‘New Girl’ Season 4 finale is all about refusing to make a ‘Clean Break’

I write about “New Girl” only under two circumstances: When Sepinwall is hospitalized or when Sepinwall is on vacation. And even then, I still only write about “New Girl” under two circumstances: When it's a premiere or a finale and therefore there are plot points that maybe could stand some discussion.

Fortunately, Sepinwall is on vacation and, at least so far as I know — Knock wood! — his health is fine.

However, Tuesday (May 5) night marked the fourth season finale for “New Girl,” so I guess “Clean Break” is as good a time as any to write a few words about the state of “New Girl.”

“Clean Break.” 

As it says above, “Clean Break” is the title of the finale. It's not “Clean, Shaven,” as I initially typed, because “Clean, Shaven” is an intense film from recently prolific cable TV helmer Lodge Kerrigan, featuring a marvelous performance by Peter Greene. I mention this because rewatching the “Justified” pilot a couple weeks ago was a reminder of just how great Peter Greene is as an actor and how I wish that people weren't — for perfectly good reasons — terrified to employ him. In our era of cable TV anti-heroes, Peter Greene should have Emmys. I also mention this because at some point during this write-up, I'm going to type “Clean, Shaven” instead of “Clean Break” and I won't notice. Apologies in advance.

So yeah, the “New Girl” finale was called “Clean Break,” but only because that was shorter than the “Birdman”-esque title “Clean Break: A Meditation On Why Some People Think This Show Needs To Move Forward, But We're Never Going To Move Forward And That's OK, Right?”

Let's talk a bit about “New Girl,” eh? After the [clean] break, with spoilers for “Clean Break”…

The conventional wisdom on “New Girl” goes like this: First season? Pretty decent, not great, but lots of potential. Second season? Flirting with greatness (if you're Sepinwall) or much more consistently very good (if you're me). Third season? Off a cliff, albeit with sporadic laughs to string us along.

And Season 4? Sadly, I'm not sure anybody even talks about “New Girl” anymore, which makes me a tiny bit sad, because this is still a superb core cast and there are moments when the writing is razor-sharp still. But even if the one-liners still zing and if the actors remain eternally capable of mining humor with a twisted reading or an off-kilter enunciation, “New Girl” has pretty much totally lost the ability to tell a story. 

Sadly, that's both big picture and little picture. I barely remember any of the individual episode plots and the only reason I remember any of this season's major character arcs is if they were referenced in the finale, which I just watched this morning. It's the perennial problem with any insular show about people whose relationships are friendly, but not tied to blood or marriage: Either you bend over backwards to circulate through various incestuous romantic permutations until viewers have seen all of them and are sick of all of them, or you run through a string of three-episode guest relationships that sometimes hit, usually miss and eventually are irrelevant. So this season included Fawn Moscato, That British Guy, Tran's Granddaughter and Winston's Cat. They were all way station characters who sometimes yielded a chuckle or two — OK, of that group, only Fawn Moscato made me laugh — but will probably never be mentioned again.

The only relationship that “stuck” was Coach's fling with Meaghan Rath's May, whose name I had to look up. May was only really compatible with Coach because she learned to play the “Monday Night Football” fanfare on the cello for him and the relationship only stuck because it was time for Damon Wayans Jr. to move on and the writers needed a place to send him, in this case New York City.

I don't know if Damon Wayans Jr. wanted to leave because he wasn't being challenged enough by Coach or because he had other specific things to do or because the writers on the show insinuated through underwriting certain characters that they wanted to trim back the ensemble. Dunno. 

But much of “Clean Break” was offering meta-commentary on the show's ability or desire to change much of anything in its universe permanently, while saying good-bye to an actor who only exists in the universe because the show refused to say good-bye to Damon Wayans Jr permanently from the get-go.

I don't need to rehash the story of “New Girl” opting not to just reshoot its pilot, rather keeping Coach for a lone episode, hastily writing him out and bringing in Lamorne Morris' Winston in the second episode, but bringing back Coach eventually and, in the process, giving themselves two semi-fungible African-American characters who they only sometimes were able to define as individuals. Coach was much more demonstrably sketched in his first episode than Winston was in his entire first season, which is probably why after only two-ish seasons on the show, Coach has more consistent and identifiably human traits than Winston, who went from ill-defined, to intriguingly defined through his conspicuous lack of definition. I think I would be more easily able to write you a one-paragraph brief on what motivated and drove Coach during his brief time on “New Girl,” but nobody on “New Girl” makes me laugh like Winston. So it's a trade-off, I suppose.

