I suppose, deep down in my heart of hearts, I knew it couldn’t last. After all, it’s not like these things can go on forever—there was never any announcement that Lizzy Caplan was joining the cast of New Girl in any official capacity, and she’s obviously out there looking for a TV series to call her own.
Oh, what, you thought I was talking about New Girl finding its groove or hitting its stride or whatever? Yeah, I suppose it’s inevitable that we’d hit some midseason dips, too. Even once a series shows signs of that it’s figured itself out, it’s not like every week’s going to bring a winner. And so I’m sure a lot of us are left feeling like Nick, cradling that cactus in the doorway, looking beat down but knowing that every stretch of smooth road eventually gives way to uneven pavement. Of course, it’s not like Julia or Lizzy Caplan or the refreshed dynamic both helped bring about were the only kitchen skewers holding the plant together.
Like Nick’s cactus that wasn’t a symbol of his impending breakup with Julia (until it was), “Bully” changes shape depending on how you look at it. Viewing the episode head on, it’s a flimsy salute to that most New Girl of themes: being true to yourself. Self-acceptance is hard-wired into this show’s engine, but it’s been handled more elegantly in “The Story Of The 50” and “Wedding.” Here, Jess’ all-singing, all-dancing approach to teaching earns her the scorn of a student who uses footage of Miss Day singing an anti-bullying song (“Sad Sparrow (Imagine A World Without Bullies),” written for a heavyset student who’s the target of some cruel, coin-related teasing) as the basis for an online video with some Next Media Animation-worthy visuals. It’s a cute switcheroo, setting the stage for a teacher-student showdown before revealing it’s the teacher who’s being mocked, but it ultimately rings false.
Unfortunately, “Bully”’s falseness can be partially chalked up to the recently fluid definition of the term in the episode’s title: What Brianna does to Jess is not bullying. Bullying implies that the bully is in a position of strength or power, and even in the realm of generic YouTube facsimiles created for sitcoms, Brianna is not some playground tyrant holding Jess’ face in the mud. It’s callous, yes, and hurtful, sure, but as the ending of “Bully” proves, nothing’s preventing Jess from retaliating. (Let’s just hope Brianna learns her lesson before she branches out into robotics full time.) But hey, girl—it’s crucial to Jess’ character that she takes fire from all sides, roommates’ girlfriends and precocious moppets alike. And there is some humor to be found in Jess’ response to finding out she’s not liked by all of her students. Let’s just identify the act that calls her attention to this fact by its proper name.
Jess’ refusal to let the gears of online mockery, stern parents, and jaded administration figures grind her down does make this storyline the strongest stuff in “Bully”’s David Walpert-penned script. Not that there’s a lively competition for that distinction this week—a few solid Winston non sequiturs aside. But a dependency on non sequiturs are where lesser New Girl episodes like “Bully” show their holes. Nearly every one of Schmidt’s lines to Cece in “Bully” makes Max Greenfield sound like he’s reading a string of tweets, and it’s a testament to Greenfield’s command of the character that any of those jokes land. While that does a subtle service to the episode’s Schmidt-Cece dynamic (because who would want to cop to fucking a dude with a whole arsenal of sexually charged cheese metaphors at the ready?), it’s bad for the show. If Schmidt is going to play an expanded role in shaping New Girl’s voice, he can’t be allowed to transform into a punchline-delivery machine. I’ve enjoyed watching Schmidt grow as a character in recent episodes, so it pained me to then watch Greenfield and Hannah Simone engage in what amounts to competing monologues here. Brianna’s no better in that regard, as she pivots from favorite student to tiny Nega Jess in a few short digs. At least the digs (“Your happiness seems like a mask”), like the episode’s other quippy, inorganic lines, are funny.
But besides all that: Schmidt reverting into Douchebag Jar Schmidt flies in the face of the message pushed by “Bully.” By the end of the episode, the roommates have all made peace with who they are: Nick’s a plant killer, Jess writes songs, Winston wants to live on the moon, and Schmidt… there was a genuine human being poking out from under those affectations for a while. Maybe we’ll get to see and laugh with him again next week. Too bad the same can’t be said of Julia, huh?
- Making Nick and Julia’s breakup more painful: Julia’s barely in this episode before she’s out of it.
- Nice call on the part of either director Daniel Attias or the show’s editor: Staying on Schmidt’s “dog in the car” act just long enough for Max Greenfield to fog up the window with his nose.
- Looking at the cactus from another angle: There were a lot of big laughs in “Bully,” it’s just that a lot of them were disconnected from both character and story. For example, the titles of these science-fair projects, relayed by Winston: “What can old people do?” and “What tastes better with hot sauce?”
- Looking at the cactus from yet another angle: Disregarding that Winston had nothing to do in “Bully,” this is a standout episode for Lamorne Morris. He gets to introduce an alter ego (Schmidt’s down-low guy Theodore K. Mullins), sells the hell out of Winston’s reaction to Schmidt’s “crescent moon” dodge, and even receives a catchphrase: “Brown lightning!”
- A nice, honest moment of humor from Jess: Wanting to be one of the guys during an mid-morning razzing of Schmidt, she let’s off a panicked Hitler joke.