One of the biggest complaints audiences and critics have levied against “New Girl’s” more recent seasons is the seeming disinterest it’s begun to take in Zooey Deschanel’s title character — often focusing on Jess’s roommates over her as a character. Thanks to consistently spectacular performances from Jake Johnson, Lamorne Morris, and Max Greenfield (Nick, Winston and Schmidt), it’s hard to deny just how often Jess has been overlooked.
Going into last night’s episode then, “Christmas Eve Eve” — which doubles as both the show’s Christmas episode this year and its final outing in 2016 — the biggest talking point seemed to be the long-awaited return of Megan Fox’s Reagan. After a short, memorably fantastic run early last season, the character’s had a lasting impact on the story, remaining Nick’s long distance girlfriend in the interim and lingering just on the outside of a number of the show’s drama this season so far.
However, for better or worse, Reagan ends up being pushed to the side more than anything else in “Christmas Eve Eve,” in an episode that doubles down on the Winston/Cece magic and specifically tackles why Jess is so integral to the entire group.
After talking the rest of the group into a Secret Santa, the episode follows Jess’s struggle to give Nick the most perfect Christmas gift she can think of: Fly Reagan in from Seattle for one magical night — even if it means helping him serve dozens of drunk mall elves at the bar to make sure he’s home for Reagan’s arrival.
Unfortunately, her plea for him to make sure he doesn’t miss out on spending the holidays with the people he loves ends up backfiring when, in usual sitcom/”Gift of the Magi” tradition, Nick decides to buy his own plane ticket to visit Reagan. Jess’s strange behavior and apparent reluctance to let him go leads to one of the season’s best scenes to date — when Nick confronts her head on about her strange behavior ever since he got back from New Orleans in the premiere.
Everything takes a bit of a heartbreaking turn for Jess from there on out: She finally just tells Nick why she’s not letting him leave, which makes him feel “immediately sorry,” and then maybe the most telling and sad moment of the episode comes as it’s revealed Jess forgot to put in her own name for the Secret Santa, meaning no one got her a present this year.
The reason this twist works so well isn’t because one of the other roommates just forgot to get her a present, but that it’s Jess’ own fault she gets passed over. While filling out the names and setting up the whole game, drunk and happy one night, she just forgot to put her name in, too focused on including her friends. It’s that kind of selfless devotion to making her friends happy that’s made her such a driving force in the group’s bond over the years, and it was heartwarming to see the show acknowledge that in such an unexpected, intelligent way.
Of course, the group pulls through — and with the help of Robby, Jess is able to get the perfect Christmas gift by the end of the night. Tellingly, Robby is a background player throughout — exchanging gifts with Jess doesn’t seem to come up.
We notice too that Nick never actually says he’s going to visit Reagan because he loves her — just that, like Jess said, he wants to spend it with someone “he finds really special,” or someone he “cares about,” always rewording from “love” to something with a bit of a lesser commitment attached to it. We’re onto both of their tricks, with such a long-running show, and this is one of those times where Nick and Jess’s feelings for each other are broadcast more strongly when they, and the show, ignore the inherent complications.
What makes “Christmas Eve Eve” work so well, in the end, is how it manages to do so much with such a very simple — and one could argue, tired — sitcom premise. If someone had told us Megan Fox would end up with maybe a minute of screen time in “Christmas Eve Eve” total, and that it was an episode really all about Jess, that might have felt like a letdown.
Instead, “New Girl’s” loving tribute to Deschanel’s character at the episode’s end was less about feeling cheated, and more ashamed for how much we’ve grown used to taking Jess for granted. We don’t imagine that will be the case again any time soon.
“New Girl” returns to FOX on Jan. 3.