When New Girl first hit the airwaves in 2011, it was billed as being all about Jess (Zooey Deschanel), a quirky teacher trying to figure out her life after a serious breakup by moving into a Los Angeles loft apartment with three dysfunctional men. (If there were any doubts about which character was the primary focus of the show, the opening credits did their best to dispel them, with the male characters acting as stagehands while Jess sang and mugged for the camera.) The show had been sold entirely on the back of Deschanel, the “adorkable” movie star stepping into the sitcom world, and its early episodes focused mostly on Jess’s romantic and professional misadventures.
At some point, though, things changed—to the point where the Fox sitcom, which aired its 100th episode Tuesday night, was able to replace its star entirely with another character played by Megan Fox, to cover for Deschanel’s maternity leave. Fox’s guest stint didn’t just reinforce how much the show has evolved past its initial premise—if anything, losing Jess made the show better than it had been in years. Tuesday’s episode, in which she finally returned to the loft, felt almost jarring, upending the inspired new directions the show had pursued while she was gone. The standard model for network sitcoms is to obey the status quo, and snap back into default settings again and again (think six friends sitting around a coffee table in Central Perk, or bantering over minutiae at Monk’s Diner). But this season of New Girl has proved how much that can disable storylines and characters, and how sitcoms might benefit from drastically shaking things up.