New Girl started out as a sitcom vehicle for Zooey Deschanel quirkiness, its early episodes retreading the same beats and relying too heavily on the charisma of its headline star to carry the lack of substance elsewhere. Nearly every new series starts out slowly, finding what works best and gradually pushing aside the elements that don't play quite as well as they read in the writer's room. The worry for Liz Meriwether's series, though, was that only one aspect of its potential seemed to be being explored: how many times in those first few weeks did Jess break out into a silly dance, or show exaggerated levels of discomfort with the idea of sex or intimacy?
Fortunately, around the halfway point, someone realised that Max Greenfield's Schmidt was stealing the show. Rather than trying to tame a character clearly on the verge of being a breakout star - he remains far and away the best developed in terms of backstory and comedic definition - the writers instead began writing the show as an ensemble. An early episode, 'Wedding', had hinted at the potential for this approach, while still not quite able to take its eye off Jess: once the other characters were given enough trust to carry storylines, with Jess as part of the group rather than front-and-centre star, New Girl quickly started turning into something special.
'See Ya', the first season finale, dropped the ball a little bit, trying to cram way too many plot developments into its twenty-minute running time. This is a series whose serialised storylines have been a weakness throughout, with many of its greatest moments coming in stand-alone episodes: recurring guest stars have produced mixed results, with Lizzy Caplan obviously at the top end of the scale, Dermot Mulroney doing good work but never quite getting off the ground, and Justin Long mostly being insufferable. Episodes like 'The Story Of The 50', 'Landlord', 'Secrets', 'Normal' and 'Kids', though, have developed the characters and their strange universe much more effortlessly within their isolated situations than any of the multi-episode arcs.
One ongoing storyline which did work was Schmidt hooking up with Cece, finding strong chemistry and emotional sincerity in the contrast between the extroverted obsessions he uses to cover his insecurities, and her being more bottled up and cynical. Unlike Jess and her short-lived romances, or even the abruptly-ended Nick and Julia, Schmidt and Cece have had time to get to know each other and come by their feelings for each other more naturally, starting with raging lust and gradually shifting into something deeper.
A shame, then, that 'See Ya' brought their pairing to an end as suddenly and unconvincingly as the programme has its other couples. It makes sense that Schmidt isn't ready to be boyfriend material just yet, much how Cece remains quite withdrawn, but his 'realisation' that she could never be happy with a man like him came out of nowhere and wasn't back up by anything we've seen in their interactions so far. Him White Fanging her, and her recognising it, was very funny, though - don't treat your lady like a woof, Schmidt. If it was just an excuse to surrender to his nerves about going steady, just as Nick went rampantly irrational at the prospect of eggshell wallpaper, it wasn't hinted at strongly enough to come through.
Nick's story dealt with a similar situation, as he went nuts in trying to rationalise moving in with old flame Caroline (who had messed him around before) and ended up stranding himself and the gang out in the desert. This might have been decent material for a longer story, where we see Nick gradually reacquainting with Caroline and spending some time together before pondering moving in, but what should have taken place over at least a third of the season was instead confined to two episodes.
Nick's loneliness had been long established, but his return to Caroline has almost entirely happened over the previous two episodes: we had Nick getting back together with her and moving out of the loft last week, and this week deciding it was all a bad idea and moving back. 'See Ya' felt like it would have been better served as the premiere to next season, with this year's finale ending on last week's cliffhanger. Nick's always funny when his curmudgeonly side is overwhelming his attempts at optimism and self-improvement (see 'Fancy Man Part II'), but this story was handled far too quickly for there to be any sense he might actually move out. It would also have been wiser to cut out the scant material about weird new roommate / troubadour, Neil, moving in, as the character barely featured and left something of a plothole as to what happened to him at the end. Was he really just kicked out of his room, which he'd presumably signed a lease for, without a word of protest?
Fortunately, the episode had enough fun moments to remind us how far the series has evolved since its unsteady beginnings. (The opposite to 2 Broke Girls, a series which started with very prominent strengths and weaknesses but ended up being almost entirely dominated by the latter). after starting as something of a non-entity, Winston and his outbursts have developed into a secret weapon for the series: he's the straight man most of the time, but prone to exploding when put out of his comfort zone, as when stranded in the desert and afraid of the dark. It's a more versatile comic persona than some of the others that have been explored for him over the course of the series (he's good with children! He's a failed basketball player!) and puts him in good stead to blossom next season as Nick and Schmidt have done over the past ten weeks.
It's also interesting to see how Jess has arguably become the most grounded character on a sitcom which initially revolved entirely around her quirks. Deschanel is still doing her adorkable schtick, but it's played softer and warmer than it was early in the season. She gets plenty of laughs of her own, but works best as a wide-eyed foil for the louder personalities surrounding her. The series finds its heart in her, and while that's the classic cliché for a lead female character in a sitcom, she's determined and dynamic enough - in her soft-spoken way - for it to work in her favour as part of the ensemble.
The scene in this episode where the gang were just hanging out in the desert, making fun of Nick and dancing under the night sky, was a perfect cap for the season in terms of showing how much chemistry has developed between these characters and the individual elements they each bring to make the formula work. New Girl has evolved into a loony little joy and one of my top top three new series for this year, the others being the utterly bonkers Suburgatory and Lena Dunham's dryly observed Girls. For next season, fingers crossed for fewer short-term romances, a smaller number of better-developed story arcs, and Winston's continued growth into a real boy. For now, New Girl may be signing off on a disappointing note, but that's only a credit to how far it has come.
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