“New Girl” is back! Tonight marks the Season 5 return of Jess, Nick, Winston, CeCe and, of course, Schmidt; a return that was delayed until midseason for the first time in show history. While not a cause for alarm — the start date was chosen to give “New Girl” an uninterrupted run from January through May — the ratings have been dipping a bit over the past two seasons. The FOX staple averaged more than 4.3 million viewers a night in Season 3, which was already a drop from Season 2 before last year ended up with just over 2.7 million viewers per episode. Season 5’s pickup guarantees “New Girl” will hit its 100th episode, a less important benchmark than when syndication was the best way to watch reruns, but still a valued measure of success by network standards.
That being said, we’re not here to talk about whether or not “New Girl” is valuable enough to FOX to merit a Season 6. But we do want to talk about its future. After watching the first two episodes of Season 5, it’s safe to say the series remains in fine form. While it’s had its ups (Coach!) and downs (Nick and Jess’s relationship) over the years, “New Girl” has been a reliable bit of fun, especially when it gives Schmidt (Max Greenfield) the spotlight. This year is set up to do just that, as he and Cece (Hannah Simone) prepare for their wedding. The premiere focuses on kicking off those festivities via an elaborate engagement party in which Schmidt must win over Cece’s disapproving mother, Nick tries to prove himself a worthy best man and Jess, well, Jess is Jess, in all her slapsticky, Lucille Ball-inspired goodness.
What also seems evident is that “fine” is about as far as “New Girl” is ever going to get. It’s certainly above average in terms of modern sitcoms, but it’s far from the glory of classics like “Friends,” “Cheers” or other rom-com, ensemble-driven series. And it’s not going to get there. That doesn’t mean it needs to be canceled, but the onscreen talent seems to be growing faster than the show itself. Sitcoms like this succeed because the actors involved are able to transcend the formulaic material deliberately provided for them, but, in a best case scenario, the characters continue to evolve even when their situations do not. Has that been happening on “New Girl”? Or are these actors merely breathing extra life into enjoyable if stagnant characters? Let’s break it down and find out.
Jess (Zooey Deschanel)
Character’s Progress: Jess is the kind of person you don’t want to change. You just want her to succeed. She’s sweet to the point of being naive. She’s lovable to the point of being annoying. She’s funny to the point of being punny. The problem, then, is that Jess’ happiness is staring her right in the face every episode: She needs to get together with Nick. We all know it’s coming (barring some dramatic “Mindy Project”-like twist, which showed some real daring after moving to Hulu), even though it already happened and didn’t work out. They’re set up to be the Ross and Rachel of “New Girl.” But what made Ross and Rachel work was a) Ross’s penchant for marrying the wrong woman, which kept them apart and sent Ross on a wild, humorous identity spiral for at least two seasons, and b) the concept of two destined lovers separated for nearly a decade hadn’t been exhausted in the sitcom universe just yet. Now, in the binge-happy world of 2016, we’re impatient. Since her job seems both secure and fulfilling, Jess just needs to figure things out with Nick for her happy ending to become a reality. She was never set up to go on a Rachel-esque life-changing arc from spoiled daddy’s girl to independent business woman. Her growth isn’t in question, but watching her repeatedly denied what she wants is becoming a bit tired.
Actor’s Progress: Deschanel entered into “New Girl” as the biggest draw. After becoming a generation’s manic pixie dream girl thanks to films like “(500) Days of Summer” and “Elf,” her first TV project was a hot commodity in 2011. The demands of a 22-episode broadcast schedule have kept her pretty much glued to this show, with time for only a handful of supporting roles on the side, so she may actually be worse off after “New Girl” wraps. It’s not exactly a ratings dynamo, though she certainly has enough of a fan base to land another starring role on TV, or at least a valued supporting role in something more serious. “New Girl” may be what she’s remembered for down the line, but Deschanel has proven she’s capable of more.
Nick (Jake Johnson)
Character’s Progress: Though there have been multiple attempts to push Nick forward over the years, the bartender-turned-bar owner remains very much the same man-boy we met in Episode 1. Sure, he’s had a few serious relationships, but his immaturity is so engrained with his sense of self (let alone his sense of humor) that separating the two feels like an impossibility at this point. In the second episode of Season 5, he’s called on to discipline his employees as the new owner of the bar. It goes about as well as can be expected, with Nick nonsensically mumbling demands at Cece and the other waiters until he finally learns how to…speak normally. While yes, that’s technically a sign of growth, it was only one episode prior that he was picking up the wrong woman from the airport, driving her across Los Angeles and then maybe falling in love with her, despite the language barrier? There’s no reason to believe such ridiculous shenanigans won’t continue. It’s not that we don’t want them to, but they may be Nick’s limit as a character: funny, but circular.
Actor’s Progress: Johnson has arguably benefitted the most from “New Girl,” grabbing a ton of supporting roles and a few starring turns in hugely successful films following his big break in the Fox comedy. “Let’s Be Cops” proved he’s capable of carrying a mid-budget studio comedy, and he was probably the best part of “Jurassic World.” Beyond other key comedic roles in “21 Jump Street” and “Neighbors,” Johnson has shown some dramatic chops in indies like “Safety Not Guaranteed” (which landed him his job in “Jurassic World,” thanks to his connection with director Colin Trevorrow) and “Drinking Buddies.” He’s clearly got big things ahead of him, no matter when or how “New Girl” ends.
