“Winston’s Birthday” doesn’t have to be as good as it is. And it is good—in a season that continually moved the high watermark for New Girl, tonight’s episode comes in at a level above them all. Coming off a surprisingly satisfying flashback episode (a double surprise, as it’s the half-hour that was added to the production order after Fox asked the producers for one more season-two installment) and heading into a big-event finale, this is where the series could’ve cooled its heels for a bit. Instead, “Winston’s Birthday Party” comes in as the prize episode of a spectacular sophomore season (my pick for the best among live-action network comedies—the only real competition among all network comedies being Bob’s Burgers), one that demonstrates, through its pace and its quips, the growth the series has made since a promising-but-wobbly pilot.
In terms of character development, Jess has made the greatest leap from pilot to “Winston’s Birthday.” The Jess Day we met in that first episode was scrambled—from a writing standpoint and on a personal level. The version of the character seen tonight is in charge and in control, even if she falls short of being able to corral her rowdy students. That’s a good look on the character, the show, and Zooey Deschanel, and I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with a Jess who recognizes when it’s her turn to call the shots.
It’s crucial to “Winston’s Birthday” that she keep her head down over the course of the day from hell—it gives the episode a fantastic sense of propulsion. One of my favorite episodes of any TV show is 30 Rock’s “Blood Drive,” the first episode of that series possessed by the thrilling pace of future 30 Rock installments and a spiritual predecessor to “Winston’s Birthday.” In both episodes, the protagonist of the show just wants to hang onto the beam of sunlight shining through the parade-ruining storm clouds—Jess’ equivalent to Liz Lemon’s blood-drive sugar cookie is the afterglow of her night with Nick. As anti-Liz Lemon as that motivation may be, it is what powers Jess through the gauntlet of an early-arriving dad, flying paper, over-accommodating administrative staff, and henna-bearded brides-to-be. The title of the episode may be “Winston’s Birthday,” but it was supposed to be Jess Day Day, and her verve crackles through every frame of the episode.
That’s particularly helpful to the episode because “Winston’s Birthday” starts in a place that has tripped up New Girl before: As the episode opens, the main characters are mostly isolated from one another. Jess is heading to the new school, Nick’s left with Bob, Schmidt’s still in bed with Elizabeth, Winston’s throwing a party of one, and Cece’s alone in a crowd of family. These are all signs pointing to an episode that wants us to care about everything but the aspects of New Girl we typically care about: the rapport between the main characters.
Yet the majority of the episode finds something to enjoy in all of its character pairings—especially those that aren’t as established as those among the core quintet. In some cases, that dynamic is fresh out of the box: There’s such a great, weird energy to Deschanel’s scenes with Curtis Armstrong that a semi-regular role for Dr. Foster is at the top of my wish list for New Girl, season three. Elsewhere, Merritt Wever continues her headlong dive into the role as Max Greenfield’s ideal foil, her Elizabeth snatching that title from its previous holders, Cece and Hannah Simone. But I’m most impressed by how Rob Reiner already seems like a part of this world in only his second New Girl appearance. As a thematic and physical presence, Bob may as well have been here for the entire second season. If we believe his dire warning to Nick—“You’re not your father, your me”—he’s been in all 48 episodes of the series; the way Bob’s man-of-a-certain-age-and-sandwich-making-specifications vibe interlocks with Nick’s, I’m inclined to believe it. Just watch how in-sync Reiner and Jake Johnson are in their crosstalk on the roof, a melding of “Winston’s Birthday’s” winningest qualities in one torrent of mumbling about facial stubble.
New Girl heads into its second-season finale drifting off two very, very funny episodes. I’m inclined to take “Winston’s Birthday” as the laugh-by-laugh winner over “Virgins,” for reasons beyond my own love of fast-paced hijinks and well-deployed quips. This half-hour is packed with great jokes of all kinds, like the episode’s other 30 Rock-esque moment—the pop to Jess’ previous suitor being terrorized by Shriners and their tiny cars—to the highly GIF-able “Meat meat meat” patter from Reiner. This is how a show ought to be working near the end of its second season: the cast, the script, the direction, the editing, the casting, and everything else all locked in and working to full capacity.
At that goes for the component of the show that people have been complaining about all season long, too. As much as this has been The Year of Nick Miller, it’s also been the year of “Where’s Winston?” I’m steadfast in my belief that season two of New Girl has used the character well, but I’m in the minority, judging by what I read on the Internet and elsewhere. The show wasn’t dealt the best hand when Happy Endings was renewed for its second season, but more than a year has passed since Lamorne Morris moved into the loft. Ostensibly, Winston should be starring in more A-stories and been developed into a deeper character on par with Jess, Nick, and Schmidt, but there just hasn’t been room for it yet.
“Winston’s Birthday” slyly acknowledges that fact by actively excluding its titular character at every turn. During my Walkthrough interview with New Girl’s showrunners (coming soon—like Thursday!), I learned that this episode was originally conceived with the opposite tact in mind, focusing instead on a day in the life of Winston. I’d still love to see that episode at some point in the show’s run, but Elizabeth Meriwether, Brett Baer, Dave Finkel (the last two of whom receive the enviable “written by” credit for “Winston’s Birthday”), and crew made the right choice on flipping and reversing that initial pitch: It’s much, much funnier to see Winston, the Lost Boy of New Girl, get consistently forgotten on the one day that should be all about him. I couldn’t get an official count, but I’m also fairly certain that no one refers to him by his real first name during this episode.
The meta-joke of “Winston’s Birthday” then becomes “How many times can Lamorne Morris go from exultation to frustration in the space of a few seconds?”—the answer being several, all the way through the end of the episode, when he finally gets what he’s wanted this whole time (and what he’s been denied, for one reason or another, by season two): the attention of his friends, who “remembered” how much a night of stargazing on the roof and a second meal of eggs, grapefruit, and pie would cheer up their birthday buddy. It falls short of Abed preparing to deliver a baby in the background of Community’s “The Psychology Of Letting Go,” but there’s an enjoyable shadow episode to be made from what we don’t see in “Winston’s Birthday.”
And that’s as good a sign as any of this episode’s quality. “Winston’s Birthday” ends up as a “leave ’em wanting more” endeavor, ironic given its speed and the density of its laughlines. That’s as sure a sign as New Girl’s continuing evolution as Jess standing atop a desk and delivering a soul-stirring address to the pint-sized troops.
- “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms: Happy birthday, Winston! For one week only, you’re Wilson. Don’t worry, your real name isn’t going to waste, though: Yolanda Winston makes a comeback as Nick’s cover name for Jess.
- It should also be noted that “Winston’s Birthday” knows where to ease off the throttle, too: There’s a good push-pull in the scenes between Bob and Nick, and when Jess arrives back at the loft, it eases off even further to get at Nick’s season-long quest for a father figure.
- The off-kilter grammar of this question from Jess to Cece sells the joke—and glosses right over the insenstivity of it all: “Burkas isn’t you guys, is it?”
- Shivrang arrives to assist his fiancée, on instructions from Jess: “She told me to look out for the girl who looks like Mandy Patinkin.”
- A good episode for jokes overall, especially those given to the non-regulars. For example, Elizabeth to her dull, dull date: “Now that your mom’s dead, do you do all the landlording yourself?”
- And since it was such a rough day for him, let’s let the birthday boy close things out: “You know how much I love to explore space and time, man!”