By Lanford Beard
Updated September 25, 2013 at 04:54 AM EDT
Credit: Jennifer Clasen/Fox

New Girl is back, y’all. No disrespect to last week’s premiere, but tonight felt like the level of hilarity, heartstring-pulling, and sharp storytelling that spoiled us last season. To wit, Jess and Nick once more earned their couplehood, from the minute he spit-smoothed her bangs to his final words to her (“I would have noticed you”); the mean girls — and boy — on the sidelines reaffirmed why we loved the loftmates so much; Schmidt was up to his usual douchebag jar-worthy antics… but almost redemptively guilty about his behavior, and Winston got the chance to play with an adorable kitteh. Daisy was even featured — and, for whatever reason (probably her association with “Cooler”), I loves me some Daisy. Straight talk: I don’t want to get too excited because there are still 20-odd episodes remaining this season, but it was good, you guys. My optimism last week was not in vain.

For starters, Jess was anxious about a clique of teachers at her new school. They were brilliantly introduced in About a Boy-style with Mystikal’s “Bouncin’ Back (Bumpin’ Me Against the Wall).” (They were also, in Hollywood-geek parlance, a bunch of castaways from the class of 2013’s cancellation island, including Don’t Trust the B—-‘s Dreama Walker and The Office‘s Angela Kinsey and Mark Proksch.) These teachers were the teacher equivalent of high school Queen Bees, lording their superiority over owl-eyed outsider Jess, who tried to impress them by inappropriately bragging about how she’d gotten laid… that morning. Of course, this misplaced anecdote wasn’t the only way Nick factored in to the equation. You see, he was getting protective of his Jess. He assured her, “You’re Nick Miller’s girl now. You’re my old lady. Whatever you need, you got it!” Flash forward a few hours: All the school supplies he could buy with $15 and “a halfie” (a.k.a. a torn-in-two dollar bill) weren’t sufficient to ingratiate Jess with the in-crowd.

Still, Nick had himself been a hackysackin’-cool kid in high school (or at least stoned enough not to know that forming a ‘Sack Pack wasn’t as cool as he thought it was), so he deconstructed the dynamics at work — Jess was the token (and episode-titling) “Nerd.” Jess insisted she was never a nerd, but a madrigal flashback begged to differ. Nick offered this advice: “Roll with the punches, go with the flow, make fun of your boss a little bit, don’t follow your instincts. I wouldn’t sing.” Back-up: Nick buttered up the cool kids with free booze from his bar. Long story short, Jess earned her stripes by dancing in a toilet while singing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” Long-game pro: The cool kids approved (enough to grant her access to the fun mug cabinet in the teachers lounge). Short-game con: They started calling her “Toilet Pants” (or, per Nick, “the girl who bet herself $6 she could dance in a toilet bowl”).

The next morning, Jess was mega-hungover — so hungover that the fellows woke her up with a clap-clappin’ a cappella version of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Once at school, she thought she’d cleared the fence to coolness. But it wasn’t over. Jess found herself in yet another rite of initiation when the other teachers suggested breaking into Principal Foster’s backyard to “put [their] butts” in his “jacuzz’.” (Yes, he called it a “jacuzz’,” and no, I will not dignify that with any more words.) Nick recognized immediately that this “prank,” which would be considered a harmless in high school, would be deemed a felony when perpetrated by a full-grown adult. Furthermore, he warned her, “You’re not the kind of person who can break into the principal’s house and get away with it. You’re the kind of person who gets caught, and it ends up on the Internet in a funny way.” But this issue had deeper roots: Jess told Nick, “You’re right — I’m a nerd. I’ve never fit in. If I met you in high school, you never would have even noticed me.” Nick countered, “That’s because I didn’t go to class. I wouldn’t have seen you.” Still, Jess wouldn’t be dissuaded from her mission. Her final words: “If for some reason I don’t come home tonight, I’ll be at the Appleton Suites under the name Suzuki St. Claire. Ask for Charles.” (Side note: Why wasn’t Suzuki St. Claire written into Gossip Girl as a cousin of Nelly Yuki? Discuss.)

