It’s been well-documented in this space and elsewhere on The A.V. Club, but it bears repeating following “Nerd”: The characters of New Girl love dressing up in other people’s identities. Real people, fictional people, fictional people who are still fictional in a fictional universe—and really, can you blame them? These are not people living the lives they’d planned for themselves. They have each other, and that’s about it—and they only have each other because, as in the case of Schmidt and Nick, they’ve been living together for more than a decade. If you want to follow the thread about the roommates’ possibly hazardous closeness (feelings-wise and proximity-wise) laid out in last week’s season premiere, it trails directly to the hilarious “Nerd” scene in which Nick and Schmidt enter an elevator, but each ends up so invested in the goings on of the other’s life that they forget to send the elevator to a different floor. Then Winston gets on, starts spilling his guts, and the pattern repeats. Like Schmidt, “Nerd” is on a pretty tight sched, so there’s no room for a third beat in which Jess takes her turn at stranding everyone on the fourth floor.
And yet, even without that button, the point is made: If you were in Jess, Nick, Schmidt, or Winston’s shoes, you too might pretend you’re a person who’s capable of felinicide.
But what’s at the heart of “Nerd” is the notion that Winston isn’t the guy with an adorable cat noose. Jess isn’t one of the prank-pulling cool kids in the Coolidge Middle School teachers’ lounge, either. And Schmidt most certainly isn’t Don Draper—two-thirds replica of Don’s office be damned. The fact that Schmidt’s workspace can only be 66.7 percent Mid-Century modern is another of the episode’s finely tuned gags: Schmidt can’t do the full Draper because he can’t commit to being that duplicitous with Elizabeth and Cece. And besides that, “Don Draper” is just another disguise for a guy who didn’t like the lot that life handed him and ultimately bit off more than he could chew.
Tonight’s episode is especially well-equipped to handle questions of identity because it provides some of the roommates with living, breathing examples of who they are not. For Schmidt, that entails the return of Eva Amurri as office rival Beth, the conniving striver who lacks Schmidt’s heart and wants his office. (Though I can totally foresee a scenario in the near future where she wants his heart while she still lacks his office.) New Girl managed to get through two full seasons on the conflict generated from within the loft, but as the show makes headway into its third season, there have been apparent attempts to grow its world beyond the walls of apartment 4D—attempts that are, wisely, being led by character, rather than premise or setting. Schmidt found quasi-enemies in Robby and Shivrang last year, but Beth is the type of foil he could really use: One that pushes him away from the Cece hangups that have been the character’s main reason for being since the first-season finale. If Amurri sticks around this time (and I hope that she does), that may be a sign of Elizabeth Meriwether and team correcting course before they drag their breakout character into the depths of romantic malaise.
The clique of “cool” teachers serves a similar role for Jess—though I single out those guest characters played by Angela Kinsey, Mark Proksch, and Dreama Walker mostly for what they draw out of Kay Cannon’s “Nerd” script. New Girl’s an ensemble show where at least four out of the five leads are served by each episode—sometimes solo (like Winston and his puzzles last week) sometimes in pairs (like Schmidt and Cece this week). Fitting all of the show’s characters, storylines, written gags, and improvised jokes within the confines of 22 minutes can put a lot of strain on those 22 minutes. While New Girl is assembled by one of network TV’s sharpest editorial teams, the show has been guilty on occasion of using the laugh-a-second pacing of the single-camera format to pack too much material into an episode. I love the framework of last season’s Christmas episode, but that framework was largely devised to maintain momentum and corral an idea that might’ve been too ambitious for a standard-length episode.
But Meriwether, Brett Baer, Dave Finkel, and their co-workers now have two years at New Girl under their belt, and it’s evident from the first two episodes of season three that they’re taking a firmer hand with regard to quality control. (This bears out some comments from Lamorne Morris that didn’t make it into this Highlight Reel piece; shooting days on the show are apparently going shorter and less material is being ad-libbed on set.) But an episode like “Nerd” seems to know when it’s in danger of bulging at the seams and adjusts accordingly. It’s most noticeable in the scenes revolving around Kinsey, Proksch, and Walker, where in spite of one blunt Nick Miller observation, the riffs on cafeteria-politicking tropes go unspoken. There’s a smart shorthand at play here, even if it’s just subliminal suggestion thanks to Kinsey’s experience with the Party Planning Committee or Walker’s days of buzzing around Blair Waldorf. “Nerd” could come out and say that the other teachers tricked Jess and Nick into trespassing on Dr. Foster’s property. But it doesn’t have to, because the creative team trusts the viewers to pick up on what’s happening—and the episode is less crowded as a result.
Nick’s noticeably absent from the list of pretenders up top, but that’s because he’s not playing at being a different person—he’s becoming a different person. That’s another astutely deployed facet of the cool teachers: They reflect as much about Nick as they do about Jess. After a wild night of drinking at the bar and dancing in toilet bowls, Schmidt voices concern that Nick is imprinting too much of himself on Jess, but it’s really the other way around. Only two episodes into the third season and there’s a major thread emerging about roles being redefined among the roommates. “Nerd” ekes a lot of comedic mileage out of this thread, and it’s rarely funnier than when Nick finds himself stuck between a Jess with pranks on her mind and a Winston with cat murder on his. Jake Johnson plays flustered incredibly well, but it’s added fun to watch Nick Miller realize that he’s the guy who has to hold everything together. This gets away from the self-delusion and self-mythologizing present elsewhere in the episode and delves into something a little more resonant: Last week’s episode is the one called “All In,” but this week’s is the one about throwing caution to the wind and embracing reality. “If you’re going to do something that’s obviously very stupid then I’m going to do it with you,” Nick tells Jess after they’ve both vaulted Foster’s fence.
And all that from an episode in which Nick makes multiple references to the “Miller Sack Pack” while Jess inquires about dressing like a bush. That New Girl can mix such winking juvenilia with Nick’s full-bodied embrace of change speaks to the steady footing this third season has gotten off on.
- This week in New Girl pseudonyms: Jess has to recognize that there’s some legit mocking baked into “Little Toilet Pants,” right?
- Featuring excerpts from “What’s Up,” “I Believe I Can Fly,” and “I Don’t Want To Wait,” “Nerd” is only a “Sunny Came Home” away from hitting the 1990s-jukebox grand slam.
- Aw, Elizabeth’s profile picture on Schmidt’s phone is a duckling. Unlike Winston, he clearly has no compunction about destroying such a figure of warmth and innocence.
- Max Greenfield makes a lifetime of “Kittens licking shirtless CowSchmidt’s nipples” GIFs worth it in the cut-to-theme-song line: “Oh, grow up—nothing came out.”
- An important message from drunk Jess: “Sometimes firemen are women!”
- Nick Miller demonstrates the power in specific word choices: “So she agreed to be exclusive with you while the guy she is obviously sleeping with was washing his size 15 ding-dong in the shower—and now you’re taking care of her cat?”
- Winston and Nick on the topic of reciprocity: “An eye for an eye, Nick. A cat for a cat.” “But what’s the other cat?” “My heart.”
- Schmidt and Beth’s office has history: “Let me show you the stairwell where they got the idea for the Escalator.”
- On second thought, maybe Winston really was trying to kill Ferguson: “You smoke? I’m just kidding—but man, that’d be cute if you did.”