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Pure, Unadulterated Friendship Made ‘New Girl’ Worth Watching

The era-spanning Fox sitcom—which came to an end on Tuesday night after seven seasons—was always at its best when it homed in on the platonic bonds between its main characters. But it could ignore the intrusive facts of real life for only so long.

FOX/Ringer illustration

In the opening moments of New Girl’s second-season premiere, Schmidt (Max Greenfield) asks roommate Jess (Zooey Deschanel) to help him reach an itch on his “undercarriage,” which is ensconced in a “shower diaper” that’s protecting the “penis cast” he’s wearing as a result of a sex injury suffered in Season 1. As third roommate Winston (Lamorne Morris) looks on silently and fourth roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) asks “What am I watching here?” Jess, who’s late for work, stops to scratch.

“This is friendship,” Schmidt says. “Pure, unadulterated friendship.”

That’s what we were watching, and why we were watching, for most of New Girl’s seven-season, 146-episode run, which began in 2011 and ended with a two-part series finale on Fox on Tuesday night. As New Girl’s characters grew up and coupled off, the series masqueraded as a rom-com with some success, but platonic love between best friends remained the main draw. The penis cast came back from a long absence in the finale, but the focus on friendship rarely ever went away.

New Girl started with a simple premise: Jess, an idiosyncratic stranger who’s just been through a breakup, moves into a loft in Los Angeles with three equally idiosyncratic single guys who’ve been friends for years, and high jinks ensue. In general, the closer the series stuck to that formula, the more effective it was. New Girl’s familiar faces evolved as the series hit its stride: Jess grew more grounded; Nick and Winston got weirder; Schmidt mispronounced more and more words. The show rolled with life events like Damon Wayans Jr. (who played original roommate Coach) leaving after the pilot to appear on Happy Endings and returning for a time after Endings ended unhappily. It also enlisted temporary, pregnancy-related reinforcements: Megan Fox filled in as the loft’s newer girl, Reagan, during Deschanel’s fifth-season absence and stayed on for parts of Season 6. Nick and Jess got together, broke up, and got together again; so did Schmidt and Cece (Hannah Simone). Series creator Liz Meriwether, the cast, and the characters transitioned from 20s to 30s, and the A plot and B plots (if not necessarily the C plots) sometimes took on more serious tones. But throughout the rearranging of comedic and dramatic puzzle pieces, there was one constant: The loft and its inhabitants would be the antithesis of a Tough Hang.

For 22 minutes a week, New Girl filled viewers with vicarious companionship by giving us a glimpse of adult friendships that were, emotionally and physically, as close as college friendships. The series’ scripted bonhomie was all the more convincing because its cast’s on-screen chemistry clearly crossed over when the cameras were off (or at least a lot smaller). That blurring of lines between actors and characters made New Girl’s fictional friendships seem more attainable, even though they never quite were. Loft-level relationships are far-fetched for most of us in post-collegiate life; as the Sloan song says, “I know I’m a conformer, but I’m sure it doesn’t matter / My new friends are all adults and my old friends all have scattered.” But if New Girl’s loft was a fantasy, it was one that we were happy to indulge in, the same way we did while watching classic sitcoms like Friends and Sex and the City.

Midway through its run, the success of more serialized shows put pressure on New Girl to stack twist after twist in an attempt to transcend its origins as comfort TV. Throughout Season 3, the relationship reconfiguring came fast and furious: Nick and Jess and then not Nick and Jess; Schmidt and Cece, Schmidt and Elizabeth (Merritt Wever), Schmidt and Jess’s sister (Linda Cardellini); Cece and Coach. The lip-locking and bed-swapping wasn’t without its cathartic climaxes, but we never needed New Girl to enliven watercooler conversation. At times, the romance, and the fallout from the romance, interfered with friendship, just as it does in real life. The loft was our happy place, and the less it changed, the happier we were. Meriwether admitted as much, acknowledging during Season 4 that the writers had elected to “focus on comedy and simple stories” over more involved arcs.

The nice thing about New Girl was that it didn’t depend on the will-they-or-won’t-they; while the Nick-Jess and Schmidt-Cece pairings were inevitable long before they became permanent, we could almost convince ourselves that they weren’t. Some of the show’s strongest stretches coincided with periods when Nick-Jess romance wasn’t in the air. The two functioned fine as friends, bolstered by the bonds with their true platonic loves: Schmidt and Cece, respectively. “If you put water in Bugs Bunny’s hole, it’s gonna shoot out some other hole where Elmer Fudd least expects it,” Jess explained to Cece in the Season 6 episode “Jaipur Aviv,” during a phase when Nick was with Reagan. “I can’t express my feelings for Nick through my romance hole, so I need to express them through my friendship hole.” New Girl’s friendship hole was always the wider one.