One of the oddest things about “Clean Break” is how its funniest and most emotionally effective scene was, in fact, a two-person interaction between Winston and Coach, two characters who I assume the writers have been generally uncomfortable with pairing up on their own.

The backdrop was that Coach announced that he was leaving and he didn't need any emotional farewells.

“When I move, I get a clean break, OK? I'm not gonna get sentimental.”

Coach, in turn, attempted to impart the same wisdom to Nick and Schmidt, who continue to be in series-long pining for Jess and Cece [I originally typed “Schmidt,” which is also true], respectively. 

For Schmidt, this meant throwing away his box of Cece's things, including a used sports bra and a $5 bill that mostly raised the question, “Yo, whatever happened to the Douchebag Jar?” It's not like Schmidt ever stopped being a douchebag, or at least it's not like he ever stopped being prone to douchebaggery and I'm sure that if we look back at the past season-plus, I'm pretty confident he owes the jar some money. The Douchebag Jar isn't really a part of the episode. Instead, Schmidt took the box to a Goodwill-esque drop-box and threw it away, only to have immediately regrets, leading to an attack on the box and my favorite line in the episode, “Why are you so secure? You're filled with things that nobody wants.”

Schmidt's nemesis in recovering Cece's stuff ended up being Jack McBrayer, or a character played by Jack McBrayer like every other Jack McBrayer character, who made things really confusing by asking Schmidt if he was Jewish. I'm not sure if the character was supposed to be Anti-Semitic, if the root of the joke was borderline Anti-Semitic or if the only point was the confusion, which Max Greenfield actually played wonderfully.

For Nick, though, making a clean break was about discarding sunglasses and the introduction of The Sex Mug, definitely my least-favorite device in this episode. Apparently The Sex Mug was a mug of great significance to Nick and Jess' former sex life, the way one indicated to the other that they were feeling amorous without making things uncomfortable in the loft that really all of these characters are much too old to be cohabiting in at this point. So The Sex Mug was newly introduced in this episode, as was the possibility that either Jess or Nick had put The Sex Mug out several weeks earlier, but the message hadn't been received. So this episode had to ret-con both this secretive form of communication and the recent missed communication as a way to back into the reminder that until Nick and Jess are married to each other or dead, “New Girl” will never abandon the idea of them as a couple. 

That was the message that Coach had to learn as well. You might think that you can dispassionately cut chords and move on, never looking back, but the things that matter to you are always worth looking back on. 

And it took Winston to teach Coach, with the help of a Regis Philbin endorsed crepe pan in ways that you have to watch yourself if only to see Lamorne Morris do an over the shoulder crepe flip. Morris is crazy talented. The episode he co-wrote was one of the best of the season. And there's a very real possibility that he's benefitted from the writers deciding to craft Winston's character by flipping coins rather than aiming for consistency.

And Morris brought it all home in a “Jerk”-esque scene in which Coach finally broke down and decided that he wouldn't make such a clean break after all and that he would travel with glass grapes, a blanket, Jess' mystery novels and a key television component.

“I'm taking this remote, because you always hit the Info button by mistake,” Coach said, holding back tears. 

“No, no it's not by mistake, Coach,” Winston replied. “I want to know more about the cast and crew.”

I have no idea why that tickled my funny bone, but I rewatched that scene several times as Winston and Coach agreed that the TV would miss the remote and the remote would miss the TV. It hardly matters that the show never laid the foundation for Winston and Coach to be so emotional about their parting. In that moment, I bought it.

