Truth Time: Was New Girl A Better Show Without Jess?

Photo: Courtesy of Adam Taylor/ FOX.
When an actress gets pregnant, a TV show has a decision to make: write it into the story or play Hide the Baby Bump for a few months. Lisa Kudrow’s pregnancy seamlessly turned into Frank and Alice’s triplets on Friends, while Alyson Hannigan and Cobie Smulders hid (to varying degrees of believability) behind a plethora of baggy sweaters and oversized handbags on How I Met Your Mother. But when Zooey Deschanel unexpectedly became pregnant, New Girl forged its own path with a combination of clever writing, killer guest stars, and adjusted shooting schedules.
It’s been six episodes since Jess was sequestered on a jury (read: the cast filmed the first three episodes of season 5 at the end of season 4 so Deschanel could go on maternity leave). Jess returned last night, leaving the props that strategically covered her belly behind. And I have to say, they pulled off her return (and Reagan's departure) pretty well. Jess came back from jury duty with souvenir T-shirts for the gang, including Reagan, and flashbacks to her forbidden romance with Juror 237B. It's obvious that both Deschanel and her character expected things to go back to normal almost immediately. But now that we’ve experienced New Girl without the girl, we're not sure it’s that easy. Did the ensemble need her to come back, or is New Girl better with no girl?
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At first we couldn’t imagine New Girl without Jess, and neither could the rest of the characters. Jess’ goodbye episode, “Jury Duty,” clearly establishes her as an important force in their lives. Her roommates, colleagues, and friends crave her opinion and her blessing in this episode more than they ever have before, almost to the point of insanity. They depend on Jess for even the simplest of things, like, Should we hang this painting? and, Cece is bothering me! Can you fix it? “Just please don’t leave again,” Nick pleads with her before she breaks the news of her jury duty departure. Jess provides him with one final set of marching orders: Get Cece to sign the loft agreement. And with that, they’re on their own. Well, they’re not totally alone — she leaves behind a bowl filled with advice and daily reminders for her roommates.
Photo: Greg Gayne/FOX.
In the beginning of her absence, the show mentions Jess when it can — a courtroom sketch of her on the news, her silhouette waving hello from a hotel room window, guest star Fred Armisen trying on her clothes — but these moments become less and less frequent. Considering Jess was their go-to lifeline for everything, they adapt to her absence pretty quickly. And as a result, the audience does the same.

Jess’s departure immediately establishes a new kind of group dynamic. “Who am I supposed to go to for lady advice now?” Winston laments after she leaves. But we know the answer: Cece. Or Aly (played by Nasim Pedrad). Or Reagan (played by Megan Fox). Or anyone, really, because with Jess out as the matriarch, the kids are forced to lean on each other for support. Winston and Cece grow so close that he becomes one of her bridesmaids just two episodes later. In fact, Winston is there for more of Cece’s big bridal milestones than Jess ever will be — he’s there when Schmidt gives her a proper engagement ring, he knows about her wedding venue, and he helps her pick out a dress (many glasses of champagne later).

When the cast doesn’t have to play by the rules of the leading lady, they’re free to be, well, more themselves.

Up until this point, almost every episode of New Girl inevitably revolves around Jess and tends to follow a certain rhythm: stumble into a problem, find a solution, have a makeup hug and a good laugh, repeat. It’s funny, but four seasons later it’s predictable at best. But when you do the unthinkable and remove the show’s title character, the others are forced to figure things out. And they have. The "Well, Jess would say…" statements dwindle, and before we know it, she’s hardly mentioned at all. During Deschanel’s absence, New Girl celebrated its 100th episode, but “the girl” is hardly mentioned in it once, save for Reagan making a dig at her style. It felt odd, but also oddly okay. It gives us trust that New Girl still has some tricks up its sleeve.

One of those tricks is Reagan. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like Megan Fox’s character. The actress is synonymous with sex, and New Girl isn’t sexy for sexy’s sake. I wanted so badly for her to be funny, and the writers rose to the occasion. Reagan plays to everyone else’s strengths, heightening their characters and shedding new light on their flaws. She brings out Schmidt’s soft side. She gives Winston confidence. She breathed new life into Nick. And she never once got into a catfight with Cece for attention. In the end, Reagan is still the alleged cool girl — the one who always looks flawless after a workout and knows how to make the perfect Old Fashioned — but still, she proves her worth and serves her purpose.
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Photo: Grey Gayne/FOX.
It’s not that we didn't miss Jess; we did. We were legitimately looking forward to seeing her again and hearing about her jury duty adventures. Now that she's back, we want to see her help Cece with wedding planning. And we’re curious if the Jess and Nick's relationship will see any redevelopments. Nick, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece (and Coach) wouldn’t be the characters they are today if it weren’t for Jess. One hundred episodes ago, she was begging her new roommates to watch Dirty Dancing. She couldn’t pay Cece to spend time at the loft. And now, they’re the ones begging Reagan to hang and partake in their collective quirky dynamic — one largely influenced by Jess. She’s the glue that brought everyone together, but she isn’t the only thing that keeps everyone in place.

When the cast doesn’t have to play by the rules of the leading lady, they’re free to be, well, more themselves. It allows the actors to play messier and more tactile. Nick can dream up all the weird ideas he wants. Schmidt can continue to flip-flop between being simultaneously hypersexual yet disgusted. Winston can keep cracking himself up (honestly, I would watch 30 minutes of him practicing his cop voice). And Cece and Reagan and even Aly can take their turn as “the girl.”

Still, no one cast member steps up to replace Jess. Instead, they band together and all replace her as an ensemble. No one ever monopolizes the story line; everyone takes turns, and every relationship gets its moment in the spotlight: Nick and Schmidt, Schmidt and Cece, Cece and Winston, Winston and Aly. And let’s not forget Reagan and everyone else. In her five episodes, Megan Fox manages to have major plotlines with each of the five leads, including Jess. Without Jess, the cast got infinitely better at supporting each other. Before they turned to her for everything, but during the jury duty arc, they learn to figure things out together.

When New Girl started, it was all about Jess. Three seasons ago, the show would have been lost without her at the helm for more than six minutes. But now, a six-episode run without her is nothing. And that’s the secret to the show’s success: When Jess isn’t able to be there physically, the story becomes about the others feeling her absence and surviving without her. And you know what? They fare just fine on their own.

New Girl definitely isn’t the same without Jess, but I’m happy to have her back as part of the group again. Yes, I said as part of the group, not as the star. Jess may have been the leading lady when she left, but she came back to a different cast. One with ensemble members who are, in fact, worthy of carrying an A-plot now and then.
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