I’ve lived in the city of Chicago for nearly two-and-a-half years, and the only local sports team I can bring myself to root for is the Chicago Cubs. And even that’s because the Cubs play in the National League, meaning they offer no direct competition to my hometown favorites, the Detroit Tigers. (Though it’s not like the Cubs offer direct competition to any baseball team, knowwhatImean?) As New Girl’s third season has shown, a person has an infinite capacity for change, but some aspects of the personality are absolute. Having attended multiple celebrations of the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup victories, I could never bring myself to don the storied, sorta racist crest of the hated Chicago Blackhawks. It’s a family thing, it’s a nostalgia thing, and it’s engrained within me enough to create an unbridgeable (though friendly) divide between myself and my South Side relatives.
But if my wife came home from work one day with a Patrick Kane jersey in her bag, I’d learn to adjust.
All that is to say that the most superficial aspects of “Basketsball” resonate deeply with me, even if Jess’ NBA-based attempt to get closer to Coach makes for the thinnest stuff in an otherwise superb episode. Even the sports-averse members of the audience can understand where Nick and Coach are coming from with their intense, respective devotion to the Bulls and the Pistons. It goes beyond a game: It’s a connection with other people (living or dead), to an entity bigger than yourself. But there’s a stronger bond between Nick and Jess, one that New Girl has portrayed earnestly and genuinely, in a manner that transcends on-again/off-again pro sports rivalries. The hilarious, rivalry-flouting invocation of Derrick Rose and Isiah Thomas harmoniously smashing their faces together is just gravy.
Since finding its groove in 2012, New Girl has hung on to a consistent stable of behind-the-scenes talent, and the series’ best episodes display how well that stable has gotten to know their characters. Tonight’s episode looks like a winner from the opening credits on: Written by Rebecca Addelman (responsible for the opening and closing installments of last season’s “Cooler”/“Table 34”/“Parking Spot” trilogy) and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who handled season two’s funniest episode, “Quick Hardening Caulk”). Judging by her two New Girl efforts, Scafaria especially knows how to get tensely hilarious stuff out of Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson. Small-scale Lysistrata strikes are old hat for sitcoms, but Jess and Nick’s post-game showdown in “Basketsball” gives the trope the kind of whacked-out, itch-you-can’t-scratch vibe as the hardware scene from “Quick Hardening Caulk.” All the elements line up: The playful antagonism between the actors; the blocking that suggests they’re almost close enough to rage-kiss; the ludicrousness of Nick and Jess’ teasing. As the prose of E.L. James has proven elsewhere, this type of sexual withholding is rife with comic potential.
I came to love “Basketsball” on a second viewing, and what sold me that second time through is the way the episode plugs into the thread of redefinition running throughout season three. That goes beyond Nick accepting the Pistons into his heart: There’s Jess and Coach redefining their relationship, Winston setting a destination for that personal drive he discovered last week, and Schmidt running afoul of a new workplace adversary who’s more thematically rich than he is funny. Former warden of Shawshank State Penitentiary Bob Gunton plays a diversity hire at the marketing firm: a potential safeguard against an age discrimination lawsuit, the only way an old, white guy who refers to “the Jewish part of town” can count as a diversity hire. Gunton’s Ed is a caricature of outdated opinions and outmoded business practices, but he’s a cunning reminder that the characters of New Girl aren’t exactly spring chickens, either. If Schmidt doesn’t do a spot of reinvention, he could wind up being Ed in a few decades, stealing other people’s ideas while confounding them with peculiar pronunciations of tropical fruits. (“What is it with you and avacadas?” say Schmidt and Schmidt’s theoretical rival in the year 2044.) Ed’s a one-note character who functions better as a cautionary example of our primped and primed metaphor mixer.
Halfway through New Girl’s third season, a full two calendar years after it hit its first stride, the basics of “Basketsball” are the type of material the show’s talent can crank out on autopilot. What keeps the show watchable and entertaining are the ways its pushing itself while playing to established strengths, working to figure out Winston while better integrating Coach into his surroundings—and giving Cece a neater excuse to interact with the guys on a regular basis. You might not necessarily care about Winston becoming a cop—and wanting to join the police force doesn’t necessarily mean joining the police force—but tonight’s episode arrives at that thought in ingenious fashion. All along, Winston’s been comically bad at what he puts his mind to; when he’s passively observing Ed, quietly calling for justice, and showing up at the bar looking like a plainclothes officer at the end of his shift, it makes sense that he finds his true calling. It’s in the character’s nature, and Addelman and her colleagues have done enough observing and reporting on Winston to put that nature to good use.
And in that push for unproven ground, “Basketsball” offers a lot of vintage New Girl charms, too There’s some solid, presumably improvised stuff from Deschanel, Johnson, and Max Greenfield in tonight’s episode, and the Beetlejuice-like fashion in which the words “older, crankier mind” summon Nick is a testament to the series’ snappy editing. It’s a lot like Nick and his unwavering support for those Chica Go Bills: Jokes like these are part of what New Girl is, and to deny them is to deny something unique and wonderful. But every once in a while, you have to try on that #11 jersey to move forward and keep a good thing alive and well. The show should think about keeping that piece of wardrobe around as a good luck charm.
- Following Ed’s “Potato? Yeah I can split a baked potato” and the potato skins Jess and Coach eat as a game-time snack, “Basketsball” is one reference shy of a establishing a weird tuber motif. If only Coach could’ve worked in a mention of 1985 Pistons draft pick Spud Webb.
- It is entirely possible that Winston’s dream to join Los Angeles’ finest is grounded in that Denzel Washington impression that’s been fighting to get out of Lamorne Morris for 60 episodes.
- Nick has had it up to here with Jess’ pedantic stance on the names of sports: “You don’t know anything about basketball. You refer to it as ‘basketsball.’”
- Nick puts the Pistons-Bulls rivalry in terms an English teacher like Jess can understand: “They’re like in Hamlet, the McCalls and the [something half-whispered and unintelligible that sounds like ‘taxpayers’].”
- The first scandal of Nick Miller’s political career explodes before that career even has a chance to begin: “I got some real hot pics in here. There’s one of me as a sexy mayor, lookin’ out the window, deciding the future of my city…”
- The way Schmidt sees it, Winston is natural police: “You’ve already got high cholestrol and weird people skills.”