“Dress”

How much sitcom do we want in our sitcoms? I swear I’m not being intentionally obtuse here: When we watch half-hour comedies in 2016, how much resemblance, if any, do we want them to bear to the half-hour comedies of the past? What is the contemporary viewer’s tolerance for slapstick, humorous misunderstandings, and 22-minute subterfuge? And how reasonable is it to criticize a show for ignoring the supposed sophistication of the single-camera format and indulging in the conventions of its multi-camera relatives?

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I ask because there’s a lot of sitcom in “Dress,” a New Girl episode in which Jess tells a little white lie about Cece’s wedding dress, Schmidt, Winston, and Aly all attempt to hide secrets from their co-workers, and Nick frets over texts to Reagan. These are all standard-issue sitcom stories, and New Girl shouldn’t be dinged for telling them. It’s a sitcom behaving like a sitcom, and it just happened to pile a bunch of that behavior into a single episode. If “Dress” isn’t New Girl playing at full strength, it has more to do with dangling season-five threads than narratives that are encoded in the show’s DNA.

With the clock running down on season five, “Dress” harvests the fruit of seeds that were planted several months (the promised alterations to Cece’s eyesore of a wedding dress) and one week (Winston and Aly’s prank-marriage-flouting relationship) ago. Josh Malmuth and David Feeney’s script spins a potentially forgotten detail from “Bob & Carol & Nick & Schmidt” into a procrastination panic for Jess, reinforcing her connection to the season’s overarching plot and creating an entrance for Schmidt’s latest misuse of Associated Strategies property. The “wedding workshop” in the office’s under-used men’s room makes for some great quick-hit visual humor, and it presents “Dress” with its second hot potato: A string of misfired emails puts Kim (Gillian Vigman, returning as AssStrat’s resident ball buster) on the hunt for additional evidence that Schmidt is planning the wedding on company time. Turns out there’s a bathroom full of the stuff!

Jess-and-Schmidt has never been New Girl’s best character pairing, but at least “Dress” has them pursuing a common goal that has nothing to do with searching their wildly divergent souls. It’s all hijinks for the duo this week, rooted in the love they share for Cece. Neither wants to disappoint the bride-to-be, and that’s how Jess winds up posing as a temp, picking up Kim’s horrible children from school, and then promising spots at her new school to those same three hellions. (“Let’s just say some kids from Banyon Canyon are going to get bit.”) If “Dress” squeezed just a few more laughs out of these scenes, the sheer number of sitcomplications it introduces would be impressive: On top of the two big secrets, there’s Schmidt’s email error and Jess’ mistaken identity. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Jess and Schmidt is one equation New Girl has never quite cracked.

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Fortunately, Winston and Aly have enough sparks to go around. The show has covered office-romance territory before, so “Dress” dives directly into the evidence locker, where the only hand that isn’t full is the severed one Winston pulls off the shelf. The fallout from “A Chill Day In” adds some new shades to New Girl’s vision of the LAPD, but this is another part of “Dress” that could stand to be less busy: What begins as Winston and Aly masking their affection in bullpen chop-busting gives way to an attempted blackmail attempt and the lopsided revelation that their commanding officer also has a thing for Winston. (That sort of thing wouldn’t pass muster with Captain Raymond Holt.) The silver lining is the introduction of Greg “Dr. Rich Stephenson” Cromer as precinct nice-guy Daniels, whose smiling façade gives way to one hell of a dark side.

It’s not that there’s too much sitcom in “Dress.” There’s just not enough of the type of sitcom that New Girl is. That’s underscored by the final scenes in the loft, in which the characters leave their separate/shared corners to join in wonderment at Jess’ serendipitous solution to the episode’s main problem/MacGuffin. New Girl thrives in its ensemble scenes, even when some of the roommates are only represented by voices: “Dress” scores with the sequence of Jess, Cece, Winston, and Nick teasing Schmidt with their reactions to the inside-out gown. There’s funnier stuff in “Dress”—Nick’s creepy whisper, for instance, or Winston Bishop’s unstoppable love ballad, “Gonna Squeeze You Tight”—but nothing that earns its laughs as effortlessly.

“Return To Sender”

The surplus of plot in “Dress” is made all the more apparent by they way “Return To Sender” appears to breeze by. The second of tonight’s New Girl episodes is a more relaxed affair that puts Jess and Schmidt at separate relationship crossroads, both involving men who recently re-entered the characters’ lives: Sam for Jess and Gavin for Schmidt. It’s the first episode since David Walton’s return to find anyone genuine romance in Jess’ backslide—and even then, it takes the thought of Sam leaving to get there.

