“I just want to have a weird, wonderful life together,” Nick Miller tells Jess Day in the first of tonight’s farewell episodes of New Girl.
This is a lovely and fitting sentiment on the day that Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) finally get married, after years of flirtation, false starts, and misunderstandings. But it’s clear to anyone who’s been watching the Fox sitcom for seven seasons that these two have already had a weird and wonderful life together. So has New Girl itself — multiple lives, in fact.
Most long-running series evolve in some way, but few have shed identities quite as often, as easily, or as successful creatively as New Girl has through its many lives.
First, it was the Zooey Is Adorkable show, as all of the marketing, and much of the writing, were focused on the big-eyed 500 Days of Summer star’s many quirks, her clumsiness, her sloppy and vulnerable emotions, and her penchant for singing her own theme song. In the early days, the show was so Jess-centric that her three new male roommates barely registered as characters. (The most memorable of the three, Damon Wayans Jr’s Coach, left after the pilot because Wayans was still attached to Happy Endings, though he returned periodically and was even a regular castmember for a couple of seasons in the middle of the run.)
Charming and funny as Deschanel was, that version of the series wasn’t sustainable (though the show was a genuine hit back at the start, and for many years now has suffered tiny ratings even by #EndTimes for broadcast TV standards), and the writers quickly fell in love with Max Greenfield’s off-kilter line readings as the loft’s lovable douchebag Schmidt. Greenfield was soon carrying a lot of the comedy load as it became the Schmidt Says Funny Things In Funny Ways show, while the writers tried to get a handle on both Nick and especially Winston (Lamorne Morris, who replaced Wayans starting with the second episode).
Soon, the writers and many viewers fell in love with Nick, who was slowly revealed to be not the straight man of the loft (a role that Jess somehow took on as the years went by, with Hannah Simone’s Cece also filling it from time to time), but its weirdest resident: a gruff loner with a dark Chicago childhood who seemed incapable of functioning on basic levels of adult life. (A subplot in tonight’s second episode has him baffled by the idea of foot lotion, or even how to properly say “foot lotion.”)
Somewhere in the midst of the Nick Miller Is A Freak show, New Girl also became a romantic comedy about Jess and Nick realizing their attraction for one another and struggling with their feelings, given their close living situation and pre-existing relationships with other people. This eventually became the Be Careful What You Wish For, Nick And Jess Shippers show, as when they finally got together, they were miserable and also largely detached from the rest of the group.
Then the character whom the writers didn’t know what to do with for years suddenly became the series’ MVP, as we moved into the Winston Bishop Is An Insane Person show, which continues in some form to this day. (It’s a testament to the hilarious work Morris did when finally given material to play that the series’ final big joke is Winston-centric.)
Winston’s improbable rise to the top of the latter-day New Girl MVP rankings was mainly fueled by the writers giving him various obsessions and not worrying about how they fit together to make a recognizable human being, trusting that Morris’ enthusiasm and comic timing would sell each individual joke so well that cohesion didn’t matter. This eventually became the ethos for the entire series. What had at one point been a semi-serialized comedy charting the love lives and professional aspirations of the four (and occasionally five) loftmates in time became bogged down whenever it tried to tell actual stories, so at a certain point the writers (including creator Liz Meriwether, who inspired many of the quirks of both Jess and Nick, as well as fellow showrunners Brett Baer and Dave Finkel) largely gave up on story and decided to simply let a bunch of funny people (both the actors and characters) be funny. At heart, it had always been a hangout show — where the audience enjoys simply spending time with the characters at least as much as the characters enjoy spending time with each other — but once freed from the shackles of sitcom plotting, this became even more apparent and appealing. There were memorable story moments throughout these seven seasons, particularly in the ebb and flow of Jess and Nick’s romance, but what will linger more than anything are the riffs, like Nick offering Schmidt an apology cookie, and rambling for so long that his words stop sounding like English after a while:
Just as tight-knit groups of friends develop their own language and inside jokes, so did New Girl. One of its most enduring running gags involved True American, a drinking game about US history whose rules were never remotely clear to the audience (and perhaps to the writers). Winston and Cece surprised everyone by becoming close friends through a series of “mess-arounds,” and almost everyone in the loft adopted at least one pseudonym, from Nick’s literary alter ego Julius Pepperwood (who somehow became the star of a best-selling YA series) to Winston having packages delivered to him at the loft under the name of Retired Rear Admiral Jay Garage-A-Roo. (Just look at that for a moment, and how every single word — every syllable, really — makes the whole even greater than the sum of its ridiculous parts. It’s a silly name masterpiece.)
The show could have easily ended last spring, with Jess and Nick finally getting together for good. (It was an episode even Baer and Finkel wanted to feel like a series finale, just in case.) This eight-episode victory lap season has brought back many past characters like Coach (and killed one, in the form of Winston’s beloved cat Furguson, who was given a Jewish funeral and unveiling because, as Winston put it, “I looked at Furguson as Jewish”). It’s been fun but inessential — more like reuniting with old friends years later to reminisce about the glory days, but not creating new memories in the process. But true to the hangout spirit that dominated the show, I’ve been glad for this extra time, and particularly for tonight’s double-feature finale. The arrangement is as it should be: the penultimate episode is about Jess and Nick’s wedding (which, true to sitcom form, goes disastrously until — spoiler! — it doesn’t), with cameos from some more recurring characters (Tran fans waiting for closure, you are in for a treat), while the finale is about saying goodbye to the loft itself.
For all that the show kept swapping out main characters and go-to comic performers (including a brief, surprising period where Megan Fox was somehow the best part of it), and despite the fact that it kept that increasingly irrelevant title(*) through seven seasons, New Girl was ultimately about this group of people living in this place. Even though Schmidt, Cece, and Winston all moved out before this final season, it’s right and good for the finale to be centered there.
(*) “Hey Girl,” the Jess-centric, Deschanel-performed theme song, mostly went away after a few years so the show could have extra time for jokes. It returns for the finale in an unexpected and very funny way.
New Girl was many things, centered around many people. No matter what or who, though, it was mostly just a pleasure. I’ll miss it.