I liked “What About Fred” from the moment its guest roster was announced last March. And that enthusiasm pretty much mirrored Jess’ arc in the episode: It’s nice to see Taran Killam working outside his Saturday Night Live wheelhouse and all, but I was more excited to see Juile Hagerty and Henry Winkler playing Killam’s mom and dad. Could I blame Jess for thinking Nancy (Hagerty) and Flip (Winkler) are cooler, more fun, and better catches than their dolt of a son? Of course not. It’s Elaine from Airplane and Arthur goddamned Fonzarelli!
The New Girl roommates have plenty of reason for flipping out over people like Flip and Nancy. Outwardly, these are the people who got it together. They’ve been married for 35 years, but act like childhood sweethearts. They spend afternoons in the park reading, painting, and munching on the baguette sticking out of Flip’s backpack. (Not a euphemism.) They have a boss home-theater setup. On other shows, that might inspire jealousy. But on a show about five overgrown kids in search of adulthood, Flip and Nan are role models and friendship material. The couple casts a spell over Jess and Winston that works with cartoonish speed and efficiency, but it lands because that reaction is quintessentially New Girl.
Like last week’s season premiere, “What About Fred” has an unfussy charm to it, beginning with the main storyline, which could feasibly be a leftover pitch from Jess’ game of season-four relationship roulette. From there, the escalations come naturally: Jess’ new boyfriend is a snooze, but his parents are great—and then Winston hops on the Flip-Nan Express, and then they’re scheming to ditch Fred for his mom and dad, and then mom and dad turn out to be schemers themselves. The erstwhile Mrs. Kerkovich and Dr. Saperstein appear to be having the times of their lives, especially after their characters turn conniving. They make a sweet duo of con artists, smiling with one side of their mouths while spilling some Indecent Proposal shit out the other. They know a mark when they see one—though this mark is sharp enough not to fall for the old “Terry Gross owns the house next to us in Vermont!” ploy.
Also contributing to the episode’s looser feel: The New Girl editors are probably sitting on a ton of unused footage of Taran Killam reciting model-railroad arcana or dancing his way through a traffic stop. Jess calls Fred a “human pile of saltine dust,” but he’s mostly made of riffs, as his particular brad of dullness allows the actor to go on long, rambling interludes in a hilariously self-satisfied monotone. (“I’m also quite good at flocking snow. I’m very popular around the holidays.”) He’s just right for an SNL vet like Killam, who’s accustomed to quickly communicating a character’s one defining trait, and then wringing every last laugh from that trait. Consider his scenes in “What About Fred” as the distinct beats in a super-sized comedy sketch.
While Jess and Winston are coveting Nancy and Flip’s maturity, Schmidt is trying to get Nick to affect his own. It’s an ongoing dialogue between these two: Schmidt sees Nick as a reserve of untapped potential and ambition; Nick has very little use for things like “potential” and “ambition.” But now that the duo own part of the bar, other people’s livelihoods are at stake if Nick doesn’t Schmidt up. So he throws on a tie, institutes a poorly received uniform policy, and lays the managerial schtick on a little too thickly, firing one of the bartenders and inspiring the rest of his former colleagues to walk out on the job. They’re led by Cece, who means it as no offense to her fiancé—she and Schmidt are excellent at establishing strict work/relationship boundaries. (“Sorry, bae. I cannot scab, but I’m here for you as your fiancée.”)
It’s a matter of too much, too soon, and the desire to skip steps the characters aren’t prepared to take. Commenting on some behind-the-bar PDA early in “What About Fred,” Jess and Winston swoon over the loving groove Schmidt and Cece have found—it’s why they fall for Flip and Nancy in the first place. But they can’t just proceed to that warm-and-comfy state in their own relationships, just as Schmidt can’t shove Nick into the deep end of managing the bar. They have to work at it first.
That’s the stealthily important role that Fred plays in “What About Fred.” He’s sort of an anti-Nick. (Read into that—and its implications for Jess and Nick’s future—what you will…) His parents gave him all of these opportunities, and he’s made nothing out of them but a model railroading hobby. Nick has spoiled his fair share of opportunities, but he’s finally starting to build some semblance of a life for himself. The character is a cautionary tale for all of the New Girl regulars: Fred is the face of true immaturity, eternally lit by the screen of a smartphone. They might talk to their cats, destroy pint glasses that they technically own, or date a guy just for his parents, but at least they don’t have any anecdotes about eating a ball of dough al fresco. If Fred is the type of person who was raised by people as worldly, adventurous, and compassionate as Flip and Nancy, maybe Flip and Nancy weren’t such great role models to begin with.
- Fred’s “at-home movie date in the middle of the day” date should’ve been the first red flag: “Doesn’t that make it sound like he’s a boy who’s allergic to everything?”
- Flip and Nancy have an intoxicating effect on Jess: “You seem like you’re on cocaine.” “Yeah right: Flip and Nancy and I hate drugs.”
- Schmidt’s distaste for Birdman is great, but “Save your groans for Birdman” is one of those jokes that’s sold solely through Max Greenfield’s idiosyncratic pronunciations. (He pronounces the title like it’s someone’s last name—like that Friends tag where Phoebe thinks there should be a superhero named Gold-Man.)
- And now, the triumphant return of LOLFerguson, in which our favorite feline has a cheese-related message for Fred: