'New Girl' Puts The Gang In Middle School, Right Where They Belong

When I first started writing this column about Tuesday night's New Girl, the first paragraph or three were entirely based around an elaborate Superman analogy in which New Girl derived both its power and its weakness from certain tropes and/or sitcom traditions, as represented in the Krypton-originating rocks that change and/or damage Superman, specifically as portrayed in the series Smallville. Needless to say, the analogy was a damn mess, so it might be best to pretend it never happened. But just retain this: New Girl has its ups and downs, and a lot of that has to do with how confidently they rise to the tropes, traditions, and archetypes they hand down to themselves.

This season of New Girl's pretty run the gamut when it comes to these things, from the shoehorning of another character (hey Coach!) into the mix to dealing with the (temporary) pairing off of their will-they-won't-they (they did) couple. The series both failed and succeeded multiple times in these efforts and more — and in Tuesday's episode, New Girl proved that all this show really needs sometimes in terms of tropes is a good old-fashioned middle school episode.

Not all sitcoms do middle school episodes. Some are more naturally predisposed for, say, high school episodes — similar but with more mature themes. The ones that do middle or high school episodes also rarely do what New Girl did here by setting the actual episode in an actual middle school.

But the change of setting really worked for New Girl this episode. Rather than keep the cast of characters in the loft where things are more than a little nebulous — where's Jess sleeping now that Schmidt's living in her room? How many times has a roommate heard one of the other crying over the breakup? Are they really okay? — they transplanted them into a situation that allows them to explore their base instincts while taking them out of the more dramatic elements of their arcs right now. In other words, New Girl stripped its characters down just enough this episode to get to what really makes them funny, and what really made us love them in the first place.

Winston's still the inherently oddball guy who thinks he's way smoother than he has ever actually been, but in this middle school setting, a group of tweenage girls latch onto him like... well, like a gaggle of tweenage girls to a member of One Direction. Schmidt found himself acting out the insecurities of his time being bullied for his fatness in middle school by challenging a child to a footrace. Jess comforted a nerdy girl not unlike herself at that age. Coach ruled over the brood. And Nick played with friecrackers and drank illicit substances with neredowells.

And, overall, it worked. New Girl's been generally uneven this season, but this episode helped prove that when you get to the brass knuckles of this show, these characters — and their tropes — have still got it. Shows need arcs, and the arcs are where this season's been the most clumsy, but it's in standalones like this one where you can see that the potential's still there. They've just got to keep hold of it.

Image: Fox