“New Girl,” Zooey Deschanel’s zany comedy originally titled “Three Guys, a Girl and a Massive Los Angeles Apartment” (title unconfirmed), is now halfway through a third season that’s been a mixed bag, though the issues encountered don’t indicate danger. They’re actually pretty encouraging. I’ll be the first to admit at least half of the season’s first 10 episodes were below the show’s standard, but with Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Deschanel) finally committing to an actual relationship, a new character being thrown into the mix and Winston (Lamorne Morris) finally being integrated into the group’s stories, “New Girl” has seen more than its fair share of changes in 2013. Other than a moderate case of whiplash brought on by the show’s episode-by-episode swings in comedic content, the gang’s refusal to fall prey to sitcom stereotypes is admirable. It’s actually choosing to have its characters grow and change, which could be quite beneficial for the second half of season three — and beyond.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of “New Girl” has been answering the “will they or won’t they?” question of Nick and Jess. Watching the non-couple act couple-y for two full seasons without consummating the relationship became an excruciating experience to sit through, even when the writers wisely threw us a bone by letting the other couple-in-waiting, Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Cece (Hannah Simone), get together in highly enjoyable secrecy. Their relationship alleviated the pressure for Nick and Jess to get together while providing Greenfield the chance to steal our hearts (anyone who says Schmidt isn’t the best character on “New Girl” is crazy, lying or “True American”-level drunk).
So what was to come of Nick and Jess’ decision to go “all in,” the apt title of season three’s opening episode? In the olden days of sitcoms, marriage or, hell, commitment between main characters often signified the death of a show. Sam and Diane set the standard while Ross and Rachel put the final nail in the coffin. After growing up on two classic sitcoms built around the same premise, two generations of audiences have grown weary of waiting. Modern writers have been forced to come up with new ways of maintaining tension (see the Ted/Robin relationship on “How I Met Your Mother” for exhibit A).
The solution so far on “New Girl” has been to let the characters dictate the terms. In “The Box,” Nick suddenly comes into a substantial amount of money from his recently deceased father. Always the poor bartender, Nick goes a little cuckoo with cash and spends it aimlessly, worrying Jess, a responsible, educated adult who faced her own financial issues in a more direct fashion last season. She took odd jobs (shot girl, haunted house zombie) to the amusement of us all, but for her own betterment.
So when Nick decides to have a portrait painted of himself rather than pay dozens of overdue bills, the couple comes to its first real crisis. The episode itself is a bit messy (Schmidt’s B story is never resolved), but Nick and Jess come through clean as a whistle. They understand each other, even when they’re still trying to figure out the new rules of their relationship. “New Girl” creator Elizabeth Meriweather and her writing staff went all in with their new pairing, throwing in whatever they could to keep the show fresh and their love birds together.
That includes adding a new cast member — Damon Wayans Jr., who appeared in the pilot episode before choosing to work on “Happy Endings” instead. Typically, adding a new cast member to a successful show is a sign of desperation in the writers’ room. They’ve exhausted the drama between existing characters and look to new ones to infuse new life into the show (or maybe I’m just haunted by memories of “The O.C.” season two).
Even if they are desperate — and they very well could be — Coach has proven a welcome addition to the gang and will remain one for the foreseeable future after recently signing for the rest of the third season. Fox has been cleverly poaching “Happy Endings” vets for its existing shows, including Adam Pally on “The Mindy Project” and now Wayans Jr. for “New Girl,” and frankly, I wouldn’t mind if they snagged a few more, perhaps allowing Eliza Coupe to reprise her “Happy Endings” romance with Wayans Jr. as a new love interest for Coach. A traditional scenario makes Coach’s return seem desperate. Watching it happen — even without a “Happy Endings” crossover — just feels right.
For many viewers, though, Coach’s arrival meant uncertainty for Winston’s future. Winston, played better and better with each passing week by Lamorne Morris, has still always been the weak spot in an otherwise stellar cast of characters, the roommate the show’s had the least sense of how to use. Wayans’ return and the unfortunate TV trend of the “one black friend” in a group of character led some viewers to wonder if the new addition would also become a replacement. But at least for now, there’s been no discussion of ditching Winston. Coach’s arrival has actually benefited Winston, allowing the writers to bring him into more group scenarios instead of burdening him with the dreaded B story he’s been trying to carry for too long. Winston is a fine supporting player, but again and again he was forced to shoulder entire plot lines while Nick and Jess flirted and Schmidt and Cece fought. This year has seen him hit rock bottom with a particularly rough episode spent watching Winston find a sexual partner… for his cat.
“New Girl” works much better under the “Friends” rule: everything is funnier when the whole cast is together. The best episodes of the last great NBC sitcom are the ones where each friend could interact with any of the other six — “The One With the Embryos.” “The One Where Everybody Finds Out,” any of the holiday episodes. “New Girl” functions best under the same strategy, but Winston became the odd man out with two relationships in full swing. With a sixth (and, sadly for Winston, another male) wheel added in Coach, he’s suddenly part of the group again, joining the fellas on an entertaining night out to a strip club and hanging with Jess and Cece during Thanksgiving as one of the female “foragers.”
Taking up the B story slack for Winston has been Max Greenfield’s insta-classic sitcom character. Schmidt moved quickly from supporting player to the star attraction during the first two seasons of “New Girl,” and season three has presented him with even more responsibility by letting him carry stories all by himself. While he’s still better when playing off Jake Johnson, Greenfield as Schmidt can handle the load better than Morris as Winston, perhaps because he’s been handed heartbreak to deal with. Even when the stories don’t really work — like with “The Box,” the aforementioned episode with Schmidt’s unfinished plot — they’re still funny (rather than disturbing and sad). Hopefully they’ll find better ways to keep the group together or at least tighten things up, but for now they’ve found the right combination of character dynamics.
None of this is to say the show couldn’t still go off the rails. Nick and Jess could split up in episode 11. Damon Wayans Jr. could find a better gig and bow out of any upcoming seasons. Winston could go back to handling his own strange storylines. Schmidt could… well, nothing, Schmidt will always be great, the constant for a show both sporadically hilarious and fueled by spontaneity. Here’s hoping the foundation set in these first 10 episodes holds up an exquisitely decorated, riotously pleasurable, massive apartment for all five Los Angelenos to thrive in for years to come — or at least a few more games of “True American.”