New Girl’s Jess and Nick (Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson) are the show’s version of Ross and Rachel, its Sam and Diane, its Jim and Pam. But while the friends-turned-lovers begin down this well-trodden path, they take several detours along the way—getting together only to break up, yet still remaining friends. We can apply lessons from their romance to our own relationships, where destiny often matters less than determination. Here’s our Take on what New Girl’s Jess and Nick teach us about building a successful partnership—even if at first you don’t succeed.
Jess and Nick are the central couple around which the world of New Girl revolves. They’re the show’s version of Ross and Rachel, its Sam and Diane, its Jim and Pam. From the very start, we’re led to see them as yet another in a long line of soulmate sitcom couples.
However, while Jess and Nick begin down this well-trodden path, they take several detours along the way. Rather than a tense, will-they-won’t-they that lingers over the show, we find out very quickly that they will. Then, it seems, they can’t. Jess and Nick’s romance lasts less than a season at first—and it’s far from the happily ever after we’d been conditioned to expect.
Nick: “Do you ever miss when we were just friends, Jess?” - New Girl, 3x20
It’s only after they’ve separated, spent some time dating other people, and worked on themselves that they’re finally able to be together for real.
Jess and Nick’s romance is one we can take lessons from to apply to our own relationships, where destiny often matters less than determination.
Here’s our Take on what New Girl’s Jess and Nick can teach us about building a successful romance—even if at first you don’t succeed.
Destiny Is Powerful (But It Isn’t Everything)
We romanticize destiny—the idea of “the one,” of “love at first sight,” of couples that are “meant to be.” And from early on, Jess and Nick appear to be one of those. Destiny is more than just great chemistry and sexual tension. It’s an inescapable force.
Nick: “I just wasn’t feeling it.”
Aly: “What’s it?”
Nick: “It’s obvious… it’s… y’know it’s…magic.”
Nick: “Lil’ bit of the magic.” - New Girl, 5x6
Not only do Jess and Nick seem to feel this about each other from the second she moves into his loft, their friends and fellow roommates sense it, too. Throughout, their relationship is alluded to as predestined and almost inevitable.
It’s in these moments that New Girl tips its hat to that archetype of the classic sitcom couple. But shows like Friends tend to believe in their perfect, central couple—presenting conflicts and challenges to their love but never losing faith that they will end up together. By openly questioning and occasionally mocking Jess and Nick’s seemingly predestined romance, New Girl subverts this expectation. And by having them get together—only to fall apart again and be happy about it—it leaves us questioning whether that “destiny” is even real.
It’s a postmodern approach to romantic storytelling that self-consciously draws attention to the traditional beats of their relationship, while also foregrounding the messy lives that complicate them.
But while it acknowledges its artifice, New Girl doesn’t take a cynical approach to romance. Rather, it acknowledges the natural conflict between destiny and a complex world full of imperfect people, who aren’t defined by their relationships, and who maybe aren’t ready to fulfill it just yet. Nick and Jess show us that fulfilling your destiny sometimes means putting it on hold.
If Jess and Nick are destined to be, why is it that when they finally do get together, it doesn’t work?
Nick: “I love you.”
Jess: “I love you too.”
Nick: “More than I’ve ever loved anybody.”
Jess: “But what if that’s the only thing we have in common?” - New Girl, 3x20
After all, they make each other laugh. They obviously care about each other. They have one of TV’s all-time-great first kisses. But once they try to formalize their relationship, something’s just not right. All their natural chemistry disappears.
Ultimately, their first stab at a relationship fails because the timing isn’t right. When they first get together, Nick is still a slobby, unambitious bartender who doesn’t even have a bank account. Jess is a little more put together, but her life is still in flux. She’s lost her teaching job, taking on a bunch of dead-end part-time gigs just to get by. It’s revealing that the first thing Jess and Nick do when they decide they’re “all in” is to run as far as possible from their actual lives.
Despite committing to one another, they’re not committed to themselves, meaning their personal problems inevitably end up getting in the way. Nick, despite his certainty about loving Jess, is still holding a part of himself back.
Of course, not only is the timing not right for the characters, it may not have been right for the show either. As the creators discussed, there was a lot of internal conflict over when and whether to bring Jess and Nick’s relationship to a head.
