There are plenty of myths about love that are perpetuated throughout pop culture: “You can’t love someone until you love yourself,” for instance, or “When you find The One, you’ll know it immediately.” But like all myths, they’re just simplified versions of much harder, more nuanced truths. We end up attracted to love stories and romantic comedies because they put romance and affection and falling for another person—and their more painful, less enjoyable converses—into easy to understand simulacra of slippery emotions. Sure, love should feel “right” and “simple,” but what in this world can actually be succinctly and accurately described in those terms?
There’s a rom-com simplicity to “Backslide” that’s keeping me from calling it the best episode of New Girl’s first season—it’s right there in the “torn from Carrie Bradshaw’s personal vocabulary” title. It’s also in Jess’ last-minute admonishment of Nick, a call for reasonable, straightforward dealings with feelings that all but refuse to be reasonable or straightforward. The show’s writers are to be commended for maintaining the ambiguity of Jess’ statements—Nick doesn’t have to be alone, Jess can drown out the discouraging, Tom Waits-esque voice in his head, but that doesn’t preclude her from doing so in a platonic capacity—but this is a standard, friend-character-to-friend-character relationship talk. The setting for Cece’s epiphany about her relationship with Schmidt—a nursing home—is also stock choice, one which sticks out unfavorably from an otherwise fantastic half-hour.
Or maybe I’m just being like a hackneyed rom-com character, nitpicking in order to keep from admitting that I’m full-on nuts about New Girl when it turns in an episode like “Backslide.” Because “Backslide” is an extremely funny installment of the show. The comedy hums, the emotional beats resonate, O.G. TV comedian Jack Carter describes the length of his marriage in terms of U.S. presidents and cinematic Batmen—it’s wonderful. It even makes that flop of a dick joke from “Tomatoes” into an asset, and not through repetition alone. The episode gives that dick joke a heart, backing up the easy target of Schmidt’s twisted knob with the thought that he would gladly pass out from pain in order to hear Cece admit that she wants to be with him. That character moment is predicated on one of those aforementioned myths—best translated by songwriter Boudleaux Bryant in the song “Love Hurts”—but the episode’s unique spin and Max Greenfield’s exaggerated spasms make it more than a cover version of an old standard.
Similar points can be made about Jess’ titular regression through her recent romantic past, a rekindling of her feelings for Justin Long’s Paul that isn’t allowed to last beyond the first act break. The backslide is a trusty tool of both the rom-com and the sitcom, but it doesn’t linger on New Girl—Jess admits her mistake once Paul’s out the door, and from that point, he’s mostly around to illustrate how far Jess has come since their Christmas-party breakup.
In New Girl’s universe, less than six months passed between “The 23rd” and “Backslide” (extrapolating from the fact that school’s still in session), but it was enough time for Paul to find a soul mate and for Jess (and, by extension, the people who write and play the character) to learn what makes her Jess. Putting Melissa Tang in a pair of chunky frames and a brightly colored cardigan is the smartest trick “Backslide” pulls, a subtle acknowledgment that, sure, everything that makes Jess “weird,” “quirky,” and “adorkable” doesn’t make her (or Zooey Deschanel, or anyone who aspires to those descriptors) a singular entity. What actually does that is the affection that she’s engendered in New Girl’s audience and the relationships we’ve watched form and shift between her and her roommates and her best friend.
It’s been 12 episodes since we last saw Paul, and while he’s enjoyable in small doses here—Long totally commits to his character’s “ugly crying”—he feels like the product of an entirely different show. Some TV series only get 13 or so episodes per season; Given the way New Girl rallied around its strong points and distanced itself from a flimsy premise between January and May, you could feasibly consider what happens between “The Story Of The 50” and next week’s “See Ya” to be the show’s true first season. And it’d make a much more enticing rewatch.
Of course, being an episode that’s about pushing toward the future while dwelling in the past, a lot of the better moments of “Backslide” depend on the back-story built in those initial eight episodes. The DVD message from “Past Nick” contains a few Easter eggs for the audience members who’ve been here since the start—including two shout-outs to Coach, one of which is also a Happy Endings allusion—but the true value of that scene lies in the dynamic between Schmidt, Winston, and Nick. Forcing Nick at his highest to commune with Nick at his lowest might be New Girl’s answer to How I Met Your Mother’s various “interventions”—but at least it has its own “INTERVENTION” banner in the form of Winston and Schmidt’s out-of-nowhere bird-call signal. In their approaches to the scene and each other—Winston represents authority (hence the awful Mr. T earring); Schmidt, the stern self-disciplinarian who knows exactly where he keeps a two-year-old poem; Nick’s the guy whose head is so far up his own ass he’s having a conversation with himself—this is the show’s most confident statement on three guys it wasn’t so sure of at the start.
And that’s where you’ll find the real emotional stakes of “Backslide.” Caroline doesn’t represent a threat to the probable relationship between Jess and Nick—she’s a threat to the relationship between Jess and Nick and Winston and Schmidt and Cece. “Backslide” finds deep pockets of humor in these relationships (the roommates’ batting average with jokes about Winston’s ear piercing is nearly 1.000) but with the romantic ones, it comes up short. Good thing they’re all ending up stranded in the desert together next week. Now that will be a test of what the show built in its first season.
- There’s a lot to love about tonight’s cold open, but the way each beat begins at the same moment of Joni Mitchell’s “River” is an all-star editing move.
- As Jack Carter’s performance proves, when you come up with the first generation of TV wise-asses, you don’t shed your Friar’s Club rhythms so easy. Even if you don’t know who Jack Carter is at the beginning of “Backslide” (I didn’t, though he made me think he was Jackie Mason for a second), it’s easy to tell he’s someone with a long history in comedy. I do have to take umbrage with his “14 presidents and four Batmen” line, though. Who did the writers think Adam West and Kevin Conroy played on television? Chopped Liver Man?
- Next time you’re gearing up for a rousing game of True American, treat yourself to a Nick Miller Manhattan: bourbon, straight, served in a plastic cup.
- The two ingredients for the perfect “Winston’s earring joke”: Setup aided by the man himself, with a killer Max Greenfield delivery on the punchline. Examples: “When is it coming out by the way?” “The earring?” “No, the smooth jazz album you’re dropping”; “I’m gonna miss you, Winston.” “What do you mean?” “I’m going to miss you when your caravan moves on to the next village.”
- Past Nick gives fashion advice to Future Nick (or, as we call him in our time, “Nick”): “You want to be a grown man who dresses like an unsponsored skateboarder?”
- Jess, dropping truth bombs: “For someone with a soul mate, you sure did have sex with me.”