By Lanford Beard
Updated January 22, 2014 at 05:30 AM EST
Credit: Patrick McElhenney/Fox
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Now this is the episode that should have been positioned as the fall finale, don’t you think, Newbies? It had everything — a touching happy ending, misunderstandings and shenanigans, a glimpse of reconciliation between Cece and Schmidt, Ben Falcone (!), genuine Nick Miller chivalry (followed by the most passionate Nick-Jess smooch we’ve seen in months), something for Winston and Coach to do that resulted in actual character development, and Tran! “Birthday” was New Girl at its most elemental, easily ascending to best-of-season status. I might even put it as one of the top five episodes of the whole series. Agree or disagree?

With the Prince-centric post-Super Bowl episode queued up (next Tuesday’s ep is pre-empted by President Obama’s State of the Union address), I’m actually hopeful that my wild-eyed optimism in the preamble to “Clavado En Un Bar” might not have been that far afield. (And, speaking of fields, what could have possibly inspired Lamorne “Winston” Morris to neigh like a horse during this teaser interview about the next few eps? Hint: It’s kinda dirty.) So let’s not waste another minute before getting into it, Newbies!

As the episode title suggested, it was Jess’s birthday. Recognizing her expectations of others were too high, she’d established a tradition of watching a movie alone so no one could disappoint her. Nick, however, didn’t want his lady love to endure such a pitiful birthday. He had big plans. Well, one big plan. He had put everything he had “physically, emotionally, and financially” into a huge party that would happen at 7 p.m. Unfortunately, pulling that event together in secret had distracted him from actually planning anything else for the day itself. But Jess was convinced she could be “one of those cool girlfriends who has bed-head and wears men’s shirts and sneakers” and who doesn’t care if her boyfriend doesn’t make elaborate plans for her birthday.

Flash forward to 7 a.m. the next morning: Jess was up like a shot, and Nick was desperate to fill time. He allotted 90 minutes to make an omelette, for starters. Flash forward another couple of hours: After a six-minute breakfast (that Jess prepared to save time), a quickie (what’s the 8:30 a.m. equivalent of a nooner?), a free diabetes test (Nick panicked and took Jess to a drug store), and a ridiculous coincidence that led to Jess accidentally stealing a young child’s birthday party, the birthday girl was more disappointed than ever — exactly what she’d hoped to avoid. She fled home in tears, croaking to Nick, “Don’t follow me!” To be continued…

Back at home, everything was going haywire. Nick had put Winston in charge of getting the cake. He had one thing. And he screwed it up. Nick got a look at the cake decorated with a giant gun, covered in jelly-frosting blood, and emblazoned with the words, “SEE YOU IN HELL, BOOMER!” and he put Coach (who’d secured the decorations) on the case. Naturally, competitive Coach taunted Winston with a kazoo before they mutually challenged each other to a bake-off. Ultimately, they had a bonding moment when their cakes merged, teaching them both a valuable lesson about friendship. (Also, who doesn’t want a double-sized supercake on her birthday?)

NEXT PAGE: Everyone’s dream boyfriends, Ben Falcone and Nick Miller

At the bar, Cece was covering for Nick, much to the chagrin of Nick’s surly coworker Mike (Falcone) — whose exact words, I believe, were, “I hate all you damn hipsters.” Schmidt stopped in to help Cece, who promptly smashed a pint glass into the ice tub. Mike assured Cece he was ready to rat her out to their boss and that she couldn’t win him over with her charm or model-good looks because he’s “super-gay.” After she served up an Old Fashioned that was actually a coffee mug full of gin with a peanut in it, Mike challenged her to make an actual Old Fashioned with that threat that he’d call the manager. He added, “And I want to call him anyway because he’s gorgeous. I want to be a barnacle on his ship, just hanging on by my mouth getting all the nutrients I need.” Well then… Schmidt walked Cece through the process (overlooking as she mistook Scotch for bourbon, then for vermouth),and his tutelage kept Mike at bay. That is, until Cece accidentally hosed him with the keg spout. Feeling embarrassed and unskilled, she was ready to quit, but Schmidt gave her a near-flawless pep talk (depending on how you fall on his closing tip: “Pull your shirt down, this isn’t a monastery”). Not long after, Cece had rallied and completed a number of tasks around the bar, much to Mike’s surprise. Before tossing her apron in the grump’s face, she signed off curtly: “My friend and I have to go to a party.” Yep. She’d called Schmidt her friend. Progress!

