[Ahoy, there be New Girl spoilers ahead, through the most recently aired episode, "Mars Landing."]
A few weeks ago, New Girl neared the end of its third season the way it began it: by admitting that it doesn't know what it's doing.
In "Mars Landing," the last episode that aired before the show returns Tuesday night, weirdo roommate couple Nick and Jess put together a toy for the infant son of Jess's friend Sadie (a literally phoned-in June Diane Raphael) while hung over, and they broke up in the process. Twice, maybe. They still loved each other, they admitted, but their plans for the future, and the future of their hypothetical children, were too incompatible to overcome. Nick is from Mars (or will be, one day, once the migration starts in earnest), Jess is from Earth.
So New Girl split them up.
That's not the problem. The problem is that it came pretty much out of nowhere, which suggests that it actually came out of desperation and story panic. Oh, there have been countless breakup fake-outs aplenty all season, but like last episode's not-an-imaginary-story, they were all predicated on conflicts that the writers seem to be inventing whole-hog from week to week. (Something that New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether has essentially admitted.)
None of Nick and Jess' dustups or relationship panics arose naturally out of anything that had been established between them. Nick and Jess were never headed for a breakup. The show simply broke them up through a spontaneous and contrived conflict, and it was hard to watch without the gnawing suspicion that it was because nobody behind the scenes knew what to do with them as a couple anymore.
That problem isn't limited to Nick and Jess. In fact, there were warnings that this would be New Girl's m.o. at least as far back as the end of the first season, when the bizarre, antagonistic and still oddly heartwarming courtship of Schmidt and Cece suddenly crashed because ... something something White Fang. And rather than let that development be, the show immediately began second-guessing itself at the start of the next season, when a regretful Schmidt plotted to undermine Cece's boyfriends and sabotage her wedding.
There are plenty of other examples of New Girl storylines that seemed to spring out of, or follow a track built on, nothing beyond a desire on the part of the show to Make Something Happen. It happened with Jess and Sam. Winston and Shelby. Winston and Daisy. Just Winston in general, really. Not one of them found a dynamic that was allowed to simply play out without what felt like constant external fiddling. Instead, they flailed to find traction and then just sort of gave up with a shrug.
In a way, the problems of New Girl are reminiscent of (some of) the (many) problems of Heroes, the superhero show that made a splashy arrival in 2006. Creator Tim Kring was great with origin stories; that's essentially what the entire first season of the show was. Unfortunately, Kring had no idea what to do after that, so for season two, he simply kept on inventing more and more supers to throw into the mix until it was hard to care anymore. We'd already spent an entire season watching a dozen characters' journeys of discovery and were now keen to see what they did with that information. But Kring wasn't interested in that. He just wanted to write more origin stories.
Meriwether seems to feel the same way about writing Big Relationship Changes that Kring did about creating superheroes. We saw Nick and Jess panic about becoming a couple, and then become a couple, and then panic about various crises that could have ended their coupledom, and then stop being a couple. And in that time, one thing we almost never saw was Nick and Jess actually being a couple.
It's not because there wasn't any narrative juice in a Nick/Jess pairing. Their relationship could have been the story of Jess gradually dragging Nick in the direction of becoming a put-together human being. It could have been the story of the tension between a bright-eyed optimist and a schlumpy underachiever. It was neither, because the writers don't seem interested in picking a lane and seeing where it leads. Instead, they constantly fidget from one to another, always at the last second and always with almost immediate regret at not having made a different choice.
New Girl can still be fairly reliably funny. The Coach/Schmidt battle-threat scene in "Mars Landing" was a gem, especially Max Greenfield's delivery of the line, "Once again, Schmidt has found himself in a position where he is INFURIATED!" It's a show with these great, weird comic actors playing these great, weird characters with these great, weird relationships. But time after time, the show demonstrates that it doesn't have the slightest idea how to use any of them.