In New Girl’s first season, the Thanksgiving episode was used to launch a major romantic arc for Jess, a half hour that set the table for an overall dip in quality that was, fortunately, halted when 2012 rolled around. This year, the show puts most of its long-term concerns on hold for Turkey Day, indulging instead in the long-standing television tradition of a holiday meal that absolutely refuses to go according to plan.
Or at least that’s how it appears at the onset. As Jess tells her roommates and Cece in the cold open, her parents’ divorce necessitates a dual Thanksgiving celebration in the loft: an early afternoon meal with her “perky,” pilgrim-hat-wearing mom, Joan (Jamie Lee Curtis), followed by a dinner at regular dinnertime with her cantankerous father, Bob (Rob Reiner). And thus the stage is prepared for nonstop farcical high jinks, as the regulars attempt to hide the fact that they’re conserving energy and stomach space for two full turkey dinners. It would make for a hoary installment of a more typically lively sitcom, but, hey, the holidays are an excuse to take it easy, right? Because tryptophan and whatnot?
Yet, after giving itself such a high degree of difficulty, “Parents” smartly works around the secrets and misunderstandings implied in its opening segment. Jess’ high-wire act is instead diverted into a small-scale riff on The Parent Trap (one which turns the title of that Disney franchise into a punch line by force of sheer repetition). Meanwhile, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece busy themselves with a competition to determine the “true Schmidt”: The Max Greenfield character we’ve come to love and hate in equal, hilarious measure, or his meathead (hey, like Rob Reiner’s All In The Family character!) cousin, the type of pompous, hot-tempered douchebag that Rob Riggle has specialized in since the end of his Saturday Night Live tenure. Bringing relatives together by almost pushing them apart, assertions of masculinity partially based in culinary pursuits—in spite of its sitcom trappings, the only way “Parents” could more authentically represent a Thanksgiving dinner is if Jess reached out of the TV and tried to shove a turkey down viewers’ garbage disposals.
Much of the credit for that genuine family feeling goes to the guest players—in how they’re written and played. Curtis and Reiner go way back (their point of intersection being Curtis’ husband and Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap star, Christopher Guest), and that relationship is reflected in their onscreen chemistry, a spark that fires when their characters are fighting as well as when they’re pawing at each other in the loft’s bathroom. (In light of their real-life friendship, that post-baster-accident scene reportedly gave Curtis some pause. I think she got over it pretty well.)
The episode’s script, credited to Ryan Koh, also gives dimensions to Joan and Bob, without simply portraying them as separate halves of Jess’ personality. Jess clearly inherited some of her eccentricities from her mother (though Winston correctly guesses that her effervescence is overstated in the cold open), and the script outright states that Bob gifted his daughter with a hearty case of stubbornness. (More on declarations like that in a moment.) Curtis and Reiner aren’t just a great fit with the actress playing their child, either: Joan and Cece’s backstory provides a delightful opportunity for Curtis and Hannah Simone to play out the tension and skepticism that exists between parents and their kids’ best friends. And I could certainly do with a few more scenes—or a future B-story—that consist of nothing but Bob and Nick mutually kvetching. If there’s a noticeable tie between “Parents” and what’s going on elsewhere in New Girl’s second season, it’s in those scenes of Reiner and Jake Johnson on the couch, where prematurely crotchety Nick makes the type of honest emotional connection he can apparently only form with over-the-hill men and his female roommate.
