The way in which a comedy-driven show approaches dramatic material can say a lot about the overall quality and competence of the showrunners. New Girl is no exception and for the most part proved—despite some missteps along the way—that here is a truly capable show that knows its characters and how to gain an emotional response without needlessly manipulating the audience’s emotions.
The episode begins with a great showcase of such talents by having Jess walk in with an armful of balloons, bought from a car parked in the street, all of which have some inappropriate slogan on them. Nick walks in, yells at the balloons for no indiscernible reason, and walks away as he gets a phone call from his mom.
Meanwhile his friends are sucking helium from the balloons to make their voices high pitched just as Nick walks back in to announce that his father’s dead, evidently from a heart attack.
They all stand and rush to him but stay quiet. When he asks if they’re going to say anything they all speak up with their condolences, their voices still high pitched and squeaky, hugging him for comfort.
The comedic timing is perfect in this scene, not taking away from the seriousness of the issue but keeping laughter in the moment.
The next scene is them in Chicago at the Miller house and Schmidt and Winston warn Jess that his family is a little crazy. And when they walk in it’s just that, Nick’s brother (played by Nick Kroll of Kroll Show) is crying, his cousin is being confrontational and his grandmother is playing the role of every elderly woman on a sitcom—the one who yells out inappropriate things at inappropriate moments. Bonnie, his mother (Margo Martindale of Justified), walks in and immediately goes to Nick who asks what needs to be done. She tells him they need to plan the funeral, get an Elvis theme going because of his father’s love for him, and get food.
Jess turns to Schmidt and Winston and asks if this is Nick actually taking care of people. Winston tells her that because of his father leaving he ended up having to be in charge and take care of things. In one of the best lines of the night Schmidt says “Don’t laugh at him being responsible, they don’t know why that’s hilarious.” And he’s right, they don’t. This is a Nick who’s falling back into old patterns, who doesn’t think of it as a big deal and does it because it needs to be done. Sure, he’s still a bit of a mess but he handles it or he appears to be handling it next to the rest of his family.
Bonnie immediately doesn’t like Jess, not for any particular reason but because it’s a funny plot point.
Jess asks Nick if there’s anything she can do to help and he tells her to write the eulogy. She initially is against it but he pleads with her, saying he’s not asking a lot and he just has too much other stuff on his plate to concentrate on it. She agrees.
Winston is dealing with a Schmidt crisis where he’s afraid to go to the funeral since he’s afraid of dead people. Winston tries to coach him through it and plays dead only for Schmidt to go off on a typical soliloquy about their friendship, how he’s a beautiful black butterfly and how Winston is the brother he never had—no, always had. It’s hilarious and you know it’s heartfelt on Schmidt’s part but Winston gives up, not seeing how it’s worth it.
Jess goes back to Nick and tells him she can’t write it which leads Nick into a downward spiral and turns up the next day at the funeral drunk, with a man he plans on using as an Elvis impersonator. Damage control sets in and Jess tells Winston to stall, for Schmidt to stop being weird about the Walt’s body in the open casket, and tells them she’s going to go sober Nick up.
Schmidt conquers his fear when facing off with Nick’s cousin (comedian Bill Burr of Breaking Bad) about stealing from Walt’s casket. Jess begins the process of sobering Nick up in a tender, but brief scene in which Deschanel and Jake Johnson perform wonderfully and Winston tries his best to distract and stall but ends up hilariously falling apart at the altar, and sobbing over Walt’s body.
Jess rushes out to the commotion and finds Bonnie ready to end the funeral but Jess won’t let that happen, says that Nick needs this, and puts on the Elvis costume herself to stall until Nick gets out.
Initially when the previews for “Chicago” began to pop up, I was cringing a little bit at the Elvis get up, fearing that it would slide too closely to “slapstick” territory that the show so far has done so well at avoiding. So, when Zooey Deschanel came out in the white, latex suit, thrusting and kicking and showing off her range as a physical comedian, I was charmed but wary. But then the show pulled the rug like it so often does when a viewer’s having doubts, and had a shot of Nick face’s walking into the commotion and it was beaming—and damn if Jake Johnson didn’t sell the hell out of that one look. It was genuine joy seeing Jess have his back, as ridiculous as she needed to be, and it turned a whacky moment into a sincere one.
