On television, comedy belongs to the present. It’s in the energy created by the interaction of two characters, their reactions and emotions regarding events that are happening in the moment. Those reactions can refer to or build from something from the past—it’s tying them to circumstances that have yet to occur that becomes tricky.
In “Bathtub,” a binder is opened, its contents revealed to be pictures of Schmidt modeling various suits, and we laugh because we know that’s precisely the sort of thing Schmidt would keep at his desk. (It’s not a Clueless “I don’t trust mirrors thing,” though—a mirror is crucial to psyching Schmidt up later in the episode.) When Remy the landlord interprets Jess and Winston’s maintenance requests as invitations to a three-way, it’s not only funny because of the character’s history with the roommates: The second time Remy shows up at the loft, bathrobe-wearing Winston and seemingly hot-and-bothered Jess unintentionally appear like they’re looking to root around in the super’s toolbox. The callback’s just the foundation—most of the humor’s layered on top of the audience’s memories.
It’s really too bad, then, that “Bathtub” spends so much time looking forward: to how Jess and Winston will deal with Schmidt’s waterlogged suits, to what Schmidt will say to win Cece back, to how the show plans to utilize a refreshingly tolerable Olivia Munn across the span of multiple episodes. There’s so much plotting, wingeing, and fretting about what’s going to happen at the end of the episode that the first two-thirds are completely distracted from the simple joys of watching the New Girl principals goof around with one another.
This is especially disappointing in the case of Jess and Winston, a combination of characters that deserves better than a hackneyed “Don’t tell Schmidt his suits are dead” plot. The story turns around once the characters find a point of commonality in “the willies,” but it’s difficult to shake the sensation that a rooftop bathtub and a rack of soggy suits could’ve been at the center of one of the TGIF sitcoms Jess quoted in “Neighbors.” These characters have proved to be strong plot generators, so zany contrivances need not prompt their frank conversation about the “willies”—a development that comes across as a natural extension of Jess and Winston’s emotional extremes.
Then again, that little disaster forces Schmidt into his lightning-bolt-adorned “summer suit” for the two biggest meetings of his life, a wonderful bit of followthrough on a joke that rolls in silently and stealthily stays within frame anytime Schmidt’s back is turned in the latter half of “Bathtub.” Carla Gugino goes sorely underused once again this week, though her character may have something up her sleeve considering the way she made her former sex contractor drink his way through the alphabet of Double V, a vitamin-infused vodka surely aimed at the Schmidts of the world. But that’s more material to which “Bathtub” is bridging, when the main concern for Schmidt within the half hour at hand is interviewing for a far more important job: the father of Cece’s children. And even there the episode kind of lost me. Max Greenfield takes up most of his screentime this week prepping for the meetings that could change his life, never receiving anything meaty enough to sink his teeth into until Schmidt arrives back at the loft, bedraggled, defeated, and utterly un-Schmidt-like. It’s only in that moment that “Bathtub” strikes the balance that’s made New Girl’s recent run of episodes so engaging and entertaining, holding off on the banter and riffs to step back and consider how this latest setback is affecting the character. He’s lost Cece all over again, but he still has Jess and Winston—and their magical ability to break free from knots tied by imaginary, meth-addled burglars.
But that’s a bit of an unfair criticism, because New Girl isn’t being made to my specifications. In fact, while the show has played to what I (and I suspect many of you) believe to be its strengths, it has shed viewers like crazy, going from a legitimate hit that could anchor an entire night for Fox to a show struggling to best the ratings of the other two sitcoms airing against it. Of course, most shows have witnessed Nielsen erosion this fall, and some of the blame can also go to the crowded Tuesdays-at-9 playing field—but the unfortunate remains that New Girl became less popular as it gained confidence in its cast and its voice and grew into a better show. Which is absurd and dispiriting, but “quirky girl has problems” is a much more appealing logline than “friends are funny and they have idiosyncrasies but also sometimes they talk about deeper issues like death and being true to yourself while gaining the respect of others.” There’s a middle ground between those two versions of the show, and for New Girl to survive long enough to make more episodes like “Fluffer,” “Menzies,” or “Eggs,” it has to hit that middle ground every once in a while. “Bathtub” could’ve been intended to find that equilibrium, but its sitcom broadness is undercut by all its gazing into the future. (For what it’s worth, even though it boasts a handful of great lines, this is the second-season episode at which I’ve laughed the least.) We in this particular online space might not want it to do so, but we’re also not responsible for producing 24 episodes of a television show on the dime of an international media conglomerate. It sucks, but them’s the breaks at the intersection of art and commerce.
