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When New Girl premiered, the show was Zooey Deschanel. It was positioned as a star vehicle for the actor, and her character, Jessica Day, certainly seemed informed by the type of spirited, unconventional gal Deschanel played in the film that garnered her largest big-screen audience, (500) Days Of Summer. Early episodes colored in the outlines of Jess’ new roommates, but the freshly single, idiosyncratic schoolteacher remained the primary focus: She was bad in bed, she formed a handbell choir, she invited her best friend Cece to crash at the loft. Stronger episodes demonstrated that New Girl could be about more than just Jess; but to conceive of a New Girl without Jess was just preposterous. This was an ensemble show in the making, but Deschanel was the linchpin of that ensemble.

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“Jury Duty” isn’t the first episode of New Girl to suggest that Jess is the glue, epoxy, spackle, and tape that keeps the walls from crumbling in apartment 4D. But it is the one that makes that sentiment count the most—before sequestering that adhesive compound in a mediocre hotel with a pool. Before sending its star off on her maternity leave, New Girl delivers a fitting, funny tribute to her character. Jess isn’t the entire show anymore, but she sure as hell can’t be replaced by a bowl of advice.

Jess is, naturally, the only person in America who’s eager to perform her civic duty in a court of law. Or so it seems, until she meets a handsome stranger played by John Cho, who shares with Jess a) a passion for the American legal system, and b) his phone number. And she probably would’ve nailed their coffee-stand meet-cute, too, if it weren’t for her friends, who are embroiled in a rat king of roommate squabbles involving tidiness, tacky wall art, and warmed-over personal anecdotes. Playing referee by proxy, Jess’ phone calls to the loft sound like a harried mother negotiating with kids well before another juror mistakes them for such.

The scene in 4D is enough to make someone wish for a month-long respite. To make sure that serving on a capital case doesn’t look like too much of a vacation, Nina Pedrad and Josh Malmuth’s script puts jury duty in opposition with another Jessica Day dream come true: A job as acting middle school principal. Dr. Foster’s emergency phone call is almost a complication too far, if it weren’t a clever way of raising the stakes in Jess’ storyline. Jury duty remains an honor to her, but now it’s an inconvenience as well—one that’s actively impeding her professional aspirations. That leads to Jess’ attempts to take the Nick Miller way out, in which “Jury Duty” builds some additional tension between Deschanel and Cho, as Cho’s attorney character enunciates his way into Jess’ heart.

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This isn’t an episode that plays coy: Things literally start falling apart while Jess is out of the loft; Nick and Cece later make it plain that they’re bickering because each is envious of the other’s relationship with Schmidt. “Jury Duty” even puts a fine point on why the clash between Nick and Cece throws off such brilliant sparks: They’re the same person. They’re slovenly and stubborn, they work at the same bar, and they harbor an inexplicable, undeniable affection for a man who pays extra rent money to store additional hygiene products in the bathroom. “Jury Duty” goes so far as to put a price tag on that quintessentially Schmidt convenience: $11.97.

Though the roommates reach out for help from Jess throughout “Jury Duty,” the episode is a reminder that they can fend for themselves—at least in terms of getting laughs. Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, and Hannah Simone form a tight little comedic unit, and almost every pairing within that unit gets a chance to shine tonight. (I’m most partial to Nick winding up in a hug with Cece and Schmidt, who are mid-makeout.) In an episode that features a background appearance from the Douchebag Jar, a new artifact is introduced to the lore of the loft: a binding roommate agreement stuffed with clauses pertaining to condoms in the kitchen, shower caddies, and Nick’s shoddy electrical work. (And those are just the ones we hear about.) The looser, playful vibe evident in season five’s first two episodes is in effect here as well, as Nick and Winston go on an extended run of trying and failing to finish the other’s [sandwiches], and Jake Johnson winds his way through a tortured and inarticulate metaphor about giving a squirrel a key to the park. (Replies Schmidt: “You’re dropping all your articles! You’re losing verbs.”)

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Such flagrant disrespect for grammar wouldn’t fly if Jess were around. But she’s not. As a preview of what New Girl looks like with a Zooey Deschanel-shaped hole at its center, “Jury Duty” is heartening stuff. If the roommates resort to tearing up drywall when Jess is only gone for an afternoon, imagine the chaos that ensues when she’s gone for a month—a period of time they all liken to a prison sentence. (But it’ll be a clean chaos, now that Cece knows she’s a “hot slob.”) In defining itself by Jess’ absence, “Jury Duty” winds up celebrating her presence. And thanks to episodes like these, the show that filled in around that presence is worth celebrating, too.

Stray observations

  • “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: No, Nick’s name isn’t Nicole. No, it isn’t Nick Hole either. Hey. Hey. Hey! C’mon. C’mon, guys—stop it. I’m not hitting myself. You’re making me hit myself. That’s it: I’m telling Jess!
  • The A.V. Club’s True Tales Of Roommate Terror: I once roomed with a guy whose all-consuming love of poker was his lone personality trait, so I bought him a Dogs Playing Poker poster for Christmas. A few months later, when I went into his room to recover a bag of tortilla chips he’d swiped from the pantry, I spied the Dogs Player Poker poster all crumpled and creased on the floor of his open closet. Remember kids: Posters are for walls, not for closet floors!
  • This line would’ve totally sold New Girl’s Dog Playing Poker poster if Winston was talking on a landline: “Hey Jess, it’s your friend Winston Bishop. Isn’t it great how a frame can elevate already great art?”
  • The paramedic’s description of Dr. Foster’s broken hip is delightfully horrifying: “A skin bag full of hip shards.”
  • Another casually terrifying laugh from “Jury Duty”: “Have you ever heard a Russian child scream?” “All the time in my Putin nightmare.”
  • Nick will not abide by the luxurious amenities of the modern college dorm: “Those horny texters live like kings.”
  • Nick Miller in a nutshell, part 97 in an continuing series: “I like ’em crazier and sexually very prude.”

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