Fox's New Girl had the quintessential "growing pains" season last year. After lighting the world on fire (not an understatement) with the Jess/Nick romance in season two, the show tried to do a lot of things that didn't quite gel for season three. Jess and Nick settled into co-habituating couplehood and had to confront each other's flaws; Schmidt tried to cruelly juggle two girlfriends and of course lost them both; Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) rejoined the cast mostly because Happy Endings was canceled, and the writers tried to figure out how to fit him in to the established dynamic basically on the fly.
I wouldn't call season three a disaster (others might) but it definitely tried to do too much, a lot of it without any clear-eyed planning, and ended its season by blowing everything up and breaking up Jess and Nick, since they had become pretty dramatically inert as a couple. That's a common TV problem, but showrunner/creator Liz Meriwether herself admits that she doesn't know how to write couples well.
Writing New Girl Season 4... Turns out I'm much more comfortable writing about single people. It'd be nice if that changed at some point.— Liz Meriwether (@lizmeriwether) June 24, 2014
As she told Alan Sepinwall, Jess and Nick's problem was that they became "too real"—Jess had to become an increasing scold and mommy-girlfriend to Nick because almost everything that's funny about him is how his life is in disarray. Trying to mix in Coach was also tough to watch—bringing Wayans back was a smart move because he's an incredible comic talent, but they had to both define his character and fit him into a group that had just started to figure out how to deploy Coach's replacement Winston.
Season four, which premieres on Fox tonight, is a very clear attempt to hit the soft reset button. We're not forgetting about Jess and Nick's relationship, but the show wants to stop generating plot from the two of them clashing, and go back to its original concept, being more of a general hangout show about feeling frustrated and confused in your early 30s. "The Last Wedding" sees the gang trying to get laid at the final wedding bash of the season, since they're at the age where everyone is getting married all of a sudden, and mixes in guest stars Jessica Biel and Reid Scott (Dan from Veep) as a romantic rival and love interest respectively. As New Girl episodes go, it's fine—kinda on-track for the show's season premieres in general, fun and airy, with Biel especially feeling like she's just there for the sake of it.
But what really gives me hope is the way Jess and Nick's chemistry has been retained without much damage being done. If the show continued to focus on the painful process of them breaking up and slowly moving on romantically, I'd basically be dreading the fourth season. Instead, the two are presented as being as cool with the situation as they reasonably could be—and it's plausible. Next week's episode "Dice" continues on this path, with Jess experimenting with a Tinder-like dating app, and it's even funnier than the premiere. It's too early to call it a comeback, but things right now are looking good.
I can't say the same for The Mindy Project (which debuts its third season right after New Girl at 9:30 tonight), but I must admit I've never been a fan of the show. I held out hope for so much of the first season, wondering if there was a show among all the potential on display (Kaling has serious attention-grabbing wattage, and she had such a great cast around her). Mindy has never functioned well as a workplace sitcom and only slightly better as a dating sitcom, but now it's settled into safer rom-com territory by uniting Mindy and Danny (Chris Messina) and having them be a full-fledged couple for season three.
This, of course, sounds like a retread of New Girl that could lead to the same problems—the show generates so much humor from Mindy and Danny being in conflict, which could be harder to do once they're together and have to be more considerate of each other's feelings. The show has always struggled in the ratings and was taken off the air for a good chunk of the 2013-2014 season. Getting Mindy and Danny together still feels like a bit of a panic move to me—while Jess and Nick's union in season two felt thoroughly planned out, Danny and Mindy feels more just because. I can't deny the two have decent chemistry. But now that they're together, are we just going to get Mindy and Danny and Their Wacky Work Friends? Because that's how the season three premiere comes off, and it serves more to underline the shallowness of the rest of the cast (a bunch of good actors with no definition to their characters) than anything else.