cece. There’s also a flashback to the very start of the series, depicting what happened between Jess catching Spencer in the act and Jess meeting Nick, Schmidt, and Coach.
Why is this happening now? A week ago, I would’ve said it’s because New Girl has reached a stage in its life where it can afford to reflect, its 100-plus episodes marking the show as an elder statesman among single-camera network sitcoms—the longest ongoing run of any single-cam comedy outside of the ABC stable. But “The Apartment” brings New Girl’s wistful chickens to roost—in a nest made out of Cece’s personal effects.
Things are changing on New Girl, in one of the few meaningful ways a show like this can represent change. Character development is one thing, but a 20-episodes-a-year comedy needs a baseline to come back to every week (and to keep the viewers coming back, too). Lasting alterations are best handled through numbers: Subtract (with a character’s death or departure), add (with a birth), or, like New Girl, make two characters into one. Cece is getting married to Schmidt, and that’s going to change things. In the simplest of terms, change can very scary, as illustrated by Cece’s inability to part with any memento from her single life. But like Schmidt says at the end of the episode, they can be scared together. And happy together. And “really annoyed together, knowing that we’re living with three other people and a cat. Also, I think there’s another cat.”
“The Apartment” is a funny episode, in that it has a lot of big laughs, but also in the way it takes a grab bag of plot elements—”a flasher at the bar,” “Bizarro Winston,” “What if Jess’ new boss was Jessie Spano?”—and builds a significant turning point out of them. The episode putters for a few scenes, but picks up a bunch of speed while the guys are at the bar and the ladies are getting drunk, and it rides that energy into a pair of emotionally satisfying conclusions. Not just for Cece, but for her best friend, too.
Continuing recent trends, the episode’s guest star is also a callback, albeit one with a shorter tail: You might remember “Becky Cavatappi” as a name spat out and spat upon during Dr. Foster’s emergency phone call to Jess during “Jury Duty.” The school district’s surgically enhanced pick for new Coolidge Middle School principal is played here by Elizabeth Berkley, who you might remember as someone who was so excited, so excited, so excited, so… scared. I’m no great fan of Saved By The Bell, so I don’t feel one way or another about this bit of stunt casting—but Berkley does well enough as Jess’ temporary nemesis. Her Becky is so cartoonishly lazy and self-involved that there’s only one way for “The Apartment” to end: With Jess putting as much distance between herself and those fake zoomers as possible, dropping the most Jessica Day of enraged-but-humane kiss offs in the process: “I hope you have a minor career setback, learn from it, relocate, and ultimately have a very nice life, Becky!”
The Becky stuff makes good use of pipe that was laid in “Jury Duty,” but it also posts a big question mark over the remainder of season five. But like Schmidt, Jess gets to approach that question mark (and plunge a new knife into the wall) together with Cece. The most unexpected change of “The Apartment” winds up impacting New Girl’s main character, but most of the episode sidelines Jess, Nick, and Schmidt to pay attention to big transitions for Cece and Winston, who are struggling with letting go. That’s important for Cece’s emotional arc, but it also means something to New Girl as a whole: If she’s going to be a full-time resident of the loft, she needs to stand on equal footing with her four roommates, as capable of carrying a storyline as anyone else. I’m not exactly sure if I could articulate the characteristics of a “Cece episode” of New Girl, but exploring pre-wedding jitters from her perspective—as “The Apartment” does—is one way to get there.
I’m more confident in identifying a Winston episode—and between Veep’s Sam Richardson showing up to play a parallel universe Winston, the hijinks that ensue at the bar, the news that Ferguson has a foster sibling, and the denouement that hinges on a Pure Moods CD, “The Apartment” is definitely a Winston episode. Richardson dials into Winston’s well-meaning-weirdo frequency from his very first scene, and he and Lamorne Morris find a number of ways to twist that synchronicity for laughs: The new-age-compilation-CD celebration of their first meeting, the overlapping dialogue of their interview with Nick, the mounting frustration of the “Count to 3” gag after the flasher escapes. Like Principal Cavatappi, Dunston is best a single-use guest character, one that leaves his mark and doesn’t overstay his welcome. He’s also a clever manifestation of what Winston’s going through in “The Apartment”: In an attempt to get over Aly, Winston buries himself in work, finding a worse version of himself in the process—one who brews his own coffee and drinks it out of a sandwich bag.
“The Apartment” isn’t afraid to mount a dumb visual non sequitur like Dunston’s Ziploc java, nor is it afraid to take a big leap like Cece’s move or Jess’ resignation—and I really admire that. New Girl is projecting confidence in its advancing age.
- Hello, friends. Are you like me? Have years of watching basic cable in the 1990s left you unable to hear the words “Pure Moods” without also hearing the chants from Enigma’s “Return To Innocence”? It is the perfect soundtrack for our way of life, after all.
- “The Apartment” and “Spiderhunt” both hit on a weird discovery about Jake Johnson: Stick him behind a counter for an entire episode, and he spins nonstop comic gold. His “It used to be more interactive” pantomime is a feat of confined physical comedy, and the fact that there’s a physical barrier between Nick and Winston and Schmidt makes the “Oh, it’s just me who’s been flashed about 300 times?” bit so much funnier.
- In a coincidence of TV trivia, Elizabeth Berkley comes to Coolidge shortly after New Girl’s own Tori Scott took off.
- Winston asks: “Would you consider us adorable?” Nick responds: “No, we’re adult men. We’re cute.”
- Principal Cavatappi has a profound effect on Jess’ personal philosophy: “You know what they say: Your life is just weeks, and then you die!”
- Among the contents of the box Aly gives to Winston, a list I have to imagine was partially ad libbed by Nasim Pedrad: “Key chain fart marker,” “A signed copy of a Paul Reiser biography,” “baby carrot thumb drive,” “a ticket stub from Urinetown—when did you even see that?”
- Usually, Jess doesn’t take leaps: “I take small, planned steps like an arthritic dog.”
- Jess is still catching up on everything she missed: “I’m gone for two months and all of a sudden Winston’s a bridesmaid?”