A decision is always a choice, but a choice isn’t necessarily a decision. It’s a question of intent; it also comes down to the very roots of the word “decision.” Like its relatives “decide” and “decisive,” decision derives from the Latin word for “determine.” As such, decisions aren’t taken lightly: We decide where we want to go to school, we decide what career path we’d like to pursue. When you’re picking pizza toppings, you’re making a choice. When you agree to spend the rest of your life at another person’s side, you’ve made a decision.
That distinction is at the heart of “Clavado En Un Bar,” which makes “Clavado En Un Bar” a silly topic of conversation. The illusion of a good TV show involves characters who appear to make choices and decisions for themselves, but we all know who’s actually pulling the strings here: Episode writer Berkley Johnson and his New Girl colleagues. On the surface level, Winston’s realization that he lets life make the decisions for him echoes with profundity. But as viewers, we could already feel this, because Winston Bishop is a made-up person. He quits the radio station because that’s what the writers wanted; he says “What if somebody gave baby Winston a flower?” in that particular way because Lamorne Morris made it so.
And yet, at a nuts-and-bolts level, “Clavado En Un Bar” remains an illuminating episode for Morris’ character. By necessity, Winston Bishop started out as an outline of a person, pulled here and there by the natural momentum of a new TV series. He was a character for the sake of being a character, a warm body that could occupy the space left by Coach. The cordiality and enthusiasm of Morris’ peformance did a lot to fill in the outline, but it wasn’t until the back end of season two that Winston began to feel like a part of the living, breathing New Girl organism. And so in season three, Winston has been defined by what he lacks: common sense, luck in love, a direction of his own making. Learning that he ended up playing professional basketball (and then got into sports radio because of pro basketball) because that’s what was easiest makes so much sense. Material like that has made Winston feel much more whole in season three, and it helps clarify his bond to the people he sits around the bar with in “Clavado En Un Bar.”
That’s an important note to strike, because so much of the third season has involved the characters defining themselves through their relationships. This week’s episode is New Girl stepping back and taking inventory as it heads into a set of episodes that will take the show to Paisley Park and beyond. In that way, it’s the spiritual and conceptual descendant of “Virgins,” a bottle-episode-that’s-not-a-bottle-episode because it requires all those flashbacks and their attendant locations. Only Jess’ strike as deeply as Winston’s: Since it’s her employment dilemma that kicks the episode off, she gets multiple trips down the timeline, flashing back to when her bangs could get her mistaken for Lizzy Caplan (for a second, I swore the show pulled a winking cameo to suggest first-job Jess was more like Julia) and telling the Jess-Cece origin story. The real-time element of Jess’ decision is a red herring: There’s not much story to making up your mind, so Coach’s ticking stopwatch merely gives some added energy to How Schmidt Got His Groove and The Story Of Why Damon Wayans Jr.’s Onscreen Credit Doesn’t Read “Ernie.” With all the basketball talk and the foregone conclusions, it’s a bit like New Girl’s version of The Decision. Unlike that extended commercial for LeBron James’ personal brand, however, the laughs here are intentional.
As such, the call itself winds up being something of an anticlimax—but that’s okay. There’s some sincere tension in Jess’ predicament, but placing too much emphasis on that one element of “Clavado En Un Bar” misses the point of the episode. This is an episode intended to squeeze out some back story (and maybe a few more Fat Schmidt laughs—those are getting harder to come by, but look at Max Greenfield carrying those trees!) on a limited budget. The half hour hints at change, but change isn’t its game; taking stock of the characters is. Change can wait.
In that waiting, Nick delivers a strong thesis statement for season three: “I want this, it makes me happy.” That’s why he decides to tend bar; that’s why he decided to kiss Jess last year. “Clavado En Un Bar” is weirdly aspirational and well-adjusted for New Girl, but the most rewarding material of season three has the above Miller quotation in its DNA. It’s why Nick and Jess are together; it’s why Schmidt needed to move out of the loft. (It may have even been why Schmidt believed in Michael Keaton for so long.) Tonight’s episode is a fun step back from all that full-tilt insanity, a way to look at the characters as individuals. That’s the less funny way of looking at them (for me, there’s a lot of space between the big laughs in this one), but it should add some new layers to their interactions in episodes to come. The “Cece the bartender” twist comes off like it was summoned from thin air, but it’ll be worth it to see Nick attempting to be a boss. Or maybe it just lacks weight right now because it’s more of a choice.
- “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl pseudonyms and alter-egos: Yeah, whatever, Coach—nobody’s buying this “Ernie” business.
- “Clavado En Un Bar” isn’t just a quasi-bottle episode—it’s also a quasi-Christmas episode. I’m guessing that scheduling for the third season was altered by the Super Bowl episode; the lights and tinsel and Schmidt’s tree-lot tale suggest this episode was supposed to air with the other Tuesday-night holiday celebrations. Thankfully, all the festive accoutrements run through the background of the episode, so it’s not going to trigger any post-Christmas blues. (In fact, the decorations at the bar would just be a sign of Nick’s laziness—if “Clavado En Un Bar” didn’t have so many other “please air this in December” indicators.)
- Kevin-97 punches up the song that gives “Clavado En Un Bar” (English: “Stuck In A Bar”) its title at the end of the episode. Appropriately enough, the song was first featured on a record that was released in 1997: Sueños Liquidos by Maná.
- Nick Miller, travel enthusiast: “Any chance to get to Latvia, right?”
- Coach should pay closer attention to caller ID: “Lady, she’s still got one minute… That was a butt dial from your mother. She’s up to no good.”
- Schmidt butts in on Nick’s law-school flashback: “I love you in that scarf. Why don’t you wear scarves anymore?”