Most shows are supposed to start winding down around season five, or at least start coasting on charm and familiarity.
But New Girl — Fox's sitcom about a group of flailing 30-somethings — didn't just rise to a whole new set of challenges in its fifth season. It clicked into its most comfortable rhythm in years.
When star Zooey Deschanel went on maternity leave early in the season, Jess's temporary replacement, Reagan (Megan Fox), brought a new jolt of dry humor to the show's cartoonish rhythm. When Deschanel came back, the series launched her into a rewarding story arc about revisiting her romantic past — which, of course, came back to bite her by the season's end, and will no doubt continue into New Girl's sixth season.
"Wedding Eve" and "Landing Gear" — the final two episodes of season five, which aired back to back on May 10 — are two examples of the show operating at its highest level, giving everyone in the cast storylines and punchlines both heartfelt and hilarious. The show even managed to embrace the sitcom staple of a season-ending wedding with an impressive balance of cheese and wit.
But the real triumph of New Girl's season finale was that it acknowledged a truth the show's been fighting since day one: Two of its lead characters have pretty much always been in love.
Jess and Nick's on-and-off romance mirrors New Girl's ups and downs
New Girl almost immediately came up against one of the most deeply entrenched conflicts in sitcom history: It was trying to be one thing — namely a fun and zany hangout comedy — and then cast chemistry shook out in such a way that ignoring the new dynamic would have been like swimming upstream.
It's not that New Girl failed to be fun and zany, because that's still the order of things. It's that it struggled to accept that its beating heart belongs to a romantic comedy.
Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson) started out as polar opposite roommates who didn't agree on much of anything. Jess likes control, polka dots, and singing her feelings. Nick likes — or rather tolerates — chaos, dirty flannel, and drinking down his feelings.
But as Deschanel, Johnson, and the creative team got to know these characters better, they realized that the pair is defined by an innate sweetness. They love wholeheartedly, fiercely, and openly. And when they turned their sights on each other in the second season, taking tentative steps before throwing themselves into one of the best kisses in television history, the show transcended its roots as a fun half-hour to become a little bit magical.
But the second Nick and Jess officially became a couple in the season two finale, New Girl panicked. It became wildly scattered in season three, especially as the show struggled to balance the new relationship with everyone else on the show. By the end of that third season, Nick and Jess had broken up; the two then spent most of season four pretending barely anything of importance had ever happened.
At the time, New Girl creator Liz Meriwether blamed getting Nick and Jess together as the specific reason the series lost its way.
"We got a little heavy," she told Vulture in April 2014. "We’re having a chance to get back to basics and sort of reset the show, and kind of go back to the dynamics of the first season and the pilot, where it’s just this group of friends who are having fun. … I think it might actually be good for the show to return to the kind of fun of it."
But that wasn't true, because season four was a mess. Halfhearted dating plot lines collided with Nick and Jess's roommate Schmidt (Max Greenfield) luxuriating in all his most misogynistic tendencies, while his girlfriend and Jess's best friend, Cece (Hannah Simone), shook her head affectionately on the sidelines.
Winston (Lamorne Morris) continued to spiral out into his own weirdo tangents with very little support from the rest of the cast, which suddenly included Damon Wayans Jr.'s Coach for no reason other than the fact that Wayans was available.
Nick and Jess — floundering though they were — had nothing to do with those failures. Even Meriwether acknowledged as much this week to the A.V. Club, saying that she was excited to "get [the show] back on track and get a little bit back to the earlier dynamics between Nick and Jess that were in the first two seasons."
Accordingly, season five steered right out of that skid in way that felt both organic and realistic. Winston's job as an LAPD officer gave his lovable goofball another dimension, plus his most serious love interest to date (Aly, played by Nasim Pedrad). Schmidt and Cece got engaged, and spent the whole season reminding us why they were drawn to each other in the first place, with their mutual kindness and hyperactive sex drives.
And, crucially, this season also stopped trying to avoid the magnetic pull between Nick and Jess.
Season five ends on an ambiguous note for Nick and Jess, but an encouraging one
By the time the credits roll on "Landing Gear," Jess has realized that she's still in love with Nick at the same time that Nick decides to try for a real relationship with Reagan.
It's as classic a romantic comedy dilemma as they come, but the result is so heartbreaking because the show laid the groundwork so well throughout the fifth season to get the audience to that point. Not only did Reagan and Nick play wonderfully off each other in unexpected ways, but Jess getting back together with her ex-boyfriend Sam (David Walton) in the back half of season five yielded surprisingly brilliant results.
At first, New Girl treated Sam and Jess's rekindling as a fun — if misguided — trip down memory lane. Then it reminded us that the initial reason Jess and Sam had broken up was because of her pull to Nick — and that, despite appearances, not much had changed since.
New Girl embraced romantic comedy tropes throughout this fifth season. That embrace was maybe unavoidable, seeing how the series followed the twin trajectories of Winston longing after a co-worker and Schmidt and Cece planning their wedding.
But the smartest rom-com-adjacent moments were threaded throughout Nick and Jess's storylines. Nick spent all season trying to become a better man, both for himself and to prove to women like Jess and Reagan that he could. Jess went back to Sam, who then realized he had feelings for his best friend. Meanwhile, Jess couldn't acknowledge her own feelings for Nick.
It was messy, but that's fitting. Despite the avoidance tactic the show took in season four, dating your best friend in the not-so-recent past will naturally have some complicated fallout. New Girl did itself no favors by pretending otherwise once it had already pulled that trigger. But on the flip side, the show did itself a world of good by finally acknowledging as much in season five.
Deschanel's depiction of Jess coming to terms with her feelings for Nick in "Landing Gear" is a gorgeous bit of acting — tender and bruised and hopeful all at once. And sure, it wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as the rest of the episode, which involved Schmidt getting stuck on an airplane during his own wedding ceremony and Winston dropping his suit into the depths of a port-a-potty.
But Jess's broken heart still managed to exist in the same episode as these shenanigans without feeling out of place or unnecessarily "heavy." It was just the next logical step for her character, and New Girl's decision to take that step — when the show easily could have phoned it in for another couple of seasons — is a much more promising sign of what's to come.