Leave it to an old guy to show how much New Girl has grown.
Consoling fans of Happy Endings with perhaps the only reason to be happy the show was cancelled, New Girl brought Damon Wayans Jr. back to the loft Tuesday night. Wayans’s return, as the uber-intense about life and uber-clueless about women Coach, is a peculiar occasion for the sitcom—it would be a peculiar situation for any series, really. It’s also a timely reminder why this show deserves more credit than it’s getting.
To understand why, rewind the clock about two and a half years.
It’s 2011 and New Girl had cleared the impossible sitcom hurdle: it filmed the perfect pilot with the perfect cast. There was Zooey Deschanel’s Jess, the personification of a Lisa Frank folder; Jake Johnson’s sad-sack, aimless-in-life bartender; Max Greenfield’s Schmidt, who lives each day like it were a GQ spread; and Wayans’s aggressively nutty Coach. Jess moves in with the trio of bachelors in Los Angeles, a doe-eyed Bambi fumbling hilariously to find her legs with out-of their-element dudes.
They were the perfect four roommates. Fox signed the lease on the show, ordering it to series. Critics loved it. Then, as it happens in life, one of the roommates pulled out. Wayans’s was already committed to Happy Endings, which ABC ordered a surprise second season of, forcing him to exit New Girl. This isn’t the peculiar situation. It’s a common problem faced by new series, fixed promptly with a recasting and reshoot of the pilot with a new actor in the role. That’s when New Girl’s creator Liz Meriwether had a novel thought: her pilot was wonderful, so why change it?
“We had seen everyone for Coach,” Meriwether told The New York Times. “Damon came in at the last second, and it was 100 percent clear that he was the person for the part. The thought of reshooting the pilot with someone else, after we felt like we exhausted everybody in town, was so daunting. It was like: What are we going to do?”
Well, what do we all do when a roommate’s not working out? Replace him. New Girl aired its charming, dare we say “adorkable,” pilot as planned, and, in episode two, simply stated that Coach moved out. Lamorne Morris’s Winston moved in. Now, two-and-a-half years later, as friends do, Coach is back for a visit.
His homecoming is breezily explained at the start of the episode. When he meets a girl, he falls off the face of the earth (or, in this case, a network TV series), and returns to the roommates’ lives instantly after the break up. What happened this time? His girl, Malia, got too fat, so he left her. What does this mean? First, a raging, drunken boys night out like the foursome would have in the old days. Then, a glaring reminder that the old days are over. Things have changed.
The guys gleefully seize the opportunity to travel back in time, only to realize that time has caught up to them. Nick, once aimless with a deposition that would make Eeyore seem like Richard Simmons, is now happily dating Jess. Schmidt may still be contributing to the douchebag jar on a regular basis, but he’s proven capable of selfless love, too—of his job, of his friends, of a girl. Winston’s still figuring out what being adult means, but he at least knows that part of that means having responsibility.
“We’re too old for this,” Nick eventually shouts as Coach keeps coaxing them into partying. “We’re too old for this whole night. Life changed, you gotta grow up.”
As sitcoms trudge on into second and third seasons and beyond, it’s too often the case that the characters and the writing slip into familiar patterns. Sure, New Girl, as a comedy, is familiarly quirky as ever—“I call it a Temple Grandin because it makes me friendly and compassionate,” Jess says about her drink of choice, a Shirley Temple with coconut rum. But it’s also a series that tackles its growing pains with rare levels of self-awareness.
Tuesday’s “Coach” episode directly addressed a common criticism of this season, that pairing Nick and Jess together put the show in a creative rut. Jess’s whole self-searching storyline in the episode essentially mirrors what the show’s writers must be thinking after taking the leap by transforming Nick and Jess from a will-they-won’t-they couple to a they-did-they-are item. Does Nick’s eagerness to return to his old life mean he’s not ready to be serious with her? She remembers things like the time to she found “a note he wrote to himself that said ‘put on pants’…with a question mark.” Was dating him a bad idea?
Coach’s arrival is used as the catalyst to convince Nick and Jess that their relationship has a future. Working through the kinks over the course of the episode also reaffirms the audience’s faith in the storyline. It’s not unlike the brilliant season one episode “Jess and Julia,” which drafted Lizzy Caplan to play a put-together, jaded career woman who could not tolerate Jess’s over-the-top precociousness—essentially a surrogate for the critics and viewers who found Deschanel’s characterization of Jess too twee to tolerate. A stand-off between their characters led to this brilliant monologue:
“I break for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children, and I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird and it freaks me out. And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown, and I hate your pant suit and I wish it had ribbons on it to make it slightly cute. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.”
It was a thoughtfully worded message aimed at the series’ detractors, telegraphing the confidence it still had in the show it had created and the potential for what it could blossom into. Bringing back Coach and resurfacing the memories of that five-star pilot accomplished the same thing, this time a statement of assurance in the direction the show has taken its characters and the ways that they have grown.
Has every creative decision New Girl’s made been conventional for a sitcom? No. But nothing the show’s done—stretching all the way back to the way it handled Coach’s exit in the first place—has been. It’s taken his return for us to remind us that its lack of convention is why New Girl remains one of TV’s most deceptively exciting shows.