Two-Sentence Summary Jess’s high expectations for her birthday lead Nick to plan the ultimate surprise evening for her, but first he has to get through the morning and afternoon without any birthday plans. Coach and Winston work through their competitiveness in their efforts to make the birthday surprise run smoothly, and Schmidt helps Cece with her bartending skills.
Favorite Line “A lot people never graduated high school: Einstein, Bill Gates, Anne Frank…I’m going to take back that last one.” (Schmidt)
My Thoughts Earlier this year, I tweaked my New Girl reviewing format because my dislike of “The Box” called for more space than my usual style allowed. This week, I’m tweaking the format again, but for the opposite reason—“Birthday” was so good that it can’t be confined by my more limited New Girl review setup.
Instead, here are 10 reasons why “Birthday” was the best episode of New Girl’s third season (so far).
1.) It balanced the characters’ more broadly comedic aspects with grounded emotions.
The worst episodes of New Girl reduce its characters to caricatures. Yes, their more over-the-top traits are parts of their personalities, but they’re much more than those things, too. What “Birthday” did so well was it gave us just enough of each character’s quirks to make us laugh while also reminding us that, at their best, these characters should be written to feel relatable. So while Jess’s sobbing over Nick not making plans for her birthday may have been a tad bit ridiculous, it was a comedic look at people (myself included) who still care a lot about their birthdays even as adults. There’s a difference between over-the-top and out-of-character, and this episode did an excellent job of remembering that.
2.) It knew what to do with Winston, Coach, and Cece.
An episode that featured real storylines for Winston, Coach, and Cece? Miracle of miracles! “Birthdays” served as a nice reminder that all of these people are friends instead of isolating characters in their own storylines or ignoring them completely. The way this episode integrated all of its storylines into one cohesive unit made the half hour fly by faster than any other New Girl episode so far this year.
3.) It directly addressed the media-created competition between Winston and Coach in terms of storylines on the show.
When it was first announced that Coach was returning to New Girl, I hated reading about Winston getting fewer storylines or the writers not knowing what to do with both characters. It seemed to me that good writing would keep these problems from occurring, and that’s what happened in “Birthday.” It put Coach and Winston head-to-head in a hilarious bakeoff (“Behind!” “In front!”) that ultimately ended with the conclusion that they can actually work well together. I hope this is a sign of things to come because I thought Lamorne Morris and Damon Wayans Jr. really brought out the best in each other.
4.) It made me like Schmidt again.
Schmidt used to be my favorite character on New Girl. But somewhere along the way (probably during the stupid “dating Elizabeth and Cece” story arc) I stopped enjoying this character as much as I used to. For the last few episodes, the restoration of Schmidt’s likability has progressed nicely, and I think I can finally say after “Birthday” that I love him again—not just as a character who is good for a laugh but as a character who has a heart, too. There was a perfect balance between Schmidt’s absurdity (telling Nick that the only free activity he knows in the park is “suicide”) and his softness (helping Cece by telling her that her strength is a skill she can use to succeed).
5.) It made Cece like Schmidt again.
This is what I’ve been waiting for between Schmidt and Cece—an actual friendship building between them. Their scenes at the bar were funny and just warm enough to remind me of the great chemistry Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone have. I love when we get to see both Cece and Schmidt smile genuinely, so to see those genuine smiles directed at each other was a subtle way to show realistic relationship progression without making it the focal point of the episode.
6.) It was funny—really, genuinely funny.
Anne Frank jokes. Mistaken cake identities. Kazoos. Cartwheels. Nick Miller facial expressions. Winston being STD free. Nick being afraid of dying before clearing his browser history. This episode had a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, possibly more than any other this season. And don’t even get me started on Nick’s video because the humor injected there (Winston’s awkwardness, Bearclaw sending his video in unsolicited, Tran’s supposedly racist comments…) was just such a perfect compliment to the sweetness of the gesture.
7.) One word: cameos.
The episode started with some excellent cameos from Angela Kinsey (as Jess’s “loose cannon” coworker) and Ben Falcone (as a bar employee). But the hits just kept coming in Nick’s birthday video, and each surprise guest appearance was a like a new gift for the audience. The big names were there—Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner as Jess’s parents, Josh Gad as Bearclaw—but so were the smaller characters who have come to mean so much to New Girl fans, especially Outside Dave and Tran. Any episode that features Tran automatically gets included among New Girl’s best of the best.
8.) The ending felt like an episode of Parks and Recreation.
And I mean that in the best possible way. From the presence of quirky, recurring background characters to the warmth running through the main cast, the ending of “Birthday” reminded me of the best episodes of Parks and Recreation—my standard for heartwarming television. Like Parks and Rec, New Girl is a show about a strange but fundamentally optimistic and good woman whose presence makes those around her better. But unlike Leslie Knope, Jess Day is not often celebrated for the kind and warm person she is with a gesture of equal kindness and warmth—until this episode. The way Nick gathered together all of the people Jess loves to tell her how special she is felt like something Ben would do for Leslie, and that’s the biggest compliment I can give a romantic gesture on television.
9.) Nick Miller is the best boyfriend ever.
As soon as Nick climbed into the seat next to Jess in the movie theater, I knew his gift was going to be something special. And “special” doesn’t even begin to describe it. If Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project set the standard for Christmas gifts with his dance, then Nick Miller just set the bar equally high (if not higher) for birthday gifts. His need to have Jess read her card quickly to make the timing work kept the whole thing from seeming too perfect, and his little pieces of text commentary on the video kept it from venturing into saccharine territory. And when he told Jess about the coin he kept in his pocket from the first night he kissed her, I actually started to cry because it was such a simple but surprising moment of beauty. Even more than the video itself, that little admission took my breath away because it was something so devoid of clichés, so true to who Nick is as a character, and such a perfect way to remind us of the moment that changed everything for these characters and the show as a whole. That first kiss was so beautiful because it somehow managed to surprise a viewing public who thought it had seen everything in terms of TV romance, and this moment told me that New Girl can still knock us off our feet with sincerity when it’s on its game.
10.) It was sealed with a kiss—and a fantastic episode tag.
“Birthday” ended the only way it could have: with a fantastic Nick/Jess kiss and a shot of the whole group mocking Schmidt for his CGI-laden birthday wish for Jess. The ending represented everything that sets New Girl apart as a show—it’s ability to present both a romance and a group of friends with just enough warmth to make us root for them and just enough humor to make them feel real. I don’t just want a relationship like Nick and Jess; I want a group of friends like these characters—exploding cars and all.