Nick and Jess broke up. It’s been over a week, and I’m still having trouble writing about it.
Before you think that this is just a case of impassioned fangirl angst, let me remind you that I am no stranger to TV breakups. I live with the emotional scars of being an Alias fan; I had to watch my favorite character deal with the fact that the love of her life married someone else and stayed married to her for a whole season. I’m not one to get apoplectic over a TV breakup.
But do you know what I do get apoplectic over? Contrivances, poor characterization, and shoddy writing choices. If my favorite couple on a given TV show calls it quits in a way that feels believable and organic to their characters, I’ll be sad, but I’ll understand. I don’t understand Nick and Jess breaking up, but maybe that’s because I don’t really feel like I understand New Girl very well anymore.
I wasn’t someone who immediately jumped on the Nick/Jess train—or even the New Girl train, if I’m being honest. It took until Season One’s “Injured” for me to really open my heart to the show, and that was because I cared about the people in that episode; I wanted good things to happen for them, and I could see that they wanted good things to happen for each other. I don’t enjoy TV shows that let the plot influence how the characters are written; I want the characters to drive the plot. In order for that to happen, those characters need to be written consistently. By New Girl’s second season, I was blown away by the consistent and surprisingly complex characterizations that were guiding the show.
When Nick and Jess kissed, I think everyone was surprised by the impact of the moment—including the writers. These were people who had said that both Nick and Jess had a lot of growing up to do before they could be with one another romantically; they even hinted that a relationship would be bad for both characters. But as Season Two entered its incredible final stretch, it seemed as if they were proving themselves wrong on a weekly basis. Nick and Jess didn’t just work together; their relationship was good for both characters. It showed sides of them that enriched their characterizations while still keeping the show as funny as it ever was.
Season Two was the Season of Nick. We learned about his past, we saw that he was capable of being responsible and romantic, and we watched him develop into a person who was willing to grow. Nick Miller was a revelation in Season Two of New Girl, and the whole show benefitted as a result of the deft handling of his character.
And then came Season Three…
There have been many times this season where I have loved Nick and Jess’s relationship. I’m the kind of person who enjoys watching the Moonlighting Curse get debunked time and again by good writing (see Castle and Parks and Recreation for two of my favorite examples). Heck, my favorite couple on Once Upon a Time is the happily-married duo of Snow White and Prince Charming. I’m about as far away from the “happy couples make boring TV” mindset as you can get. So when Nick and Jess were allowed to simply be happy, I was happy. From a storytelling perspective, Nick and Jess seemed like a couple who still had some growing and maturing to do, but they were growing and maturing together.
But then there were the “conflict” episodes….
I wasn’t shy about my intense dislike for “The Box,” and I think it represented everything that has felt wrong about long stretches of this season. Nick Miller—a character who was once more nuanced than most TV comedy characters—has been turned into a plot device. Need a reason to create conflict between Nick and Jess? Let’s make Nick act so absurdly nonsensical that he wouldn’t actually be able to function in the real world! Yes, Nick has always been a strange mixture of grumpy old man and adolescent boy, but Season Two (and parts of Season Three) revealed a thoughtful adult hidden somewhere between those two personalities as well. It makes me sad when all that character development disappears in the name of comedy.
I’ll admit; I’m not a fan of extended uses of broad comedy, and that’s always been a struggle for me when watching New Girl. I like when the comedy comes from the characters acting believably, not when the characters are altered to make a joke work. That’s why I’ve been having trouble with Schmidt all season. The sincerity that always lurked under his “douchebag exterior” has been missing all for the sake of furthering his plots or his laughs. The same thing has been happening with Nick. We’ve seen what he can be as a character, but too many times this season he has become a caricature of an irresponsible man-child just to prove that he and Jess might not be right for one another.
The two episodes where this offense was at its most egregious were “The Box” and “Mars Landing.” In the former, I always thought Jess gave in too easily after Nick acted like a jerk. But in the latter, I think they both gave up too easily in the face of odds that seemed in no way insurmountable and didn’t feel right for who I thought I knew these characters to be.
The center of Nick and Jess’s fight was Nick telling Jess he will never be a person who puts toys together for his kids—he’s not someone who can be a responsible adult, not even for the people he loves. That seems like such a huge step backwards for the guy who built Jess’s dresser for her just because he wanted to, long before they were ever romantically involved. I understood the basic premise of their argument—needing to plan the future vs. not having a plan at all—and it initially seemed like a discussion these characters needed to have. But Nick’s argument devolved into yelling about living on Mars, and it became so absurd that I almost tuned it out completely. I didn’t know if I was supposed to see this fight as just another “Nick is so dumb! Ha ha!” moment or an actual moment of conflict. It turns out it was the latter, but the drama got lost in the attempt at broad comedy.
When it actually hit me that Nick and Jess were really going to break up, I found myself moved by Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s performances but unable to get past my frustration to feel real sadness for the dissolution of what was once (not too long ago) one of my favorite couples on television.
We were told the characters have nothing in common besides loving each other, but they wanted to go back to being friends. If they really don’t have anything else in common, then why would a friendship even sound appealing at this point? And if Nick, as we’ve been led to believe, has really been in love with Jess from the beginning of their friendship, why would he ever think they could really just be friends?
I wanted to cry when Nick and Jess re-created their first kiss from “Cooler” (from the blocking to the colors of their clothes)—except with a hug to end their romantic relationship instead of a kiss to ignite it. But I couldn’t stop thinking that this wouldn’t be happening if these characters were allowed to act like real people—or at least the people they’ve evolved into within the show itself. Nick and Jess are passionate people; it felt wrong for them to have such a lack of passion for keeping their relationship together.
I don’t need TV characters to be realistic all the time, but I do need them to be relatable on some basic level. I know TV comedies need to be filled with exaggerated character traits, but New Girl seems to have become just a series of those instead of interactions between characters I understand and can relate to. I’m close to the same age and at the same stage in life as these characters, and I’m finding them less and less relatable as the episodes go on. There is comedy to be mined from young adults finding their way and screwing up, but there is also comedy to be mined from young adults being allowed to grow. What happened with Nick and Jess wasn’t growth. It was regression to their least mature and compelling versions of themselves. (A meat bucket?! Seriously? How is this version of Nick Miller alive, let alone a man who passed the bar exam?)
I want to love New Girl again; I really do. The end of last season was so much fun to watch as a fan of great TV. But I’d be lying if I said I was having fun right now. I’m still trying to be hopeful that this breakup will ignite some consistent writing, so consider this post written with crossed fingers. I miss the New Girl I fell in love with, and I hope I’ll see it again someday soon.