The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles Bites The Dust” is one of television’s crowning achievements, breaking the mold—for better and worse—of the TV funeral. Not only has every subsequent memorial ceremony for a TV character taken place in the shadow of “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” but every instance of a survivor laughing through tears has to measure itself against the impossible heights of Mary Richards stifling the world’s most inappropriate case of the giggles. With regard to the funeral depicted in New Girl’s “Chicago,” “Chuckles Bites The Dust” already did it better on one additional count: It made the audience feel the loss of a character it barely knew.
The main advantage of basing a funeral episode around a periphery character is also the biggest weakness: unfamiliarity. The viewer reacts much like Jess when she’s asked to write the eulogy for Nick’s father, Walt: “I didn’t really know your dad except for the one hour I committed fraud with him.” Beyond what was portrayed in “A Father’s Love,” precious little is known about Walt Miller, so his death can be written into the show without the worry that it will have a catastrophic effect on New Girl’s ecosystem.
But death is a sensitive subject—particularly within the confines of a comedy—and killing off Walt to catalyze character development for his son runs the risk of appearing cold-blooded. And New Girl is nothing if not a warm-blooded show, which throws another hurdle in front of “Chicago”: The episode has to work extra hard to show how much Walt did or didn’t mean to the people who knew him. There’s a shortcut through “tell” territory, but tonight’s episode resists that temptation. “Chicago” is a half-hour that hinges on a eulogy, but the lead-up to that speech could nullify its impact, what with all the cryptic biographical details—“the Seiko watch deal,” “the dishwasher arrangement,” the felony, Paraguay, and the storage space—the Millers drop along the way.
That’s all a misdirect, though, because the only important information about Walt is tied up in Nick’s feelings about his father—and after a bit of coercing and some Elvis drag on the part of Jess, they eventually come out. Walter Miller wasn’t a good guy or a bad guy, and now that he’s dead, all that remains to mark his time on this earth are the memories of his mythic feats and whatever detritus Winston can stuff into his pockets. Here lies Walter Miller: He taught his son responsibility, cured Schmidt of his necrophobia, gave Winston a father figure, and helped Jess find her inner Elvis. In the end, it appears he had less in common with a clown from the Twin Cities and more in common with a fellow, well-meaning con man: The Wizard of Oz.
“Chicago” is an episode with storied ancestry and relatively modest ambition—at its essence, it’s basically the question “Can Nick keep it together?” asked multiple times across three acts—and it ends up biting off more than it can chew. This mostly has to do with the extensions of the Miller clan: In spite of the best efforts of Margo Martindale, Nick Kroll, and Bill Burr, “Chicago” uses their characters like props, cold-weather-city accents stuffed into the bodies of known actors. Martindale’s character comes the closest to being fleshed out, a stoic Windy City matriarch who piles expectations on her eldest son and has a whole stockpile of stink-eye for his female roommate. The character starts and ends with “Wouldn’t it be funny if Mags Bennett stared daggers at Zooey Deschanel for 22 minutes?”—and it is funny, to a point, but the lack of depth the Millers get from the Luvh Rakhe-credited script (at least in the cut screened for critics) has a bit of a Swiss cheese effect on “Chicago.”
Or maybe that’s the case because the Chicagoans are only secondary players in a crowded episode—after all, relocating New Girl to the Midwest for one week doesn’t make the show The Millers all of a sudden. (Which is good, because I couldn’t handle Aunt Ruthie’s “elderly woman impolitely interjects” schtick beyond this first half-hour.) And the regulars act the shit out of “Chicago”—Deschanel, Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson, and Lamorne Morris each get an Emmy-reel-worthy moment tonight. Greenfield and Morris’ are big, soundbite-ready stuff: Winston attempting to keep the funeral rolling before his emotional instability initiates an Eddie Murphy-like meltdown. Deschanel’s Audio-Animatronic take on Elvis is evidence that physical comedy isn’t entirely about pratfalls. And it’s Johnson who delivers the funeral’s poignant climax, a eulogy for a man that’s also a eulogy for a broken relationship.
“Chicago” is a curious Nick episode overall. It’s a character-development-by-backstory piece, and its congestion of activity requires some less-than-elegant work in that department: His role as man of the Miller house is introduced via expositional whispers to Jess—and the audience—but thankfully, the episode forgoes any sort of “I don’t take care of myself around the loft because I’ve already spent a lifetime taking care of my family” soliloquy. Instead, Nick falls back into old patterns of organization and budgeting, until unresolved feelings about Walt push him out of the house and onto a barstool. It’s an important piece to the Nick-shaped puzzle New Girl has been building all season, snapping into place in a manner that argues once more that he could be the right guy for Jess.
But “Chicago” puts those overarching concerns on the backburner for the week, which might explain why some parts of the episode feel off. But just as the last five minutes of “Quick Hardening Caulk” smooth over some of that episode’s choppiness, solid punchlines correct some of “Chicago”’s out-of-character flaws. The episode’s most serious challenge to “Chuckles Bites The Dust’s” authority on the gallows-humor front is its cold open, a masterful use of silliness (high-pitched, helium-huffing voices), juxtaposed with expressions of sympathy. It’s all about the tension and the poker-faced manner in which the scene is handled; Deschanel’s expression in the moment would break every last one of Chuckles’ mourners. And faux-corpse Winston putting the fear of death back into Schmidt is a belly laugh on the order of Jess and Nick destroying a fish tank—it might even be a bigger one, thanks to a jump cut that effectively captures Schmidt’s terror.
Like the tidbits about Walt’s life sprinkled throughout “Chicago,” it’s the little things from this New Girl roadtrip that leave the biggest imprint. The casting of the Millers is inspired, the work on Nick’s background and evolution important to the big picture—but this episode’s going down in history as “The one with the Munchkin-voiced condolences.” It’s not quite the stuff of “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” but it’ll give Mary a run for her poor-timing money.
- “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms: You can call the personality Jess assumes for the funeral “Elvis Presley,” but she also goes by “The King of Rock and Roll” or “The Pelvis.” (Though her interpretation of The King involves more kicking than gyrating.)
- Executive producer Jake Kasdan took directing duties on this one, his second time helming a season-two episode after “A Father’s Love.” (Apparently he knows from familial pressures.) There’s a lot of handheld camera work—at least there is in the screener cut—which gives the episode a ramshackle, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia vibe that jibes nicely with the funeral setting.
- If Schmidt doesn’t return the favor to Winston in a few weeks, I’m afraid the still-delightful “buddies helping buddies” dynamic that carries over to “Chicago” from “Quick Hardening Caulk” is in danger of turning into a Bagger Vance scenario. I’d like to see Winston get into a Daisy-related pickle that Schmidt has to help alleviate.
- Nick Kroll’s character is just a douchebag man-child that didn’t make his way to Kroll Show, but the fact that he thought brothers have to get married in order of age is a perfect fit for the guy. As is his excuse for giving a snowman a carrot penis: “Those kids were cool and they wanted to hang out!”
- Jess pitches her idea for a Portlandia sketch: “I’m from Portland, Oregon: Land of books!”
- This week’s “Schmidt punchline that lands thanks to pronunciation”: “What do I do with all of these butt-tons?”
- Winston cannot play a completely authentic corpse: “I need to breathe—because I’m coaching you but also for general life reasons.”
- Hey drunk Nick, what do they call that speech that’s delivered at a funeral? “The gigliography.”
- “Are you tapping me on the shoulder, girly?”—Margo Martindale was put on this planet to chill your bones via lines like this.
- This week’s “Highly specific Schmidt quote that would also make a decent daily affirmation”: “My face touched the mustache of a carcass today, Bobby.”