In a curious example of parallel thinking—or a revelation of a generation of TV writers’ past viewing habits—both Happy Endings and New Girl nod toward the farcical stylings of Three’s Company in their most recent episodes. The way those nods are handled by each show says a lot about the United States’ preeminent single-camera “young people hanging out” sitcoms. For the über-pop-culture-literate Happy Endings, that meant giving several shout-outs to the misunderstandings and subterfuges perpetrated by Jack Tripper and company, fortifying “Big White Lies” with a wink (and a pat on observant viewers’ backs). When Schmidt emerges from beneath the couch cushions during the cold open of “Secrets,” it appears New Girl will take a similar tack. Of course, New Girl is more apt to restrict its impulse to homage, so it’s none too surprising that Cece and Schmidt’s secret affair is a secret no more by the episode’s first act break. This series is defined by its earnestness, so it’d be entirely out of character for the episode to take a rerun-inspired route toward exploring matters of trust between its main characters.
Also, the episode would fall apart. Even with a master of brainy takes on big-and-broad like David Wain—he of The State, Stella, and Childrens Hospital—in the director’s chair, the cast of New Girl is only 60 percent equipped to take on the exaggerated reactions and twisty plot mechanics of, say, the winning mini-farce Wain directed for Party Down, “Not On Your Wife Opening Night.” Lamorne Morris is, as evidenced by the hilarious callback to his alter ego Theodore K. Mullins that also serves as a rewarding character moment for Winston. And Jake Johnson can definitely stammer his way through a collapsing love triangle and garner some laughs, as he does when two of his recent, age-inappropriate romantic partners cross paths in the loft. No worries about Max Greenfield, either—after all, Schmidt is just one long exaggeration.
Zooey Deschanel and Hannah Simone, of course, account for that other 40 percent. “Secrets” sidesteps the challenge of getting honest emotional reactions from the show’s lead, but it faces a steeper climb by setting Jess and Cece’s plotline after the big reveal, stranding Deschanel and Simone in the screechiest, loudest point of a disagreement for the majority of the episode.
Don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of broad comedic notes Deschanel hits perfectly and consistently without fail. She’s proven herself a gifted physical comedian throughout New Girl’s first season, and she flexes those muscles in the “Secrets” scenes revolving around the 10K run. But there’s still a glassy tinge to the moments that call for Jess to show a great deal of emotion, and that deflates a lot of the episode’s relationship-driven material. Cece violated Jess’ trust by clandestinely sleeping with one of her roommates, but I feel unmoved by how that violation affects the characters. Simone strains less in these scenes, but she’s done such a good job of gliding above personal bullshit as Cece that, when the character’s temper flares, it’s jarring—and a little bit flimsy. And this is in an episode directed by a guy who frequently managed to locate the big, beating heart within three shouting man-children.
That could be a stumbling block as New Girl attempts to pinpoint the intersection between the grounded, character-based stories of “Injured” and the more outwardly comedic material of “Secrets.” The scene in tonight’s episode where Jess briefly institutes a policy of radical honesty among the roommates might serve as a serviceable roadmap to that point, however. The scene gets at the emotional core of the episode—Jess seeks frank, straightforward connections—while tapping into the sense of play that is New Girl’s most potent weapon. The guys revealing that they’ve all thought about Jess while “self-completing” is a predictable button, but there’s an energy and an honesty in the performances (particularly Max Greenfield’s; Schmidt’s wonderful bundle of contradictions is summed up in Greenfield’s choice not to affect a high-pitched, condescending “lady” voice while Schmidt teaches Nick how to properly disrespect a women) that looks good on the characters and the show.
What looks less good on New Girl is a pair of Schmidts. Nick’s in the “cipher” phase of his arc as the series’ straight man, and as such is making up for some holes in his persona by gravitating toward the quirks and tics of other people. He did it with Russell, he did it with Dirk, and since David Wain isn’t onscreen long enough for Nick to assume his character’s brusque approach to running 6.2 miles for charity, it’s Schmidt’s turn on Nick’s Wheel of Personality. Unfortunately, Schmidt’s appeal suffers greatly when there’s someone around to validate his douchey behavior. The character was no fun when David Neher’s Benjamin was still on the show, and Nick as Schmidt-Lite puts Schmidt’s transformation into the douchebag with a heart of gold into stark contrast.
“Secrets” shows one of New Girl’s occasional flashes of self-awareness when Nick breaks down and tells him roommate “I might respect you. You’ve come a long way, man.” And when that’s the case, it’s up to Winston to prove he’s the only real adult around these parts, and therefore the only one who can help get things back to normal—all while pretending to be Nick’s Southern Gentlemanly lover, of course. The return of Theodore K. Mullins keeps the episode on track, proving that while the New Girl writers are good at quelling their desire to tweak old sitcom clichés, they still know how sitcoms operate. For all its incremental character development and shifting relationships, there’s no New Girl if things don’t end just shy of where they started. And that’s good, because it means Zooey Deschanel and Hannah Simone can stop yelling at each other.
- In addition to the farcical elements and the adroit handling of Winston’s Theodore K. Mullins outburst, the way Cece’s European roommate declares Schmidt the “Jew in the couch” definitely needed David Wain’s guidance in order to find its funny.
- Nice to see 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden on another series—even if she’s just playing a more high-strung variation on Cerie. Nonetheless, the woman knows how to play oblivious.
- I’m torn as to whether the fatsuit Max Greenfield wears in New Girl flashbacks is better or worse than the one January Jones is currently sporting on Mad Men. Either way, my opinion of the makeup certainly benefits from returning to the screen so soon after the debut of Betty Francis’ new chin.
- Jess tunes out Cece with her preferred running soundtrack: Then Again by Diane Keaton, as read by Diane Keaton: “I can’t hear you—Diane Keaton is talking about her rich life full of good friends.”
- Jess recalls a time Cece told her the truth, even if it hurt (or tickled): “I had to give it a try, Jess—that was the same hand that was inside Elmo.”
- “It makes me really sad to see them fighting over me like this.” “Then why are you smiling?” Ladies, please: There’s enough Schmidt to go around.