Cece (Hannah Simone)
Character’s Progress: Despite starting as some sort of fifth wheel to the four core roommates, Cece has evolved considerably over the course of four seasons. Most notably, she’s been forced to address the limitations of her time-sensitive modeling career and buck familial obligations to follow her heart by not accepting an arranged marriage in Season 3. She’s also made up half of the best couple on the show, a title she’s earned alongside Schmidt because of her aforementioned growth. In the Season 5 premiere, she again is challenged by her mother regarding her choice in men, and again Cece rises to the challenge. Though she never quite grabs the spotlight like her costars, Cece has proven to be one of the most crucial elements to “New Girl’s” success.
Actor’s Progress: Though she’s certainly landed most of her screen credits post-“New Girl,” Simone hasn’t exactly lit the entertainment world on fire. Her biggest part was in Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake, and I don’t remember who she played despite being an avid fan of “New Girl” and watching “Oldboy” on opening night. (To be fair, I’m actively trying to repress that experience.) She has no good reason to want to move on, unless she’s being typecast and feels like she needs to move out of Cece’s shadow (which seems doubtful).
Winston (Lamorne Morris)
Character’s Progress: Ah, Winston. The Justin Bieber of “New Girl.” You either love him or you hate him. Fans cite his unpredictability as charm, noting how Winston is both fiercely loyal and always up to zany adventures like puzzling or taking daily selfies with his cat. Haters point to the very same activities as the nonsensical time-fillers they are, noting (accurately) how Winston is merely a wild card there to serve any random duties that don’t fit the more established identities of the show’s other characters. Sometimes he slides into the B-story, but usually he’s the C-story, which makes his progress all the more questionable — especially when his romantic endeavors aren’t given nearly equal weight compared to his friends’, leaving his professional life the only measurable guideline of progress. Yes, he’s a cop now. But that’s had little impact on “New Girl” as a whole.
Actor’s Progress: Even if your respect for Winston is nonexistent, everyone should be impressed by Lamorne Morris — especially, in fact, if you’re not a fan of his character. The fourth roommate (both in order of importance and recent arrivals) has been saddled with some thankless work, but Morris has always gone the extra mile to make Winston…unique. He’s energetic, lovable and capable of handling more than just goofy gags. He’s seen an increase in demand since “New Girl” premiered, but his biggest role is due out this year in the third “Barbershop” film, “The Next Cut.” He may not be the next breakout comedic lead, but he certainly deserves better than what he’s working with on “New Girl.”
Schmidt (Max Greenfield)
Character’s Progress: It’s no coincidence Schmidt was saved for last on this list, just as it’s no secret I’m a massive fan of both character and actor. Max Greenfield as Schmidt is the most perfect pairing of part and player on the show and the combination is quite possibly among the greatest in sitcom history. He’s the only aspect of “New Girl” I’d feel comfortable comparing to George and Elaine on “Seinfeld,” Woody and Sam on “Cheers” or any of the “Friends.” Certainly a big chunk of that is the way Schmidt has been written. He’s gone to extremes equaling his upper and lower vocal limits. (Schmidt can be a silk-sounding soft talker and a high-pitched howler, one often within seconds of the other.) Schmidt has played the lady killer, lovelorn loser, badass businessman, eager entrepreneur and everything in between. He’s explored the depths of depression and the highs of utter ecstasy. I’d be curious to know exactly when creator Elizabeth Meriweather knew she’d struck gold with this character, but she’s never not pushed him to his maximum potential.
Actor’s Progress: The same could be said for Greenfield. He is Schmidt, but he’s shown versatility in other parts outside of “New Girl.” Perhaps his most important role that doesn’t involve dropping dough in a “douchebag” jar will drop in 2016, when he stars opposite Sally Field in last year’s SXSW entry “Hello, My Name is Doris.” Others may have already spotted him this year as a lecherous mortgage broker in the Oscar contender “The Big Short,” and he also landed a key role in “American Horror Story: Hotel.” Greenfield is probably right on the cusp of only being identified as Schmidt from here on out, a problem actors like Jason Alexander, Matthew Perry and more faced after their long-running sitcoms ended. Audiences simply won’t accept them as anyone else right away, and, by the time they might, their star power has faded. As much as it pains me to say it, “New Girl” ending soon may be in Greenfield’s best interest. It hasn’t gone on long enough where that’s all he’ll be, and he’s clearly got the talent to diversify his acting portfolio if he had more free time.
That being said, even thinking about the end of Schmidt is enough to bring a tear to my eye. Simlarly, the end of “New Girl” is nothing to eagerly anticipate. Sitcoms deserving of our attention are in short supply, and seeing another bite the dust this year or next would be a tough blow to the genre. Still, after 100 episodes are in the can, plenty of people will be asking if it’s not time to say goodbye.