Only three episodes into the second season of New Girl, and it looks like Nick Miller may end up having the kind of year Schmidt had during the show’s first season. J.J. Philbin, who writes for Nick better than anyone else on the show’s staff (she was credited with the character’s first-season showcases “Injured” and “Fancyman (Part One)”), is responsible once more for this latest installment of prime Miller Time, a callback to “Landlord” that forces Nick to confront his true feelings for Jess. And, you know, if his momentary, deep-lunge fantasy about his roommate is just that—a fantasy.
What Philbin’s scripts understand so well about Nick is the fact that the character is his own biggest roadblock to happiness. He’s a smart, inventive guy whose stubbornness and general lack of self-confidence prevent him from getting what he truly wants. The series has trouble articulating those desires (beyond the ignited/extinguished torch he carried for Caroline throughout the first season), but it has established that he thinks himself worthy of more than a bartending gig. He had that idea for Real Apps way back when, and his uncompleted zombie novel merits a mention in “Fluffer.” If anything, these scattered interests and goals place him in the same boat as New Girl’s four other principals: lost and searching. And that makes the prematurely grizzled Nick the perfect comedic foil for Jess’ particular strain of optimism.
In June, New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether told Vulture that the two TV characters she wishes she created are Cheers’ Sam Malone and Diane Chambers, and Jess and Nick get their big Chambers-Malone moment in the blowup that forms the centerpiece of “Fluffer.” The argument lacks the tacit fear of the Cheers duo’s loudest shouting matches—that Ted Danson just might reel off and pop Shelley Long in the kisser—but that’d be outright unseemly in 2012, not to mention out of character for two people who ended last week’s season première comforted by their conflict. Instead, Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson play a few rounds of unstoppable polka-dotted force and immovable, stubbly object in “Fluffer,” expressing their complicated feelings toward one another—which, allow it to be restated, would wreck the show if acted upon—in a swiftly escalating flurry of overlapping dialogue that, if you listen closely, contains at least one allusion to the Louisiana Purchase. If you’re going to have your characters yell their feelings at one another, this is the way to do it: Played for laughs, at the emotional climax of a storyline, by actors who’ve truly sunk into their characters and know how they’d get angry. (For more evidence on the benefits of giving a sitcom time to figure itself out, compare and contrast this scene with the similar argument between Cece and Jess in “Secrets.”) And if you can work in a reference to “working in emotional porn”—all the better.
There’s a lot going on in theoretical realms in “Fluffer”: Nick providing Jess with sentimental stimulation so she can satisfy carnal desires with Sam (which leads to her mentally drafting her own dresser-destroying-sex-based equivalent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), Winston cheating on Shelby “in his mind,” and Schmidt convincing himself and others that he’s one of Mitt Romney’s rambunctious sons. So many intangible developments would make for an obnoxious episode of many other shows, but not New Girl. This show and its ensemble thrive when the characters are just left alone to interact, and it does scenes like Schmidt explaining his Romney trivia regimen better than most comedies on TV. It’s a joy just to hear these people talk sometimes. It’s in the words writers like Philbin provide for them, but it’s also in the way the actors recite those words. The knowledgeable way in which Lamorne Morris says, “You will not build her that dresser—it’s furniture and it implies that one day you will share it” makes the line sing; likewise, Max Greenfield attempting to sell the lie that his fake Romney nickname is spelled with “two ‘g’s and a silent ‘b’” demonstrates why they guy was nominated for an Emmy.
And yet “Fluffer” isn’t all talk; all those fun exchanges are kicked off by a clever turn of plotting, and the quick cut to a close-up of Schmidt’s post-Labor Day whale belt is a fine display of New Girl’s flair for visual humor. However, it’s the way Schmidt’s mealtime audible sets up the remainder of the episode that pushes this half-hour into “A” territory. Because Jess is unsure about diving into a casual relationship with Sam, the guys propose a roommates-only dinner to make her upcoming tryst with Sam feel more like an actual date. It’s a convoluted note to start on, but by the time Schmidt’s aforementioned goal of befriending Kanye West (hence the whale belt) takes him and Winston out of the equation, the episode is playing beautiful harmonies with itself. (This Freudian slip brought to you by an episode of television where one of the characters assumes the pseudonym “Tugg.”) And thus is established the tension that “Fluffer” alternately eases and ratchets for the remainder of its running time, during which Schmidt runs his Romney con on the wrong sorority sisters, Winston develops the creepiest facial expression for undressing women with his eyes, and Nick and Jess discover that friends can build friends Swedish-made furniture without later wanting to sex the thing to hex-key-assembled pieces.
The hex key that puts all of “Fluffer” together is the guy who refuses the mantle of the episode’s title. I may have been initially resistant to Nick, but he’s since proved to be the one character within the main ensemble who truly clicks with everyone else. (He doesn’t get much interaction with Cece, though apparently that’s due to change this season.) The Nick-Jess scenes are the obvious highlight of this episode, but in Jake Johnson’s onscreen time with Lamorne Morris, the actors complement one another while pulling things out of their characters that are unique to the Nick-Winston connection. Nick engages the troubleshooting side of Winston, while Winston seems to be the only person Nick can hear when he’s in “the dark place.” It doesn’t hurt that their slap fight is one of the biggest laughs in an episode full of them.
For a New Girl installment where Schmidt’s plot is instant water-cooler/time-capsule fodder, Johnson practically runs away with the whole thing. But a great episode of this show is never about one character or one actor (and neither should the series’ new high-water mark), and Nick-Jess material continues the thread of last week’s episodes while providing the scary, unspoken inverse to all those “Look sharp, ya dumbass” exchanges during “Re-launch.” Under that playfulness is a true frustration, and the volatile chemistry between Johnson and Deschanel broadcasts it in crystal-clear HD. Thankfully, Philbin and her fellow writers are in the business of crafting a show where the characters evolve and push through their frustrations together; where, eventually, they get out of their own way long enough to make a friendly gesture like assembling a piece of furniture. Because if Jess and Nick don’t end up sharing that dresser, they’re still sharing their lives—and a “sexy mix” CD where Digital Underground and Graceland-era Paul Simon rub shoulders. They’re getting busy in the Burger King bathroom of friendship.
- New Girl is shaping up to be positively Seinfeld-ian in terms of dreaming up alter egos for its characters: First Theodore K. Mullins, then “Katie,” now Tugg (or is it Tubgg? Tuggb?) Romney. I expect Nick to assume the identity of a character from his zombie novel before the year is out.
- I love the underutilized dynamic of Cece and Winston keeping one another in check. Last season, that involved Winston asking several variations on “Why?” about Cece and Schmidt’s relationship; tonight, it involved Hannah Simone’s piercing, hilarious, “Winston, I thought you were better than this” as the fake Secret Service member led Cece away from a fake Romney/her ex-boyfriend.
- I gave short shrift to the Romney material above, but even if Mitt Romney’s name can’t be legally shouted during a True American match (though you never know with that game—maybe presidential nominees count for double the points/drinks), he at least brought to light some details about Schmidt’s absentee father. Is this information about which only Cece knew previously? Or have we learned other details about the Schmidt family?
- Caught in a lie about drinking with a teetotaling presidential candidate, Schmidt spins like a true politician’s son: “We don’t drink the beers, Courtney—we just buy them to support American breweries.”
- Jess realizes a truth about her romantic life in uniquely Jess fashion: “I’ve got a Civil War-era piece of equipment and that’s all she wrote.”