Long before Jess and Nick ever got together, or Cece and Schmidt tied the knot, a Los Angeles loft was home to four roommates who didn't always get along. New Girl has seen multiple Thanksgivings come and go since its first season premiered in 2011. (Remember when Jess dated Ryan, a.k.a. Julian Morris, a.k.a. Wren from PLL, in "Thanksgiving IV"?) But after all these years, the first season's "Thanksgiving" is still the best of the holiday episodes — and one of the show's best, ever. "Thanksgiving" was just the sixth episode of the show, but New Girl had already established a rapport among its characters. We know that Schmidt (Max Greenfield) can become possessive and, honestly, rude, when it comes to cleanliness, as we see from his interactions with Cece (Hannah Simone) when she doesn't wash her hands in the kitchen. Most importantly, New Girl was already establishing sexual tension between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson). And in this episode, we also see Cece admit to Jess that she has feelings for Schmidt. That's a lot of foreshadowing for a freshman show — but at that point, neither of the relationships are over-the-top in their will-they, won't-they plots. Some fans will say that New Girl started going downhill after Jess and Nick kissed. I think that's a bit of an oversimplification, but either way, the first season, and the first Thanksgiving episode, was still its peak.
On a broader level, "Thanksgiving" is a perfectly sitcom-y holiday episode. There's the big meal gone wrong — in this case, a turkey Jess attempts to defrost by throwing it in the dryer. There's the tension of bringing an outsider, Paul (Justin Long) into the group dynamic. There are the (somewhat) tender moments scattered throughout the episode as mini-resolutions, like when Winston (Lamorne Morris) knows Nick's grandparents' names, though Nick never asked Winston about his own grandfather. There's a turkey named Hank (hence, Jess' dubbing the day "Hanksgiving"), and the episode even features the discovery of a dead body — true sitcom bait. But it also takes things deeper. At this point, we knew from the pilot that there would always be tension between Jess and the rest of the loft. Winston, Nick, and Schmidt have been friends for years; Jess is a woman who doesn't know them and likes breaking out into song. But we also knew from the pilot that the guys would still be there for Jess, thanks to their rendition of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." "Thanksgiving" built on this budding dynamic, and it also exposed the main characters' strengths and weaknesses. Jess does her best to care about everyone — but she fails to see that the three men have a holiday tradition in place, and she's not respecting it by creating her own event and forcing them to be there. Schmidt's overbearing qualities keep the loft tidy (and the rent paid), but they sometimes come at the expense of having empathy for other people. And Nick is loyal — to Schmidt, and even to Jess — but it comes at the price of being stubborn to a fault. It's a lot to demonstrate for an episode that came so early in the series. And that's not even addressing Paul's character. Paul is the first person Jess dates after her breakup with Spencer, which, of course, led to her being the "new girl" at the start of the show. He's essentially a male version of Jess — he's a teacher at the same school where she works, and he, too, loves singing about mundane things.
He seems to be Jess' perfect match — and yet, "Thanksgiving" offers several clues about what's to come between Jess and Nick. Aside from Nick's general dislike of Paul, Jess' fellow teacher asks if she and Nick have a history, sensing something between them. This wasn't the last we saw of Paul's character — he stuck around for a few more episodes — but the point was made. The best person for you might not be someone with whom you have everything (or anything) in common. The only really less-than-perfect thing about this episode is the fact that Winston and Cece aren't yet as fully developed as the other characters. Winston is wearing polos, not printed shirts, and Cece doesn't seem to have many interests or traits of her own. Of course, both of them (especially Winston) have quickly become show-stealing characters since. But rewatching the episode, fans will notice things that are "classic Schmidt" or "so Nick," and it's not the same for Cece and Winston. Since then, Winston's become the best part of New Girl, and we're not mad about it. But with the holiday season upon us, "Thanksgiving" is definitely worth revisiting.