It’s at that famed, theoretical junction that Nick meets Angie, a love interest who promises to help the show grow artistically while boasting the commercial benefit of being played by Olivia Munn. I’m indifferent to Munn’s polarizing status as a geek-baiting cosplay pinup, but I hated her shrill performance on Perfect Couples; as such, it was a relief to see her be the third alum from that short-lived show to acquit themselves nicely on New Girl. (New Girl is now only a Kyle Bornheimer, Hayes MacArthur, and Christine Woods short from the complete set!) Her presence isn’t a distraction, she’s a good foil for Jake Johnson, and it looks like she’ll continue the Lizzy Caplan tradition of challenging/strengthening the essence of one of the principals before her time on the show expires. This returns the discussion to the realm of speculation, but I can see Angie doing for the character of Nick what Julia did for Jess—only she’ll firm up the writers' conceptions of Nick (and the character’s convictions) by being too similar to him. At least that’s what I’m taking as the underlying message of Nick’s giddiness about all they have in common, which extends beyond the cited examples of surliness, eye rolling, and day drinking to jobs in seedy places (she’s a stripper, as revealed in a scene that has trouble landing its punchlines) and rough exteriors that shield big hearts. And if Munn’s presence on the show happens to attract some curious eyeballs, that’s nice, too.
Of course, it figures that the all-star of season two thus far should be at the center of the “Bathtub” storyline that, for all its looking ahead, is also grounded the most firmly in the present. Nick likes to establish barriers between himself and other people, and this week it’s the bar, 18 inches of oak guarding the character from an imagined downward spiral and all manner of terrifying barroom encounters. Jess rightly points out that Nick’s “rules” haven’t done him much good in the past, and in the present, the rule about the bar almost keeps him apart from Angie. He would’ve also avoided uncomfortable situations like his encounter with Angie’s enraged, tattooed boyfriend and the fight between Angie and that boyfriend’s wife. “Why did I cross the bar?” Nick asks as tempers flare in the strip club. Because the humor of at least one character’s “Bathtub” situation needed to be grounded in the moment, of course. Conveniently, that’s also around the point of the episode where Jess and Winston have their “willies” conversation through the sliding closet door, the type of scene I wish would’ve happened more often and earlier throughout “Bathtub.”
- Desperate methamphetamine addicts and a bathtub accident leading to a hole in the ceiling? The roommates clearly just caught up on the first season of Breaking Bad.
- This week in New Girl pseudonyms: Nick nicknames Angie “Thirsty Mendelson”—a choice, as Schmidt illustrates, that also endows her with an ethnicity. Later, when Mike the enraged, tattooed boyfriend comes charging into the bar, Nick claims “I’m not Nick! Nick has pink eye! I’m Ricardo!”
- While Jess and Winston lay out the details of the second fake robbery and the return of Schmidt’s freshly dry cleaned suits, the Douchebag Jar—to which Schmidt contributes earlier in the episode—is tellingly empty and prominently placed in the shot. You know, in case anyone was wondering just how much cash he’s been dropping in there lately.
- Good on the writers for not following Cece and Robby’s relationship with a tidy Cece-Schmidt reunion. Still, all that foreshadowing of the suitors to be arranged later isn’t much of a better alternative.
- Schmidt is, unsurprisingly, picky about his weaving patterns: “Herringbone? How did you get in here?”
- The fake robbery plot may have left me a little cold, but I loved Jess and Winston’s poorly informed impression of meth addiction: “Do we have to steal my mustache trimmer?” “This is worth three bowls of sweet, sweet meth.”
- Cece is worried her parents won’t take her designs on marriage seriously: “Hey mom, it’s me. I think I’m ready to have you set me up. This is not a prank, call me back.”
- Schmidt to Mirror Schmidt, in the tag: “I’m a man with feelings. Feelings that are bubbling up inside of me and they’re about to explode. I’d like for those feelings to explode on you.”