The former Mr. and Mrs. Day make a believable example of how family shapes the people we become; Rob Riggle’s character (heretofore referred to as “Big Schmidt”) takes that notion even further, serving as the example of the type of man Schmidt works so very, very hard not to be. In that regard, Riggle serves the purpose Lizzy Caplan did in “Jess & Julia”: an outsider who, for at least one episode, challenges the worldview of one of the show’s principals. Schmidt is resolute in his form of ankle-circling, exfoliating, julienne-cutting manhood, but Big Schmidt’s own culinary expertise rocks the boat just enough to make his cousin question his methods. Like Cece says (even though she is messing with the guys), the ultimate winner in this Battle of Schmidts is the one who’s secure in his masculinity, and one of the fundamentally funny things about our Schmidt is that he’s not secure—all of his affectations are overcompensating for something. Riggle has made a career of playing Big Schmidt, but he also represents the type of physically imposing force that would plausibly intimidate Schmidt. (Quoth the young Big Schmidt: “I’m the strong kind of fat!”) It’s a difference in attitude that makes Schmidt Schmidt, and “Parents” has a good time reinforcing that at the character’s expense—and to Winston and Cece’s personal delight. (Until things turn around and the guys get their revenge on Winston in a twist that, like last week’s water massage scenes, stays just on the right side of playing men coming on to other men for laughs.) The competition comes to a draw, because while Big Schmidt is the only one who can plant a smooch on Winston, his admission of missing his ex-girlfriend concedes toward Schmidt’s sensitive maleness.
Of course, Schmidt’s line about his cousin’s “pre-Clinton manhood” illustrates my one major qualm with “Parents”: At times, the dialogue in this episode is painfully direct. That’s partially a function of its two storylines: This may be a low-concept New Girl installment masquerading as a high-concept farce, but all the parent trapping and chest beating from the Schmidts requires the characters to say exactly what’s on their minds. There are ways to work with this lack of nuance—I really enjoyed Nick explaining to Jess how her parent trap isn’t actually a parent trap—but a lot of what ends up coming out of the actors’ mouths lands like expositional and thematic dictation. “Hey Schmidt, what’s with all the crappy beer?” “Here’s what’s with the crappy beer!” “Do you Schmidts know what the ultimate test is? I will tell you what the ultimate test is!” This has an especially adverse effect on Jess, whose explanations of how she’ll get her parents back together and why she wants them back together is a little too childlike for my tastes. The writers have proved time and again that their main character is capable of more complicated motivations than what drives her in “Parents.” However, in an attempt to simplify certain elements of the episode to make room for more story, “Parents” simplifies a character, too.
But maybe simple is just what the occasion calls for. The epigram of Jess’ game of “Let’s Get Together” is a blunt statement from Joan that still has plenty of room for interpretation: “Jess, you have a family.” She could be talking about two estranged parents and their grown daughter, or she could be talking about the people with whom Jess now shares a loft and a life. It’s boilerplate, and a little bit syrupy, but so is the notion of annually gathering with loved ones to express thankfulness. The default mode for a television Thanksgiving is one of unending complication, but as “Parents” shows, the idea at the core of the holiday is truly a simple one.
- The editors of New Girl are the show’s secret stars. There’s no energy lost in the crosscutting between Jamie Lee Curtis and Jake Johnson’s seductive turkey basting and Zooey Deschanel and Rob Reiner’s conversation on the couch, and that’s a thing of comedic beauty.
- I fully expect a bumper crop of “Zooey Deschanel peeking around the corner” .gifs and image macros to emerge from “Parents.” Or at least one animated, captioned loop of Cece saying “Jess, no” and Jess replying “Parent trap” with a mischievous grin.
- Update on Nick’s zombie novel: It’s just Twilight with the living dead swapped in for vampires. (Is Twilight in Seattle?” “Yes.” “Well, then whoever wrote that is smart.”) Though, honestly, that might be a logline for which some desperate publisher would fall.
- Cece knows where she’s seen a setup like that of Jess’ ploy in “Parents”: “The movie you made me watch a million times.” “Rocky IV?” “Parent Trap.”
- Joan may be a renegade from the collective imagination of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein: “The only reason I wear makeup in Portland is to keep the rain off my face.”
- In recapping Schmidt Vs. Big Schmidt, Winston delivers the line of the night, an instance where telling is better than showing: “You did touch a hotter pan, but he ate the bigger candle.”