A review of tonight's "New Girl" — and thoughts on this season to date — coming up just as soon as I'm turned on by gas mileage on a Thursday...

This has been the first full season of "New Girl" where Nick and Jess have been a couple. This has also been a terribly uneven season of "New Girl" (though all the 2014 episodes have been much stronger than the ones from the fall).

That these two things happened at the same time has been a coincidence, not cause-and-effect.

Pretty much any time a TV series puts together a couple after a long period of sexual tension, fans and pop culture pundits start raising the specter of the "Moonlighting" Curse, which tells us that "Moonlighting" and every show like it gets ruined when the central couple hooks up. But that "curse" didn't actually apply to "Moonlighting" — which had already chased away most of its audience for other reasons (frequent reruns due to production delays, storytelling decisions driven by the intense loathing between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, etc.) well before David and Maddie got together for good — nor to most of its other alleged victims. There are too many examples of shows that did just fine creatively after hooking people up ("Cheers," "NewsRadio") for the idea to apply universally, too many examples of shows that crippled themselves trying to keep the central couple apart as long as possible ("Ed"). And most of the shows that did suffer at some point after the love connection were dealing with larger problems. ("The Office," for instance, was still very funny with Jim and Pam as a dating couple, and then as husband and wife, but then the show just started to get old and familiar, and then a lot of bad decisions were made following Steve Carell's exit.)

That's been the case with "New Girl." Certainly, the romantic tension in the loft as Nick and Jess realized they wanted to be more than just roommates was a huge part of the show's creative surge late last season, when for a few months it was clearly the best comedy on television. That charge is gone now, and it would be easy to blame the show's recent struggles on its absence.

But for the most part, Jess and Nick as a couple was not the problem back in the fall. There were times where the writers didn't quite know what to do with them, or forced one or the other of them to a stereotypical extreme — Nick as a prematurely old crank with little understanding of how to function as an adult, or Jess as an emotional rollercoaster — but there were also some funny and/or romantic stories featuring them, and others where their couplehood is simply a fact of life in the middle of other kinds of stories.

The problems came from other corners, like the decision to turn Schmidt evil for a while, or to make Winston crazy, or to bring back Damon Wayans Jr. as Coach and have him move back into the loft. The first was just a bad idea that lasted too long, the second was funny but wildly recalibrated one of the main characters and his role in the show, and the third seemed better on paper (Wayans was one of the best parts of the "New Girl" pilot before he left to continue doing "Happy Endings") than in practice (Coach ate up screen time from other characters, and wasn't as fleshed-out as the people the writers had two-plus seasons to work with). "New Girl" is a very peculiar show that tries to juggle a lot of tones, that veers freely between cartoon logic and very human emotion, and that sometimes tells shaggy dog stories while at other times aims for a kind of Swiss watch precision with its plotting. It's an incredibly delicate balance, and it takes very little to throw that balance out of whack. That Jess and Nick are dating is just one change of many, and at times it's been one of the season's stronger elements.

And the balance, thankfully, has been much better of late. Coach has become a richer, and thus funnier character, and his rivalry with Winston has given Lamorne Morris more to do than just play insane. Schmidt's back to being insufferable without being an outright jerk. And last week's episode and this post-Super Bowl installment have been the strongest of the season, almost entirely because of the way they dealt with Nick and Jess's relationship.

Though "Prince" was built around the guest appearance by the eponymous rock star (a rare bit of acting/comedy for him, 17 years after he guested on an episode of "Muppets Tonight"), had cameos by supermodels, a giant party scene and a climactic musical number where Zooey Deschanel got to sing along with The Artist Currently Known As Prince (when the others wonder how Jess knew the words, Jess shrugs and suggests, "I think Prince is magic"), the whole thing was ultimately about the three most important words in any new relationship, a phrase Nick impulsively says to Jess, only to have Jess freeze up and offer him a finger gun salute instead of a reciprocal "I love you."

It's a nice role reversal for the two, since Jess is usually too quick to declare her emotions, and it sets up a lot of good comedy for Deschanel and Johnson to play for the rest of the episode, as each half freaks out over what was and wasn't said. And it gives the magical Prince a big problem to solve, as well as ample opportunity to demonstrate his powers. (He can, for instance, order butterflies to land on his shoulder, and appear inside a locked room without warning.) Sitcom episodes designed to suck up to the visiting musician can be a dicey proposition, but "Prince" worked because the man is both a legend and an eccentric, and no story about him sounds too outlandish. (Prince even served Jess pancakes, as he once allegedly did to Charlie Murphy after humiliating him in a pickup basketball game.)

When "New Girl" can get its silly side and its emotional side clicking at the same time, it's something special, and "Prince" qualified. It was funny and joyful (especially when the whole group got on stage with Prince) and strange and poignant, all in perfect proportion.

And it did a great job with the supporting cast, too, as Coach and Winston set aside their usual bickering to break out their old Fire & Ice routine from college, somehow right in their belief that the combination (aka "warm water") can seduce anyone. After trying to break into the party to take his social life to a new level and leave his lame friends behind, Schmidt instead recognized that he's happiest around them, and he got to enjoy a warm moment with Cece before she inevitably stuck around to seduce Prince. (Though after she demolished him in ping-pong, he looked offended enough to pass up the opportunity.)



There remains something combustible in "New Girl" that may keep it from ever going on a run of greatness any longer than the amazing half-season burst from last spring. But it always has the capability to dazzle, and the coupledom of its main characters clearly hasn't taken that away.

Some other thoughts:

* Because the hope is to bring new viewers to the show from the post-Super Bowl showcase (even though it doesn't tend to work out that way these days), the teaser did an excellent job of establishing the main characters, the biggest conflict on the show (the loftmates adjusting to Nick and Jess's relationship) and the plot of this episode, all while setting an amusing record for number of times the word "panties" was recited in a single scene. And while the show always has fun with the way Schmidt pronounces words with t's in them, it was nice to have Coach and Winston have their own pronunciations for this. And the payoff — "That's not my underwear" — was perfect.

* I find the show's mini-flashbacks to be hit-or-miss, but I got a kick out of both Nick and Winston paying tribute to Prince in high school, and Winston making his date spit out her soup with a loud and abrupt "I love you!"

* I'm assuming all the talk of Winston's car's fuel economy was product integration, as it's the same brand as the one where Jess played car show model last season. In both cases, I found that the jokes in the scene were enough to not worry about the shamelessness of the promotion (especially since this is how bills have to be paid in the age of the DVR), but I suspect there will be some grumbling again.

What did everybody else think? Or was the Super Bowl blowout so dire that you stopped watching, and thus missed that the episode was starting 7 minutes earlier than scheduled? 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com