At least “New Girl” really did its due diligence on Schmidt and Cece. The show made us earn the two of them as a couple, made us like the two of them as a couple, effectively justified tearing them apart, put them with enough people to illustrate what other relationships weren't offering them, gave them value as friends, pinpointed when Cece's feelings changed from platonic back to love, etc. Probably Schmidt's reversal of course in this episode followed a bit too closely on the Fawn Moscato breakup, but Fawn Moscato was a placeholder relationship and a placeholder relationship can't stand in the way of two people when they each know they've found their lobster. And so when Cece returned from Mt. Shasta minutes after Jess spoiled her secret — through the loophole of telling Nick in Schmidt's presence — and she and Schmidt agreed that they loved each other? I had no trouble with Schmidt dropping to one knee and proposing and Cece saying yes. In fact, that scene filled me with exactly the emotion it was supposed to. I like Schmidt and Cece and definitely both characters were better with each other than with anybody else. It's a bit default-y, but it's honest default.

In contrast, the fact that the episode also announced pretty blatantly that “New Girl” refuses to make a clean break with Nick and Jess? That irks me. I get that fans really, really, really wanted that relationship to happen. And who could blame them? The early flirtations between Jess and Nick were pretty cute. But then when the show got them together, Nick and Jess just didn't work. At all. And the show suffered. And I'm not even slightly convinced that anybody on the show knows why they didn't work. I'm not sure I know why they didn't work, but I know they didn't. And I know that neither Nick or Jess have had a subsequent failed relationship with other people that justified the characters returning to each other. Jess and British Dude broke up because of geography or something boring and they weren't really an interesting couple. Nick and Tran's Granddaughter broke up… Oh, I don't remember or care why. There have definitely been sweet moments of friendship between Nick and Jess this season, but none of them have been infused by the chemistry that made those two characters such an inevitability way back in Season 1. 

The problem is that “New Girl” can't make a clean break of Nick and Jess because the sitcom structure makes it nearly impossible. It's the “How I Met Your Mother” problem in which the writers had to somehow find a Mother who was better for Ted than Robin, but then even though they actually succeeded, none of it mattered because “How I Met Your Mother” was an awful show by the end. There are fans who will not leave Nick/Jess behind until they're given a better romantic option for one or the other or both, but the writers and casting directors haven't come close. So they're stumbling drunkenly back into their relationship having demonstrated no sign that they or the characters learned anything from Season 3. It's entirely default-y and it's a lazy default.

So now we know that both Jess and Nick sometimes have horny feelings for each other and that each thinks the other has reclaimed The Sex Mug from the garbage and that Winston actually has The Sex Mug for his cat, which is as Winston-y as it sounds.

That's the story of the “New Girl” finale: Coach's old ethos may have been, “You wanna move forward, you've gotta get rid of the past,” but Coach was wrong. You've gotta spin in circles and cling to the past with everything you've got! Hopefully at least Winston will make the spinning funny.

A few other thoughts on “New Girl” and the “New Girl” finale:

*** When did every other “New Girl” episode become a bottle episode? Has that always been the case and I just started being bothered by it this season? Or was the second half of the season not much more loft-centric than normal? It felt to me like we were stuck going loft-to-bar and bar-to-loft for most of the spring, but that's probably just a perception thing. This episode was just loft and whatever corner of the Fox Lot they put the Goodwill-esque bin on.

*** Other fun details of Winston eccentricity this episode: Winston dressed as the Statue of Liberty announcing, “Live from New York, it's Coach's Good-Bye.” Schmidt may have a Cece box, but Winston has a Phylicia Rashad box. Winston is really good at leaving answering machine messages, including a callback to self-applied nicknames “Brown Lightning” and “Winnie the Bish.” Winston takes weekly selfies with his cat. Winston's middle name is LeAndre. This was a Top 3 Winston episode, I would say. More Winston in the future.

*** “Girl, will you marry me?” is probably the perfect Schmidt marriage proposal. And I liked Jess rushing in with a confetti cannon. More Jess with confetti cannons in the future.

*** Nick doing his burpees was very funny. More of Jake Johnson failing to work out in the future.

*** One of the things the writers became fixated on this season was wildly overextended double-entendres that only sometimes made sense. In this episode, it was Coach's insistence that Nick work hard to make a clean break. “I need you to get harder, Nick. Can you get harder for me? Do you need me to get hard with you?” Coach said in a line that actually wasn't double-entendre, but rather single, since it has no surface meaning at all.

*** “Clean, Shaven” is a really good movie. I prefer “Keane,” but “Clean, Shaven” is really good.

Your thoughts on the “New Girl” season and finale?