I have not been a dedicated watcher of every episode of New Girl since it debuted on Fox in 2011 (DVD Talk has reviews of the show's first and second seasons if you need to catch up on some of the story so far), but I've seen and enjoyed enough episodes to consider myself a fan. I've been there to witness the show mutate from a wildly hyped sitcom vehicle for movie pixie Zooey Deschanel into an often hilarious ensemble showcase -- a change underlined recently by an alteration to the opening title sequence, where the original, awkwardly ostentatious tribute to Deschanel's character Jess is replaced by a far less quirky photo collage of the entire cast. The fourth season of New Girl, new to manufatured-on-demand (MOD) DVD, sometimes appears to be straining to keep its characters all occupied and entertaining, but when the writers succeed in exploiting the cast's overabundance of chemistry, the show continues to shine as a quirky, lovable laugh-a-thon.
Romantic relationships remain the primary concerns of Jess, her four dude roommates, and her best friend Cece (Hannah Simone). In season three, Jess and her cute slacker roomie Nick (Jake Johnson) made good on the will-they-or-won't-they? dynamic teased in the previous seasons and are already peaceably broken up at this point. (The episode "Goldmine" nicely addresses the difficulty of getting people not to bail on dates with each of them after learning that they live in the same apartment as their ex.) At work, Jess has made it up the ranks from schoolteacher to vice principal, which is all well and good until she gets a crush on a new British teacher (Pretty Little Liars' Julian Morris) with the saucy name Ryan Geauxinue (pronounced "Goes-In-You"); unfortunately for Jess, administrator-teacher couplings are a no-no, so she tries to ignore the hunk. (That doesn't happen.) Nick finds Kai (Greta Lee), a lady who likes to lay about the apartment as much as himself; rookie cop Winston (Lamorne Morris) "investigates" her behavior for his roommate and decides she must be homeless. (She's not.)
The show's other key couple, former-model-turned-inept-bartender Cece (Hannah Simone) and metrosexual would-be player Schmidt (Max Greenfield), continue their pas de deux; Schmidt starts off the season overwhelmingly obsessed with Cece while she just wants to move on. As the season continues, Schmidt cools it a bit and finds a way to be Cece's friend... which, of course, just makes her remember why she liked him in the first place. Unfortunately, by this point, Schmidt has started up with manipulative, career-driven city councilwoman Fawn Moscato (Zoe Lister-Jones). Fawn's power excites Schmidty, but is this duo built to last?
As sad as it was to see Happy Endings disappear from the TV dial, it thankfully allowed Damon Wayans, Jr., to return to the role of Coach in New Girl's third season. Wayans was a "recurring" cast member then, but he's a full-fledged co-star in season four. His presence in the show -- besides demonstrating (alongside the cast of Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine) that non-"niche" sitcom ensembles can have more than one black dude in them -- is wonderfully layered with jock-y braggadocio, hidden tenderness, and amiable goofiness. Coach also reacts to relationship strife in the most entertaining ways possible, whether it's emotionally breaking down as he tries to describe fertilization in a health class he's teaching or attracting a bar full of ladies to grind up against him to the strains of Alannah Myles's "Black Velvet." (It's a bummer to note that apparently Wayans did not renew his contract with the show and will not be returning for season five.)
That just leaves Winston, who occasionally takes a break from studying for his police exam and from being in love with his cat to try to woo a human lady. I have to admit that Winston's decision to become a cop just keeps reminding me of the later seasons of That '70s Show, where Kelso's decision to join the police academy also felt fairly arbitrary and strange. This is addressed in a subplot in the episode "Par 5," which was actually co-written by Winston (I mean, Lamorne Morris), in which the character feels forced to hide his profession when he starts dating a woman who actively protests the LAPD. This episode tries to add a little nuance and depth to Winston's choice to be a policeman, but it doesn't completely pull it off.
For a show with so many semi-arrested characters, gaining maturity and finding worthwhile career paths are unsurprisingly also an ongoing component of the show. Jess and Winston, of course, seem like they're right where they want to be career-wise with the vice principal and police gigs respectively. Nick continues to flounder professionally, but eventually teams up with Schmidt to start their own entrepreneurial concern, and while their first concept -- a suit made out of sweatsuit material -- is a dud, the show seems optimistic about them finding fulfillment in working together. Cece finally goes to college, with some financial help from Coach and Winston, who consider it an investment that they expect to see repaid. When they find out Cece uses the opportunity to take somewhat esoteric liberal arts courses, the fellas are duly perturbed.
Once again, the show opens its doors to a number of excellent guest stars, including It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Kaitlin Olson as Jess's former classmate and potential stepmom (Rob Reiner and Jamie Lee Curtis return as Jess's divorced parents), Jessica Biel as a romantic rival for Jess, Billy Eichner as a stressed-out, catty airport employee on Christmas, Childrens Hospital's Erinn Hayes as a promiscuous school nurse, Lisa Bonet as the touchy-feely leader of a teachers conference, Nora Dunn as Schmidt's overbearing mother, and on and on. Justin Long. Josh Gad. Michaela Watkins. Barry Bostwick. Sarah Burns. Kurt Braunohler. Regis Philbin. Funny people!
Looking online, there are wildly different opinions of how this season went, and I can see where both sides are coming from. Originally, I watched a few episodes from this year out of order, and got the impression that the show had maybe lost a step. But when viewed as a chronological whole, this fourth season makes a lot of smart moves with its characters and never fails to provide some big laughs, even in its weakest episodes.