Back to Jess, who’d been so blinded by sobs while returning to the apartment that she’d completely missed the scads of decorations and gifts. (She also let Coach convince her the baking smell was from a bakery explosion: “Don’t look into it, it’s not on the Internet,” he advised.) By the time Nick got back, she’d slipped away to her old refuge, the movie theater. She loaded up two large buckets of heavily buttered popcorn and waited as the lights went down. After the no-cell-phones message, Nick popped up on the screen and said he thought she’d like some company. In real life, he slid into the seat next to her and watched as she read a message he’d taped under her seat (well, technically under all the seats… just in case). It was a Nick Miller original poem: “My name is Jess, I like to wear tights. It’s dark in this room, so turn on the lights.” With that, the theater was illuminated, and everyone shouted, “Surprise!”

Next up, a movie Nick put together that featured all the regulars (Winston narrated, obviously) as well as many of the also-ran oddballs we’ve come to know and love — Jess’s parents, Sadie, Outside Dave (chyroned as “Neighborhood Color”), Jess’s Principal Dr. Alan Foster, Bearclaw, (“Sent this [tape] to [Nick] unsolicited”), Jess’s coworker/loose cannon Rose (played by Angela Kinsey), her students (“Weirdly OK with a strange man videotaping them”), even Tran (who “said a bunch, but it was really weird and racist”)! Finally, on-screen Nick closed with an awwwww-inducing note as he pulled out a nickel and said, “This is the coin I had in my pocket the first night we kissed. And I always have it.”

The surprise was pitch-perfect. As were Coach and Winston’s vocal runs as they walked in singing “Happy Birthday” and carrying a Jess-shaped cake, which they’d brilliantly created using their fused cakes. Only, when the gang turned to Jess, she’d vanished. Nick went out to the lobby and found her crying. Again. He began to apologize for botching her present, but! She planted a huge kiss on him, and he understood she was weeping from joy. “That was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” she told him. They kissed again. And it suddenly occurs to me, have these two ever said “I love you”? What’s up with that?

Bonus footage: Schmidt’s part of the video, showing him walking away from an exploding car James Bond-style, then running from packs of dinosaurs and diving at the camera 3-D-style. Maybe this party should have been the one with the “Danger” theme.

NEXT PAGE: “This [birthday party] is our Rudy.”

Notable Dotables…

Cece [to the guys, out of earshot from Jess]: She has no idea about the party! [The guys all cheer, and Jess hears.]

Nick [covering]: Uhhhh… Winston’s STD free. [The guys, except Winston, cheer again. Nick gives him a pointed look.]

Winston: Woo! Close call! Yeah, haha, close call, y’all.

Nick: Do you guys know how hard it’s been for me to keep this party a secret?

Schmidt: Nick, it’s been an inspiration. That’s why we’re going to help you cross that finish line, okay? This is our Rudy.

Nick: Very condescending, but thank you.

Cece: I’m ready [to tend bar alone]!

Mike: You set fire to soda water. Who does that? How do you even possibly do that? It’s not even a flammable thing. How do you… are you a witch?

Winston: I’m done letting you run the court. I’m building my own court, and it’s going to be bigger and yummier than yours.

Coach: You challenging me to a bake-off, Bish?

Winston: Yes, I am challenging you to a bake-off.

Coach: Okay, well then I’ll do the countdown.

Winston: You know what? [Grabs the timer] I’ll do the countdown then. The countdown begins when this timer goes off. [They stare at each other for several seconds until Coach looks down at the timer.]

Coach: You set the timer for 20 minutes. [Winston resets the timer, and they stare at each other again; Coach says in a gravelly, aggressive voice] I’m going to make a cake so moist, girls are gonna be like, “Ew! Why do you say ‘moist’? I hate that word.” But I’m gon’ be like, “Just taste the cake,” and they’re gon’ be like, “Damn, it’s moist.”

Nick: Do you know any time-consuming and free activities in Griffith Park?

Schmidt: Gross! [Thinks about it…] Suicide?

Cece: I can’t do anything. No skills. I never told you this, but I didn’t even graduate high school.

Schmidt: A lot of people never graduated high school — Einstein, Bill Gates, Anne Frank [realizes what he just said] I’m going to take back that last one.

What worries Nick Miller on the (presumed) brink of death…

“I’m pretty sure I’m having a heart attack, and I haven’t arranged for anybody to clear my Internet history. I wasn’t building a bomb! I was just curious.”

Jess’s Birthday Video Intro (written by the man behind Z Is for Zombie)

“In the beginning, there was nothing. And then there was light and dark and ocean and birds and stuff. And then there was… Jess!”

Episode Recaps

New Girl

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

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