Given the speed with which the TV-production cycle moves, it makes sense that the reverberations of the Occupy movement are only now being felt in primetime. Raising Hope staged its own Occupy Natesville protest a few weeks back, and economic struggles have haunted the corners of 2 Broke Girls not occupied by ugly racial caricatures. (Of course, the latter of those two sitcoms started with an even less-timely hook, based on the financial shocker of December 2008: the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.) Sure, Occupy’s flagship protest may have pulled up stakes and moved out of earshot of Wall Street, but it’s still nice to see contemporary television series acknowledging that, yeah, we’re living through an economic nightmare and gas in Chicago is pushing $5 a gallon AND HOLY SHIT IT’S TIME FOR COLLAPSE TO HAPPEN, ISN’T IT?
Of the crop of freshman shows still standing from the start of the 2011-2012 TV season (R.I.P. Free Agents), New Girl is the least likely candidate to recognize this reality. But as the series displayed with “Injured,” its main character might be the type to don a bowler hat and a “Mr. Monogamy” nametag in order to teach her students about reproductive health, but it’s not beyond dealing with matters of the non-bowler-hat-donning variety. “Injured” was partially about Nick’s nearly destitute financial standing, an attribute that’s reinforced in the cold open of “Fancyman (Pt. 1),” where his measly credit score makes him the cause of derision among the employees of a Verizon Wireless facsimile. Nick’s in a bad way, and the opening half-hour of this two-parter is devoted toward getting him on his feet.
Of course, it does this in a cheap fashion, one which underlines the shallowness of his reasons for staying phone- and rudderless. In a less attractive development, Nick’s sudden affection for the rich, leathery lifestyle of Russell (Dermot Mulroney), the father of one of Jess’ students, implicitly subscribes to the criticism that the young people railing against the gross disparity in the United States’ distribution of wealth are nothing but a bunch of bored kids no real ambition, who’d be cured of their rabble-rousing with a single whiff of financial success.
But you know what? I can overlook all of that for the mere fact that Nick’s newfound direction has finally lit a fire under Jake M. Johnson. Johnson was temporarily relieved of his permanent grousing when Lizzy Caplan was hanging around New Girl—only to return to that state when Caplan’s brief arc ended. It’s not that I dislike Nick for being a grouch—that perspective is essential to keeping the show’s feet on the ground—but I do dislike his one-note grouchiness, and the way it weighs down Johnson’s performance. There’s a lack of sympathy to the way he plays down-and-out, and the way New Girl points out that Nick is choosing to be miserable doesn’t help. So it’s refreshing to see his outright glee in Russell’s study, even if it comes from nowhere. In the vacinity nowhere, at least: We’ve been told Nick dropped out of law school, so the symbols of Russell’s success are tapping into hopes and dreams Nick has suppressed for a long time—hopes and dreams, it turns out, that don’t stop short of “president of Earth.”
Those scenes are a lot of fun, but they also reveal a weird tendency that I’ve noticed in recent New Girl episodes: This show is terrified of silence. It took a while for New Girl to take advantage of the space and zip afforded by the single-camera format, but the final third of “Fancyman (Pt. 1)” overcompensates for that delayed awakening. I’ve come to love Schmidt, but the barrage of lines he tosses at Winston and Shelby as the two have what would otherwise be a quiet, intimate moment is exhausting. I have to wonder whether or not this a conscious choice on the part of the writers or the result of what feels like a looser, more improvisation-friendly vibe on set.
It’s important that the show be able to slow things down and speed things up if it’s going to start giving Jess romantic interests on a more frequent basis. Another source for the increased density near the end of “Fancyman (Pt. 1)” is its screwball-comedy-esque setup for the lead character’s two-episode fling with Russell. Through the lens of a romantic farce—complete with meet-cute and not one, but two incidents of water-related humiliation—this works. But for Jess’ side of the “choosing to grow up” theme—represented by her decision to pursue a man who doesn’t sleep on a pile of washcloths—to be effective, it has to tap into some of that calmer “Injured” energy.
To that end, Mulroney is well-cast as Russell, an even-keeled charmer who stands in contrast to some of the zanier aspects of “Fancyman (Pt. 1).” His character isn’t just who Nick suddenly wants to be—he’s the guy Schmidt’s pretended to be all this time. (Max Greenfield sells this with his reading of Schmidt’s first impression of Russell’s voice: “The guy sounds like a matinee idol.”) But instead of handsome, leather-bound volumes lining the walls of a well-appointed library, Schmidt is in possession of a brain full of knowledge that allows him to kill the competition at bar trivia. Look, we all have our own definitions of success—even those of us who are convinced we have to grovel to get what we want.
So, yeah, New Girl sells out in the first part of “Fancyman.” But that’s why there’s a second part next week: For everyone to come to the midpoint between being like “the guy with no phone” and wanting everything to smell like “leather and Teddy Roosevelt and wistfulness.” Or not, seeing as the synopsis for the second episode of the two-parter makes it sound like only Jess’ storyline (and maybe Nick’s, judging by the flamboyant way “Fancyman (Pt. 2)” guest star Martin Starr is styled in press shots of Starr and Jake M. Johnson) carries over. Either way, nice to see some growth from Nick.
- I can’t imagine that anyone who hates Zooey Deschanel would consider tuning into a single episode of New Girl, but a screencap of her Mr. Monogamy getup would make damning evidence in the case against the actress’ empty cutesiness. I think it’s funny (as is the sight of her desk covered in cucumbers), but couldn’t help but cringe as Jess expressed her frustration with Russell to Principal Rachael Harris. Anger is not a mode in which Deschanel excels.
- I loved Jake M. Johnson’s dainty folding of the “chair sweater” as Nick prepares to dive into the koi pond to help Jess.
- Mulroney’s good, but I can’t help but imagine an alternate “Fancyman” where Russell is played by Kyle MacLachlan. MacLachlan’s standard nuttiness would probably let the two-parter spin off into orbit, though.
- Winston knows Nick’s no-phone decision isn’t a statement: “You were denied a cell phone because you have the credit score of a homeless ghost.”
- Jess comes from a family that didn’t cast off broken items: “Some of my best memories are pushing this car around on family vacations.”
- In an effort to upstage Schmidt at trivia night, Winston memorizes all the questions. His young charge prompts him to use Mesopotamia in a sentence: “‘Look! Mesopotamia.’”
- Ahh, the odeur de Mulroney: “It smells like Shakespeare—if Shakespeare was a damn cowboy.”