That night, just after Jess had been hoisted over Foster’s fence, Nick showed up — you know, because Nick is so good at breaking and entering. He made his way to the other side and valiantly told her, “I’m your old man now, and if you’re gonna do something that’s obviously very stupid… then I’m gonna do it with you.” They were sealing their foolish pact with a kiss when Foster caught them. Jess ducked into the bushes, leaving Nick to fall on the sword. And he was willing. But Jess emerged, acknowledging that she should be fired. Instead, Foster very liberally assumed that she must have just come to check out his “jacuzz’.” And so Nick and Jess began to disrobe… to Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait”… the ultimate act of sacrifice. (In my heart of hearts, I couldn’t help imagining Remy popping out of the shrubbery to round out the hot tub party. Only me? Okay….)

The next day, the cool kids validated Jess by thanking her for taking one for the team. To her credit, she was emboldened. When they invited her to join them in knocking back some liquid ecstasy and grading papers, she politely told them she had plans to hang out with her “old man.” Indeed, Nick was waiting outside like Jake Ryan at the end of Sixteen Candles (so sexy) — plus a hackysack. Jess headed out, and he assured her, “I just wanted to say that… I would have noticed you [in high school],” before sweeping her up in a kiss. In some ways, it was a mundane, everyday-couple moment (well… except for the subsequent teachers-lounge sex), but didn’t it make your heart soar a little? Didn’t it give you hope that, no matter how hard Schmidt tries to break Nick and Jess up (and we know that’s coming), these two crazy kids might just make it work? And isn’t that exactly what we love about New Girl?

MORE: The Schmidt hits the fan

Meanwhile, as EW exclusively previewed earlier, Schmidt was still very much juggling the affections of both Cece and Elizabeth. The latest crisis point came in the form of an office party. Schmidt had decided to take Cece (because — let’s be honest — she’s conventionally hotter), but his vengeful coworker Beth (Eva Amurri) threw a wrench into his well-oiled cheating machine by inviting Elizabeth. Schmidt showed up to Cece’s modeling gig on the night of the party with a pretty solid story about how the event was employees-only. Thinking her photo shoot would run late, she was cool with it. And then came out the live bees…

So Cece showed up at the party. Schmidt shuffled away Elizabeth, telling her, “Let me show you the stairwell — where they got the idea for the escalator!” Of course it wasn’t long before Elizabeth spotted Cece. But Schmidt was quick on his feet. Not only did he tell Elizabeth the completely plausible lie that Cece moonlighted as a caterer, he also convinced Elizabeth that they should start a role-play sex game wherein they were complete strangers and she was a businesswoman on the Hong Kong shift whose defining character trait was “first one to leave the party.” Meanwhile, he got Cece to wear an apron and carry a tray of food around because, he told her, it was the only way he could convince his boss she belonged at the employees-only party. Seriously, this is the kind of stuff only Schmidt could pull off.

Despite some serious interference from Beth, Schmidt had basically gotten Elizabeth out the door when Cece spotted her. Schmidt was about to come clean when Cece gave him an excuse so good he couldn’t refuse: “Does Elizabeth work here?” Of course he said yes! And so, when the two ladies had the face-to-face that could have ended Schmidt (and resulted in a non-Nadia penis breaking), they were each so bamboozled by the other’s cover story that it was a total non-event. Elizabeth complimented the food and noted how “the Asian markets wait for no one,” and Cece was impressed/pleased by how cold Elizabeth had been to Schmidt — all while being completely oblivious that she’d just been treated like the help.

So Schmidt lived to see another day as a two-timing Lothario — much to the chagrin of Beth. And yet! You could tell it was eating away at him. Schmidt may be a douche, but he’s not (entirely) heartless. We’ll just have to see how that one plays out over time, Newbies…

MORE: Purred Ferguson

Finally, Winston (that Old Reliable of C-plots) found himself responsible for Daisy’s cat. He had in his possession the requisite huge ball o’ yarn, and he was willing to take on the cat-sitting gig in order to score points with Daisy and prove that he was ready for commitment. Unsurprisingly, Schmidt was not happy about it because cats “carry disease, they are obsessed with my nipples, and they are unwelcome in this loft.” And how nipple-obsessed are they?

