New Girl loves a good second-chance story. At its roots, New Girl is a good second-chance story: Jess’ fresh start is the inciting incident of the series; in season four, none of the protagonists are living the lives they planned for themselves. That’s an enticing and enduring sitcom premise, a concept you can trace from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore to Cheers to Community. (Not-quite-classic Step By Step even made a shouty, Jesse Frederick theme song out of it: “We’ll make it better / the second time around.”) New Girl’s variation on the theme places its not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be strivers in an environment in which second, third, and fourth chances are not uncommon, deriving tension from the differences between Jess’ always-lands-on-her-feet optimism, Nick’s barstool-sage fatalism, and Schmidt’s Horatio-Alger-on-Red-Bull self-regimen. Placing Schmidt in financial peril has lit a fire under the character in terms of writing and performance, and “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister” gives him the biggest stage yet to sports-metaphor his way out of his current “Reverse Annie” situation. (“Spoiler alert” cries Nick Miller.)
Acknowledging someone else’s second chance, meanwhile, is inherent to the charm of “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister,” another installment in what’s proving to be a very funny stretch of New Girl. The title character, played by It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson, is a woman whom Jess and Cece still perceive as the Ashley Berkman they knew in high school. Among her litany of rumored sins: “Trashley” slept with a D.A.R.E. officer, banged Jess’ boyfriend underneath the bleachers (while Jess sat above them—“Have you ever seen sex from above, Cece? It’s horrible. That’s why God thinks it’s a sin!”), and then gave that boyfriend a parasitic infection. Now she’s dating Jess’ father, a crisis compounded by the fact that Bob’s so into Ashley, he’s ready to pop the question.
It’s there that “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister” riffs on a primary New Girl motif: Another comedy might’ve shown Ashley living up to her bad reputation, but this one knows that we’re not always the people we were in high school. (Or any level of education for that matter—even if Schmidt and Nick have been forced into their former dorm-room configuration.) There’s a runner about the number of times it’s taken Ashley to achieve certain milestones (“Will you please remind me: Were you there my first senior year, or my second?”), and after stomping around in the Paddy’s Pub cesspool for so long, Olson’s the proper actress to pull it off. She’s not the first It’s Always Sunny alumnus to work on New Girl, but it’s only just dawning on me how the shows are sort of mirror images of one another: Each offers a take on the hard-line status quo of vintage sitcoms, with New Girl believing its characters can change, while It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia knows The Gang will be the same miserable fucks at the beginning and end of every episode.
There are plenty of Ashley Berkmans in Jess and Cece’s past, a loosely constructed history that’s brought up often enough that merely reading the title “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister” was enough to hear Zooey Deschanel reciting the title in my head. (I heard it in skeptical and accusatory tones, with dramatic pauses between each word and a questioning lilt at the end, like this: “Julie… Berkman’s… older… sister?” You know, like “Jessica freaking P.?”). But this isn’t a Jess-and-Cece episode, it’s a Jess-and-Bob episode, one that cleverly pushes Jess to rethink her relationship with her father. I’ve never objected to Rob Reiner’s presence on New Girl, but it’s taken the show two seasons to give daughter and father a storyline as meaty as that in “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister.”
Fortunately, it works off of those less-satisfying appearances: As first demonstrated in “Parents,” Jess is an A1 meddler in her folks’ affairs, and the Bob-specific ploys tonight are based in a desire to protect her old man. New Girl’s richest relationship work with Bob has always involved Nick; here the show corrects that by placing Jess in a situation where she’s risking life and limb to keep her dad away from a potential threat. It’s old hat, but it’s emotionally resonant, prompting farcical misunderstandings that somehow end worse than the time Jess pushed her dad’s paraplegic girlfriend out of her wheelchair. But this time around, the girlfriend isn’t faking it, which gets Jess to the point where she realizes that her dad can make his own decisions—even if that means attending another wedding, this one with a worlds-colliding guest list of high-school-classmates and paternal relatives. It’s a sweet conclusion for a storyline that treats Bob with more humanity than usually gets.
With all of that happening in the foreground of “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister,” the guys are free to skip merrily through the comedy-first, pathos-second story of Schmidt attempting to get his workplace groove back. As New Girl moves away from overcrowded storytelling that tries to serve its entire ensemble—but inevitably underserves one or two characters, usually Winston or Cece—Schmidt’s rigged focus group is an ideal destination. It functions a lot like the giddy cop-party scenes from last week: Legitimate stakes for one character (Schmidt in “Julie Berkman’s,” Winston in “Dice”), silly supporting work—which threatens to undermine the other character’s journey—for the others. This simplified strategy yields tremendous payoff in Schmidt’s final pitch to Gina (a returning Michaela Watkins), when Nick and only Nick barges in to save the day. What they come up with essentially re-imagines Paris Hilton’s Carl’s Jr. ad for an less-sexy product—a garden-variety kitchen sponge—but it’s precisely the way these two lovable idiots would choose to market a product so mundane. (Bonus points for the credits tag, in which their words are brought to stupid, lusty life, complete with the Winston-approved copy “Sponge-y make wipe-y.)
Knowing New Girl, this will not be Schmidt’s last second chance. It’s simply too entertaining to watch him not get what he wants. It’s not in the show’s nature to make these people suffer, but part of the writers’ takeaway from season three appears to be this: The characters of New Girl need to want something, be it romantic fulfillment (for themselves and others) or professional satisfaction. It gets funnier when what they want is something much smaller than that—like a roommate who knows to return the French press to Cupboard 64B—but it’s good that the show still pushes them toward the big stuff, too.
- “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: Jess and Cece’s high-school classmates came up with nicknames with the specificity and the intensity of professional comedy writers: In addition to “Trashley Berkman,” tonight’s reminisces of days gone by mention “George Jeong [sp?] The Giardia Giant,” a post-parasite sobriquet for Jess’ 6-foot-11-inches ex. (And because of Trashley, Jess never got to The Giardia Giant in her arms.)
- It’s a well-known dramatic rule that if Rob Reiner sings Tal Bachman in the first act, Tal Bachman needs to go off (on the soundtrack) in the third act.
- Something happened during the production of “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister”—either on-set or in the writers’ room, or maybe even both—to make New Girl temporarily obsessed with rapid-fire repetition, and I have no objections to that. Nick, Coach, and Winston can’t stop saying “sponge”; Schmidt challenges Winston to say pizza one more time; Jess, Cece, Bob, and Ashley all get hung up on “client”; and the cyclists who swarm Jess get caught in a “On your right”/“On your left” loop. (One of the cyclists breaks the pattern by shouting “Bread and butter,” which makes the whole gag for me.)
- The actress that plays young Cece, Jaidan Jiron, bears such a facial resemblance to Hannah Simone that it’s downright eerie. But she’s apparently been studying Simone’s mannerisms, too, because on first watch, I could’ve sworn Simone tapped in to give Cece’s approving nod at the end of the camping flashback.
- Schmidt chooses imagery for maximum impact and alliteration using “th” sounds: “I’m poor and I’m living in a filthy thimble.”
- For someone who lived as hard as Ashley, she has some specific memories of the early ’00s: “Just doin’ E, watching that show Ed.”
- Ashley’s sex-therapy client doesn’t proofread his texts: “Cumin? What is he doing? Cooking?”
- Imagine Rob Reiner saying this line to Archie Bunker, rather than Jess Day: “He’s not a strange man—he’s a sex addict!”
- Schmidt’s physical descriptions of his roommates are oddly vague yet subtly hurtful: “We open up on a modern man with a nose only America could love.”