Brett Baer: “We table read it without that kiss at the end of that one episode, and you had been saying for weeks ‘we should do it’, and we said ‘no’, and we were wrong.” - The Paley Center For Media
Lamorne Morris, who plays Winston in the show, admitted that the writers thought they may have “jumped the gun” by getting Jess and Nick together too early. The relationship was openly criticized as evidence of the so-called Moonlighting curse, coined around the classic Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd sitcom that ran out of steam shortly after its own star-crossed characters got together. In a typical critique of New Girl’s romantic plot leap, Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins called Jess and Nick’s relationship “mortifying,” saying “Despite the tension running through seasons one and two, Nick and Jess are better at shouting than they are at Smurf roleplay.”
But while there were behind-the-scenes reasons for why Nick and Jess’s relationship imploded before it had barely begun, there’s also something more universal about why it didn’t work. They may have been ready to love each other, but they weren’t ready to truly know each other—or more importantly, to know themselves.
You Can Learn A Lot By Dating Other People
One way New Girl stands apart from other sitcoms is how much space it gives to the other relationships Jess and Nick have—treating each of them respectfully, and not as temporary obstacles. When Jess and Nick first meet, they’ve both been recently hurt. Helping each other get over their exes proves foundational to their friendship: In the pilot, Nick pretends to be Jess’s boyfriend after she’s stood up. By the third episode, Jess is pretending to be Nick’s girlfriend to make his ex-girlfriend, Caroline, jealous.
But even after their flirtation has turned sincere, they continue in these supporting roles, with Jess usually trying to befriend Nick’s romantic partners—even when they suspect or openly resent her for it.
Julia: “You’re the really fun teacher girl with all the colorful skirts, and you bake things, and eventually Nick is going to come running to you, and you’ll tuck him in under his blankie.” - New Girl, 1x11
And even after their own relationship has run its course, Jess and Nick never try to sabotage each other’s new romances. They still play each other’s wingman. Unusually, each of them genuinely wants the other to be happy—and both they and the show allow for the possibility that it just might be with someone else.
By creating this space to explore other relationships, both Jess and Nick are able to grow and learn more about themselves. With the hard-working lawyer Julia, Nick is forced to confront his irresponsibility. Conversely, dating the slacker Kai prompts him to realize he does have some ambition after all. And dating the sexually confident, extroverted Angie pushes Nick outside of his comfort zone, forcing him to finally open up.
Outside of Jess, Nick’s most serious love interest is arguably Reagan, the pharmaceutical sales representative who moves into the loft while Jess is on jury duty. Reagan is introduced as a typical “male fantasy”: She makes Nick’s favorite cocktail in a way that borders on erotic. Her revelation that she once had a brief fling with Cece is openly fetishized. Then there’s the fact that she’s played by Megan Fox. But over time, the fact that she remains so idealized and elusive actually starts to bother Nick—and he begins to see that what he wants and deserves is something more intimate and real.
Jess also dates a lot of different types of men throughout the show, many of them reflecting her own lack of self-confidence about who she is and what she really wants. Paul—the sweet, sensitive, extremely safe teacher she dates immediately after her break-up with Spencer—is a nice guy, but he’s mostly just training wheels for a real boyfriend. The same can be said of Jess’s later decision to settle for Robby, a nice, objectively great guy with whom, nevertheless—she has zero spark—possibly owing to the fact that, as they find out, they’re third cousins. Russell—the urbane, sophisticated older man—is the first to make Jess realize that she wants something more fiery and passionate out of a relationship. She gets it with the kind, handsome British teacher Ryan. But when Ryan moves home to England, and he lets their long-distance relationship wither, Nick reminds Jess that, ultimately, passion is meaningless without commitment. There’s very little consistency in Jess’s choices—although notably, none of them feel similar to Nick. Instead, Jess always seems to adapt to the boyfriend she’s with at the time, as though she’s trying out different versions of herself.
Jessica: “I feel like I’m an ambassador or a spy or like a really high-class prostitute.”
Russell: “Well, Jess, it’s a political fundraiser. Who’s to say you can’t be all three?” - New Girl, 1x20
Of all the guys who aren’t Nick that she dates, Jess has her most meaningful connection with Sam. Much like Nick and Reagan, their relationship is initially loose and carefree—part of a wilder phase that begins with Jess lying about who she is, then the two of them entering into something purely sexual and no strings attached. But eventually, they develop genuine feelings for each other, and begin seriously dating not once, but twice. In the end, the only thing that keeps them apart is, well, that destiny: Sam realizes he’s in love with his own literal Diane. And Sam helps Jess realize that—although she might be capable of loving someone else—she knows deep down that she’s truly in love with her own best friend.