Schmidt was not alone. Frankly, Winston wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about cat-sitting either… especially once he went to Daisy’s apartment to retrieve her cat (his name is Ferguson!) and heard the shower running. And then it turning off. And then the toilet flushing. And then, amid this, he discovered a single — not to mention very large — man’s sneaker on Daisy’s floor. Winston’s no fool, so he was rightly suspicious that his lady had a gentleman caller.

Winston reacted… well… not swiftly… but drastically. Proving he has the same level of psychosis/chutzpah in exacting revenge on his girlfriends as he does with prankery, he decided to murder the Fergster. You know, instead of returning the cat or just letting him wander off into the night like a friggin’ normal person. The next day, while dangling a kitty-sized noose over the cat, he told Nick, “You know, I couldn’t figure out the best way to kill Ferguson, so I decided to just let him choose how he wants to die… if only I could get him to leave that damn sun beam.” He eventually set up his hammer and his baseball bat and his pillow, and he was prepared to finish Ferguson. But the kitteh was too adorbs! As if he knew this was his absolute last chance at life, the kitteh was rolling around and looking at Winston with his gigantic brown eyes (even bigger than Jess’s baby blues!). And Winston. Just. Couldn’t.

So Winston went to Daisy’s apartment to return Ferguson. Once there, he confronted her about the shower situation from the other day. She admitted she’d been with another guy before they were Facebook official… and also since. Winston admitted he had wanted to take things next-level, then said he deserved better — and so did Ferguson. He grabbed the pet carrier, slammed the door, and spat out, “I got ya cat!”

Back at the apartment, Winston, Nick, and Jess each stepped out of their rooms late at night and found Ferguson insatiably licking Schmidt’s nipples. Winston noted, “Okay, something is definitely coming out.”

MORE: Dotables, ho!

Notable Dotables…

Jess, saying something we’ve probably all said to our hair at one point…

“Uhhhhh, come on bangs, you sons of bitches!”

Schmidt: You know, I’ve never actually seen you this happy.

Nick [laughs]: Yeah!

Schmidt: I’ve never seen you smile. Ever!

Nick chuckles and smiles dumbly

Schmidt: This is the first time. It’s not bad. I mean, it’s not great…

Nick: Yeah, I agree. Somewhere right in the middle.

Winston: I’m going to go pick up Daisy’s cat. You know, you don’t just ask anybody to take care of your cat. That’s a very serious thing. So I’ve decided I’m going to go over there and ask her to be my girlfriend.

Schmidt: Major move! Look at you, man!

Winston: So I’m just gonna go over there and I’m gonna tell Daisy, “Listen, my heart is a two-man bike, and I want you… in the rear.” What do you think?

Nick: Winston, don’t say that. You want her in your–? You can say “the rear”… you want…?

Schmidt: No! Don’t say “the rear” any time!

Winston: You guys are just jealous, you’re trying to steal my swag.

Schmidt: I wouldn’t even know how to begin to steal a swag.

And did I mention…?

The entire series of moments throughout the above scene when Nick and Schmidt (and then Winston) forgot to push the elevator button?

Schmidt, to Elizabeth about his new office…

“I got it with the promotion, so I don’t have to look at Bethany’s mismanaged eyebrows all day. Do you like it? It’s a perfect two-thirds replica of Don Draper’s office from Mad Men. And you’re my sexy Peggy! [After Bethany asks him to shut the door] My tiny credenza’s in the way!”

To that meddler, Beth…

“How dare you interfere with my personal life, you crone! I don’t kick up a fuss when you massage yourself with your yoga ball. Beth, please. I am in love with both of these women. Do I feel bad about lying to them? Yes. I’m a Sagittarius.”

Schmidt: What did you do to her?

Nick: I just told her that I thought drinking would make her cool.

Schmidt: What are you, a 14-year-old hockey player?

Winston: An eye for an eye, Nick. A cat for a cat.

Nick: Oh yeah? What’s the other cat?

Winston: My heart.

Episode Recaps

New Girl

Zooey Deschanel plays lovable Jess, who is plodding through life with a good group of friends.

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