Save for a massive spike in Season 3’s post–Super Bowl episode—on which, weirdly and wonderfully, Prince guested and Clayton Kershaw made a cameo—New Girl’s ratings trended downward almost from the start, outstripping the industrywide ratings erosion during its years on the air. Netflix syndication gave the series a second wind, but it found itself further and further from the cultural spotlight in its latter years; one could read the rust between the lines as writers that once covered the series regularly returned to it this week for the first time in years to deliver eulogies. The show came close to cancellation at the end of Season 6, and only impassioned pleas from its creator and cast led to a last-minute reprieve in the form of an eight-episode mini-season.

Because the writers tied up most of the major loose ends last season as a cancellation contingency, New Girl’s last gasp seemed inessential, if inoffensive and often funny when its well-honed comedic muscle memory kicked in. At times, the closing installments came off as an excuse to cram in as many cameos and references to previous seasons as possible. And in the end, even New Girl wasn’t immune to the march of maturity, as a Parks and Rec–esque three-year time jump took most of the principals away from the loft: Schmidt and Cece have a daughter, Winston and Aly (Nasim Pedrad) have a baby boy on the way, and Nick is a novelist on a long-lasting book tour who’s preparing to pop the question to Jess. While that personal growth wasn’t unwelcome—the loft got a lot less bro-y with age—it did make it more difficult for the writers to pull people together. Even in its senescence, the series still sang when the ensemble assembled, but in its last batch of episodes, the show finally felt the strain of intrusive real life. There wasn’t any other ending that would have rung true outside of sitcom conventions—How long can four or five friends stay single and keep cohabitating?—but even a happy end to arrested adolescence is still bittersweet.

In the finale’s first half, Nick and Jess get married, cementing their status after countless fits and starts. Their madcap wedding, which works out sweetly after nearly running off the rails, is a fitting end to their arc, but it’s also uninspired and sitcom-y: New Girl isn’t even the only series that’s ending its run on the network to invoke that trope this week. (Sunday’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows a similar structure.)

Fortunately, the second half of the finale feels more faithful to New Girl’s magnetic north. “Engram Pattersky” brings the group back to the loft for a forced-sentimentality session that gradually gives way to natural nostalgia. There’s one last round (game? match?) of True American, an epic prank, a final flashback to a much chunkier Schmidt, and a vintage Schmidt-Nick gag about foot lotion. (“For the first time in my life I realized that my feet could be more than weapons.”) Better yet, there’s a crucial callback to a pivotal scene from the Season 2 episode “Models,” which featured a B plot that co-showrunner Brett Baer described to me last year as “the first love story that Nick and Schmidt ever had together.” In “Models,” Schmidt buys Nick a cookie, and Nick fails to acknowledge the gesture. Later in the episode, he buys Schmidt a cookie to repair the rift, but he also tells Schmidt that Schmidt loves him too much, that he “picked the wrong guy,” and that he’s just going to let him down.

In “Engram Pattersky,” Nick reciprocates, overcoming his old inhibitions and expressing the sentiment that he felt all along.

It wasn’t a wedding scene, but it still stole the show. As the caption on the final poster put it, “Friends to the end.”

New Girl is an era-spanning series not only in the sense that it dates from a period when streaming services still needed networks to pad their libraries (and when, as Meriwether and Deschanel have noted, a sitcom with a woman lead and showrunner was still considered exceptional), but also in the sense that much of its audience aged out of the same life phase that its characters and cast did. In 2011, the year New Girl began, I was a single 20-something with a roommate; now I’m a married 30-something who lives with his wife. My high jinks have never been Nick-ish or Winstonian, but they’re similarly scarce (OK, nearly nonexistent) now. I wouldn’t want to watch a show about me, and it’s also the right time to move on from the settled-down denizens of the loft. Although at first they think they’re being evicted, by the end of the last episode, the friends leave their old digs by choice.

More than any particular plotline or pairing, New Girl’s warmth and faith in friendship will stick with me. Even if its old inhabitants no longer live there, it’s heartening to know that the loft is still just a streaming service away.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the location of the loft; it’s in Los Angeles.