Sometimes Being a Good Ex Makes You a Better Partner
Of all of Nick Miller’s philosophies, maybe the most contradictory is this.
Nick: “Possible sex is the only reason people stay friends with their exes.” - New Girl, 3x15
After all, he and Jess are not only friends after they break-up, their friendship is actually allowed to blossom and grow once it’s removed from all sexual tension. Jess and Nick may not have been great together, but they’re great at being each other’s exes. The space they give each other—when combined with the intimacy of having already been in a relationship—allows them to develop a uniquely strong bond that’s based in genuine affection and honesty.
GQ’s Delia Cai writes, “you can’t be good exes with someone until you’ve fully embraced the “ex” aspect of that label,” and this is one of the main reasons Jess and Nick manage to cope so well. Their break-up is amicable, mutual, and done for all the right reasons—namely, to recapture and preserve their friendship. Despite the inevitable awkwardness that comes with living with your ex, they work through it together and confront those challenges head-on.
Because they’ve gone through one together, they’re also able to help with each other’s relationship dilemmas. Again in GQ, psychotherapist Lori Gottleib argues that ex-partners are uniquely qualified to give dating advice, saying, “Your friends have never been in an intimate relationship with you, so they don’t know all the stuff that you do. But your ex does. And your ex can give you some really good, loving feedback.”
Nick: “Well, you know, maybe when things are going good you get scared and you look for reasons to doubt it.” - New Girl, 6x12
Often, relationships and friendships are viewed as an either/or situation. But New Girl shows that they can be deeper and more fluid than that—and not just when it comes to Jess and Nick. Schmidt and Cece’s relationship begins as purely physical before they forge a much stronger platonic relationship. Winston and Aly start out as literal partners on the police force, then become friends, and only then do they begin seeing each other romantically. In the end, Nick and Jess, Schmidt and Cece, and Winston and Aly all end up happily paired off—affirming that a good relationship simply can’t exist without a good friendship first.
Being Your Best Couple Means Becoming Your Best Selves
Over the course of the series, each of New Girl’s characters undergoes a remarkable personal journey. Schmidt evolves from arrogant, Douche Jar-stuffing bachelor to committed stay-at-home dad. Winston goes from directionless, unlucky-in-love ex-athlete to married cop. Coach changes from a guy who can’t talk to women into someone who moves across the country, just to be with his new girlfriend. Cece not only marries Schmidt and starts a family—she finds her true calling in running a modeling agency. And for each of them, there is a direct correlation between realizing their true potential and finding happiness in a relationship.
This is also true for Nick and Jess. It’s only after Nick has written his detective novel, “The Pepperwood Chronicles”—realizing his dream of becoming a successful author—that he can finally, fully confront his feelings for Jess. Jess, too, is in a much a better place this second time around. She’s now the principal of her school, achieving her own dream job. Both of them have become the best versions of themselves—and they can finally bring those best selves to each other.
Nick: “Oh, come on, please go faster. I got to tell my best friend I’m in love with her.” - New Girl, 6x22
Psychologist Abraham Maslow described the concept of “self-actualization” this way: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” He defined self-actualization as a process—a person is always becoming who they are truly meant to be. And Jess and Nick show the importance of committing to this process before committing to each other—of realizing their own, individual destinies—or at least, recognizing what that destiny even is—before their romantic destiny can be fulfilled.
The makeshift family we see in New Girl is remarkably malleable. They’re friends and lovers, surrogate parents and bickering siblings, hype-men, or voices of reason, all depending on what the others need from them. For a romance to really work, you often have to be all of those things for your partner, too. Jess and Nick support each other like good friends, they fight like siblings, and they take care of each other like an old married couple. They’re soulmates in a way that transcends the romantic myth of “love at first sight,” and instead shows the importance of time, patience, and gaining different perspectives when it comes to finding “the one.”
Much more than your standard will they or won’t they, Nick and Jess’s love story is a far more complex question of when they should, and who they should be when they do? It’s one we can all take a lesson from—whether we believe in destiny or not. When it comes to love, it’s important to take your time, forge a genuine friendship, and become the person you want to be first—the person your other half probably always saw.
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