American television is coming to the end of a period during which “good person” and “good character” were mutually exclusive terms. The commonly cited origin point for this trend is The Sopranos, though Seinfeld had already warmed audiences to the charms of detestable people well before Tony Soprano ran down that first degenerate fuckin’ gambler. The shared selfishness of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer provided a weekly pressure valve, a regularly scheduled chance to watch people respond like viewers wished they could respond to life’s inconveniences and annoyances. Through the years, that comedy of unfiltered id has seeped into the sitcom gene pool, carried on by shows with direct connections to Seinfeld (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep) and shows without (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia). “The Box” writer Rob Rossell comes to New Girl after several years on the last of those shows, and his script lets the New Girl roommates answer it’s central question—“Am I a good person?”—in ways the Always Sunny gang never could.
And in the ways The Gang would never care to either. At this point, viewers see the show’s core cast as good people regardless. For all their rash, impudent, and questionably sane behavior, New Girl has always been good at displaying the mutual affection that exists within the loft. Some of the weirdness being ascribed to season three comes down to the way its episodes have worn away at the connections between the characters; “The Captain” made moves toward repairing those fraying bonds, but questions of trust still linger. These four people will always have each other’s back, but as Jess spells it out at the top of “The Box,” “You cheated on my best friend, Schmidt.” It’s going to take a while to work all the way back from that one.
But the journey of the New Girl characters has always been less about becoming a good person and more about becoming a whole one. No one on the show embodies this quite like Nick Miller, who begins “The Box” as the recipient of $8,000 in cash and ends it with his very first bank account. The money comes Nick’s way via the late, great Pop Pop, and it’s curious that the episode doesn’t use the inheritance to dig around in Nick’s feelings about his father. (Unfortunately, it’s also the first sign that things are a little off with “The Box.”) But that’s season-two material—season three’s about figuring out things between Nick and Jess, and the two are finally coming to a point where they’re both making concessions in the relationship.
To my mind, that’s been the strangest aspect of Jess and Nick as a couple: For characters with whom New Girl is typically so evenhanded, Nick’s been the one making the most changes. By giving her mountain of cheap purses to Outside Dave, Jess reciprocates the sacrifice Nick makes when he gives up on squirreling away the “junk” (“It’s… mostly bills,” Jess notices) he doesn’t want to deal with in a cardboard box. That middleground established, they’re both free to argue their way out of a piddling bank fee, marking the sweetest sitcom anti-banking screed in recent memory.
Still, I’m not crazy about “The Box” as a whole: The humor of the episode never squares with the emotional core, and Winston up and disappears after some funny stuff with Nick about an old debt. And then there’s the yelling: It wasn’t until this week that I felt like season-three New Girl was any louder than the show has been in the past, but “The Box” struck me as one shouting match after another. There are different kinds of loudness—Jess’ celebratory “handful of dollar bills, y’all,” Nick’s incredulous “You need Bobby’s pins to put your hair up?”, Schmidt declaring “YOLO!” to a bar mitzvah class—but it all bleeds into a uniform din by the end of the episode. Sure, the stakes and tensions are high, but but it’s out-of-character for New Girl to flail this wildly and speak this noisily. (At least the guest casting of premiere comic howler Jon Lovitz nods toward the broad heights of “The Box.”)
It is fitting, however, that such a boisterous episode also practices such selective hearing. That’s the thing about asking the “good person” question: Anyone who asks it has a preferred answer in mind. Schmidt needles everyone around him in search of his preferred answer, his selfless behavior ultimately in service of a selfish goal. Does that behavior make him a less enjoyable screen presence? No. But does it also come across as a deflection as nakedly obvious as Nick’s box? Certainly. Somewhere in production, however, those two aspects of “The Box” failed to sync up, and the shouting filled in the gaps, and “The Box” came out as a weirdly unsatisfying treatment of some potentially rich subject matter.
- This week’s LOLFerguson comes from a place of positivity, even though Ferguson is absent from the episode’s proceedings.
- Even a lackluster New Girl turns up some gems in the dialogue. As a fan of malapropisms, I got a kick out of Nick’s “You come slipping out of the wood-word”; as a fan of designer checks, his marveling at “a couple of best friend horses” got me as well.