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“Return To Sender” sets itself up as a romance of the tragic sort. After getting territorial around Sam’s accomplished, attractive female friend Diane (Caitlin Fitzgerald), Jess learns that Diane holds a torch for Sam. (No word on whether or not this Sam and this Diane met in a bar.) The details of their story are like music to Jess’ ears—“Moon River,” specifically, which Cece doesn’t remember being on The Griffin’s jukebox. Diane put her feelings for Sam in a letter she sent him 10 years ago, but he never responded. Or so it seemed, until the letter came back to Diane by dint of “return to sender.” Someone with Jess’ cinematic tastes usually imagines themselves in Diane’s position, but here she is in “Return To Sender,” playing the James Marsden to Diane’s Ryan Gosling.

It’s a sharply observed setup for Jess The Hopeless Romantic, and the rest of the episode tunes in to this larger-than-life wavelength: The surreal soundtrack shoutout to Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for example, or the extended “no babe”/“yeah babe” exchange between Winston and Cece. (And that’s to say nothing of the hilarious way Winston slinks into the crowd at the party after delivering his emergency bird shirt to Sam.) Like last week’s bachelor/bachelorette two-parter, “Return To Sender” takes some risks within the New Girl framework and reaps the benefits. The threat of losing Sam again establishes genuine stakes for Jess’ latest relationship, connecting it to some fundamental aspects of Zooey Deschanel’s character. She’s selfless, and she’s sentimental, and “Return To Sender” squeezes a compelling dilemma from both of those qualities—asserting Jess’ place at the center of New Girl in the process.

“Return To Sender” is about who Jessica Day is, but it’s also about who Nick Miller is not. As mentioned at the top of the episode, he’s not Sam, a grown-up who doesn’t need to borrow someone else’s towel to take a “French whore’s bath.” He’s also not Gavin, because Nick is actually there for Schmidt when his father isn’t. Usually with a milkshake, or, failing that, some shaken milk.

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And even though the episode ends with Jess and Sam standing on firm ground, there’s the sneaky suggestion that it really ought to be Nick sitting there on that bed with her. Jess and Nick trace parallel paths through “Return To Sender,” expressing skepticism toward Diane and Gavin (before being won over by them) and putting the needs of others before their own. Though he doesn’t let himself feel this way—leading to another excellent volley of macho overcompensation from Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield—the gestures Nick extends to his best friend this week are just as tender as those that Jess makes toward her boyfriend. “Return To Sender” also alludes to Nick and Jess’ relationship while Jess and Diane are in the bathroom, with Diane stating “It’s hard when you’re friends with a guy first.”

And then there’s this, from Winston, putting a fine point on the episode’s silliest thread: “I think there are people who get bird shirts, and there are people who don’t. Jessica Day needs to be with a bird shirt person.” I know Nick’s more of a flannel shirt kind of guy, but he definitely gets bird shirts. The question is: Will he allow himself to show it?

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Stray observations

  • Who’s that girl? This week in New Girl psuedonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: A new nickname for Jess, self-bestowed in a voice that’s either a Cece impression or “a passable Sinatra”: Polka Dots.
  • Schmidt will be forever tormented by jars. First the Douchebag Jar, now the jar on Kim’s desk labeled “For Schmidt’s balls.”
  • Free song title: “Italian Driving Wine”
  • Jess’ dress alterations must be perfect: “This dress is going to be in every single picture. And people will say, ‘Cece, why do you look so bad? Also: Who is that murdered woman in the background?’ And the answer to both will be: ‘Jess.’”
  • Schmidt’s one request for the wedding-dress viewing: “Whatever you do, don’t let Nick touch it. I’m sure he’s got lasagna all under his fingernails.”
  • I’m sad that we didn’t get an answer to this, but I’m also happy to let the mystery be: “Hey Schmidt: How many robots are too many robots?”
  • Helpful driving advice from Gavin Schmidt: “As they say, ‘Wine is fine, but bourbon is shwervin’”
  • Cece gets misty while thinking about the couple in a bank commercial: “They now have the money that they need to be buried together.”
  • Schmidt regrets that he was sucked in by his dad’s promises: “He was a car wash vacuum and I was just a stray pistachio.”

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