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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

New Girl: “A Father’s Love”

Illustration for article titled New Girl: “A Father’s Love”
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A lot of television shows aren’t lucky enough to last beyond a first season. Hell, a lot of them don’t last more than 13 episodes. But the ones that are renewed, the ones that a network is willing to make a long-term bet on, are the ones that do an efficient job of answering “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how” questions in their first season. “Who are these people?” “Where and when do they interact?” “What is their relationship to one another?” “How would Character A react to Character B in Plot Point A, and what is the outcome?” Maybe some “why” questions are peppered in there, but they can’t dominate the series’ early goings. “Why?” is an advanced-level question, one that requires a base knowledge of the characters and their situation to arouse the curiosity about the deep-seated answers to a “why” line of inquiry.

As such, asking “Why?” on a regular basis is a privilege largely reserved for shows that make it to a second season. With the extra space of a second season, there’s less worry that “why” questions might derail the main narrative or ongoing character development. In the first season, delving too deeply into a character’s childhood or their basis for their motivations dilutes the signal-to-noise ratio—it’s difficult to get a concise, effective story told when a writer or showrunner is guiding his or her viewers toward psychoanalyzing characters they barely know. New Girl’s first season indulged in those types of digressions every once in a while, but it rarely made for the most satisfying episodes. The ones that made their “Why?”s work, meanwhile, were the those that came later in the season, too: By the show’s 15th episode, the show had laid enough groundwork to start examining why Nick is so damn stubborn. There’s a tremendous risk of over-explaining through these types of episodes (or just baldly stating the “Why?”s in the script), but New Girl has largely avoided those pitfalls—even in “A Father’s Love,” an episode where Nick comes out and says “You wanna know why I’m messed up? Why I don’t trust people? Why I have anger issues? Why I have the blood pressure of a hummingbird?”

Of course, it helps “A Father’s Love” in the long run that Nick yells these questions while furiously hammering away at some plumbing—performing an “angry fix” as they call it around the loft. It’s a good little gag, and it’s the type of behavior we’ve seen from Nick in the past, so it’s not like the presence of his father (played by a perfectly cast Dennis Farina) flips an unknown switch. Walt Miller is a career con man, the type of dad who once tried to win his kid’s affection with a box full of misprinted Chicago Bulls hats. Nick grew up resenting his father and his untrustworthy, unpredictable ways, and when Walt shows up at the loft without warning—and in the middle of a new addition to the show’s mythology, the tactile-guessing game called Feely Cup—his son is instantly skeptical. An invite to go bet on the ponies proves Nick’s instincts correct, and while “A Father’s Love” goes a little lopsided once Walt’s latest con kicks in, it does turn in a few surprises running parallel to the main plot.

Here’s the thing: It would be a waste to cast Dennis Farina in the role of a flim-flam man and then keep him flim-flamming a few people. But “A Father’s Love” forgets one of the most important lessons of a great con-man episode like The Simpsons“Marge Vs. The Monorail”: In a condensed format like the half-hour comedy, it’s not the con that should take precedence—it’s the consequences. The Nick-Walt-Jess plot of “A Father’s Love” spends a lot of time setting up the specifics of Walt’s “Buy a racehorse for cheap, sell it as a stud” scam (or as I like to call it, “The Ejaculatariat”), at the expense of the events occurring around the scam. The episode has great fun using Walt to poke at Jess’ too-trusting nature and illustrate the reasons Nick is ill-suited for his dad’s line of work, but those developments betray Walt as more of a writer’s device than a character. Ultimately, Walt’s defined more by how the principals’ feel toward him—I’d be remiss not to mention Winston’s misplaced affection for old man Miller, later explained in a nice bit of dramatic work for Lamorne Morris—but that can mostly be ascribed to the basic functions of a guest character. He’s here to initiate the plot, reflect different aspects of the main characters, and then sneak out the door to grab a bagel in Chicago. If only the story he introduced didn’t feel so incidental.