Nick goes up to the podium and begins to deliver his eulogy. He says he doesn’t know if Walt was a good man or a bad man, he knows he loved his mustache and he had a way of yelling at cabbies that was just so cool, but most of all he was his dad and for better or worse he’s going to miss him. He gets a little choked up and Jess, with Deschanel playing care with such subtlety, walks over, sings a line of Elvis’ “In The Ghetto,” and its smiles again, the type of funeral Walt had wanted.
The episode ends with the gang leaving for the plane, and Bonnie saying goodbye to them. She lets Winston to take some memorabilia of Walt, knowing that he was a father figure for him, gives Jess a hug as a peace offering, and tried to apologize to Nick for making him carry a burden, but then says she’s glad someone’s around to take care of him, with a nice shot to Jess. If there was anything that this episode told audiences, it’s that behind all of the sexual chemistry that fans have been excited about for the last few episodes, there’s also an undeniable connection between the two characters that have made them interesting from the start: they’ve always been there for each other.
For such a great episode, there were two issues that popped up a couple times.
His family, played wonderfully by Margo Martindale, Nick Kroll and Bill Burr are one of the two issues with the episode. Although each actor plays their respective character (mother, brother, cousin) with gusto, there simply isn’t enough time to fully engage in them or even really get to know them beyond surface level characteristics. The brother’s manic and emotional, the mother hates Jess for no reason and will glare at her for the entirety of the episode, and the cousin’s aggressive and a Boston boy through and through. They’re ideas of characters, rather than people fully fleshed out, such as the four we’ve come to love.
Which leads to the second issue: the time it was given which sadly wasn’t a lot. The showrunners were ambitious with this episode, hoping to introduce a storyline that packed all the right emotional and comedic punches, explored new character depths with multiple characters and introduced new ones. It was just too much for a twenty-two minute episode. Had this been spread across two weeks we may have known the Miller clan a bit better, might have cared about the death of the father more and not just the reactions Nick would have because of it, and it would have allowed Nick and Jess further exploration due to the nature of their relationship stalling yet trudging on all the same.
Luckily, our original cast is so well developed and so completely lovable in this episode that it hardly matters.
What puts New Girl above some of the other primetime comedies is its ability to build an ensemble: Jess, Winston, Nick and Schmidt all feel like real, fleshed out characters. It isn’t weird that Jess would dress up as Elvis, or that Nick would fight off balloons, or that Schmidt would react badly to a poorly tailored suit and mispronounce buttons. These are all in-character moments rather than cheap tricks for laughter.
All four actors were allowed to shine but undoubtedly this was Jake Johnson’s episode. Continuing in the trend of Nick Miller being one of the best characters on TV, he was hilarious when showing off his typical Miller anger—storming out after a fight with Jess only to storm back in to grab his coat (which you might have missed, is duck taped), he was a fantastic drunk, and he was moving when delivering his eulogy, quietly so. It wasn’t a showy performance, but a natural one.
What’s important, essential, to note about this week’s episode is its ability to juggle the laughter as well as the tender spots that remind you how well you know these characters. It’s Jess, Schmidt and Winston all having cartoonish voices from sucking helium as they give their condolences to Nick, it’s Jess in her whacky Elvis costume and then that shot to Nick who’s beaming at her, it’s Bonnie packing Jess a bag of Cheetos as a snack for the way home and the subsequent shot of her trying to get the bag open with her gloves on. This show is sweet at its core so the funny doesn’t override the serious, but the serious doesn’t become so overwhelming that the show that was supposed to make you smile made you sad instead.
It wasn’t the best of the season, but it was touching and filled with warmth and was another step in solidifying itself as one of TV’s best.