Of course, the same could’ve been said of Robby a few episodes ago—but his return leads to the highlight of “A Father’s Love,” a Schmidt-focused B-story that gets Max Greenfield back to doing what he does best: acting in morally repugnant ways that nonetheless prompt warm feelings for his character. Don’t get me wrong: It’s creepy that Schmidt and Robby end up following Cece to a date arranged by her parents—and even creepier that the unlikely allies end up pounding down the door at their shared ex’s apartment. Their stalker-like behavior is rightfully admonished by Cece, but misery loves company, and comedy loves two former rivals becoming friends. Schmidt trying to win Cece from another man is tired territory, but teaming with Robby to do so—with the character utterly committed to throwing his newfound friend to the wolves when the proper time comes—proves a tremendous source of laughs. Greenfield and Nelson Franklin have a good give and take, with Franklin’s wary amiability providing a fruitful springboard for Schmidt’s openly admitted plans for backstabbing. Their scenes together reiterate one of New Girl’s core themes, providing Schmidt and Robby shoulders to cry on where they’d least expect to find them—just as the show did for Jess at its very beginning.

“A Father’s Love” takes a while to get going, but once it does, it opens up an enjoyable strangeness that the show doesn’t often indulge in. It comes in measured doses, thankfully: An estranged father reaching out to his half-naked son with a pair of slacks—which is then eaten by a thoroughbred—is balanced by “Schmidt And Robby, Reluctant Drinking Buddies.” If Walt ever returns from the world’s longest bagel run, I hope Farina gets more scenes with Johnson like the ones Greenfield and Nelson share this week. This usually isn’t the case, but words prove a lot more entertaining than actions in this episode; looking back on “A Father’s Love,” I find myself relishing the moments when Schmidt and Robby riff on their plans to fell a billion of their fellow suitors and dreading the inevitable scene of Nick and Walt negotiating their way through a horse sale. Those Schmidt-Robby scenes are just a more natural fit for New Girl at this point in the show’s lifespan. The answers to their “Why?”s arise organically, from within the show and through information that’s been previously established. When Walt ducks out, sending an enraged Jess to monkey with the sink, his exit begins the cycle of “A Father’s Love” anew. Perhaps Farina’s next guest shot will build to more satisfying, less equestrian ends from there.


Stray observations:

  • “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms: (Hey! I just realized I’ve been ignoring a perfectly good title for this weekly feature. But I digress.) A con-man setup provides an obvious opportunity for fake names, and the process of purchasing A Father’s Love, the horse, requires Walt and Jess to assume the identities of a Grenada-based veterinarian and her John Hughes-inspired benefactor, Uncle Buck.
  • The way the Fox comedies currently tumble directly into their end credits makes for some weird episode conclusions. Without distinct delineation between the final scene and the tag, “A Father’s Love” peters (har har) out on a joke about Nick “Don’t call me ‘Little Penis’” Miller wrapping a sock around his junk in lieu of underwear. It takes some of the punch out of the ending, and I have to wonder how the writers and producers feel about this move toward streamlining the last minute or so of their show.
  • The misprinted Bulls caps read “CHICA GO BILLS,” which Jess informs us is Spanish for “Young girl. Go bills.” “Who was going to mess with a guy who was wearing a hat that says ‘Young girl. Go Bills?,’” asks Winston. “The answer is ‘Everybody.’”
  • Theoretical con-man dialogue is why you hire Zooey Deschanel to star on your television program: “What’s the play? ‘The Ring-A-Do Johnny Cakes’? ‘The Hollow Legs Swap-’Em-Out’?”
  • A Father’s Love is, of course, the name of the horse Walt buys (with Jess’ money), which leads to some excellently filthy wordplay: “There’s more to A Father’s Love than just semen.”
  • Nick Miller, practitioner of safe emotional-based repairs: “Jess, if you’re gonna mess with my sink, put some goggles on. Your eyes are twice the size of normal eyes—it’s a bigger target.”
  • The best of Schmidt and Robby’s rejected ideas for winning Cece back: Schmidt: “I would say a Trojan horse but…” Robby: “In this economy?