“This is the night when anyone can dress up in a costume and be anybody they want,” a half-drunk Jess Day tells Nick Miller two-thirds of the way through “Keaton.” Of all people, Jess should understand this; when she delivers the line above, Zooey Deschanel is in the second of two Halloween disguises she dons in this episode. It’s funny that she should single out All Hallow’s Eve, however, because anyone can be anybody they want at anytime on New Girl. A man who just wants to sleep in on the weekend can be Theodore K. Mullins. A guy looking out for his roommate can be Julius Pepperwood. A woman getting a sitcom off to an inauspicious start can be Rebecca “Boobies/Two Boobs/Tiger Boobs” Johnson.
Which is to say: If New Girl characters are constantly adopting pseudonyms and alter egos, then every day is October 31 on New Girl—and therefore New Girl is a Halloween show. (Just as The Simpsons is a Halloween show, the U.S. Office is a Christmas show, The OC is a Thanksgiving show, etc.) And with “Keaton,” that Halloween show finally gets the Halloween episode it deserves, a marked improvement over last season’s treatment of the holiday—one that backgrounds the costumes, candy, and parties to spin a streamlined story out of character concerns built up over the past three episodes.
Also: Batman is involved. Heavily involved.
The fact that we’re just learning about Schmidt’s life-long correspondence with “Michael Keaton” is waved away easily enough—someone in the writers’ room or on set was evidently paying close enough attention to insert a line about Schmidt last hearing from his childhood hero before Jess moved in to Apartment 4D. Not that the plot needs such backtracking to work: It’s an elegant, humorous way of addressing New Girl’s mounting Schmidt problems. The spiteful notes that Max Greenfield played in recent episodes are a huge bummer, an extended callback to season one’s “broken Schmidt” episode, “Control.” Increasingly petty and petulant—and, most alarmingly, decreasingly funny—the show put its breakout character in a corner his exaggerated confidence couldn’t get him out of. Learning that this isn’t the first time this has happened sheds those Schmidt storylines in a flattering light. Learning the necessary process for getting him out of such a funk helps even more.
The Keaton catfishing could come off as a cheap narrative ploy, a trad-sitcom lie designed to blow up in the protagonists’ faces right before the final act break. In spite of the way Jess exacerbates the situation, however, it doesn’t necessarily blow up—it just gets the characters to address their problems. And that’s the type of role a hero like Michael Keaton should fulfill. Like Gotham City needs its Batman, Schmidt needs Keaton as a target for his aspirations and a conduit for his anxieties. In further Dark Knight parallels, the Keaton persona is one that’s assumed by many people over the course of “Keaton,” more symbol than man. I’m reading a lot of the Batman material into the episode, but the origin story Nick delivers over the flashback montage (and all the “We have to bring him back” talk—and Schmidt deciding to strike out on his own) invites it. Because this Halloween, New Girl dressed as a superhero epic.
Once he’s put in the new firstname.lastname@example.org costume shepherded by Nick Miller, Michael Keaton takes on a new mantle: a conduit for Nick and Schmidt’s friendship. Over the years, this weird, Great Pumpkin/Santa Claus scheme invented by Mrs. Schmidt became the channel through which the two characters have shared some intimate secrets. Above all, “Keaton” is a Nick-Schmidt episode, a half-hour pivoting off of concepts introduced in “Tinfinity,” deepening the connection between the pair without denying how deeply strange that connection is. An industrial-sized treacle cutter runs through the moment they share at the end of the episode, but the sentiment lingers nonetheless, making for some of the most emotionally honest work Greenfield and Jake Johnson have ever done together. This is a silly, silly plot, but one that acknowledges the stakes of the deception. Nick puts it in plain terms early in the episode—“I’m lying to my best friend”—and “Keaton” never lets him forget it.
That sidewalk conversation between Nick and Schmidt shoulders additional significance because it makes way for what will happen when New Girl returns in November: Damon Wayans Jr.’s homecoming arc. For Coach to have a reason to come back to the loft, someone had to vacate their room: The show could’ve also done this just as easily by getting Nick and Jess to the point where they’re comfortable with sharing a room, but this is a more enjoyable fakeout, one that feigns toward refreshing the status quo. (The Middle is engaged in a similarly fascinating feint, sending Charlie McDermott to college while finding weekly excuses to bring him back to Orson.) The agitation stemming from Nick and Jess’ hookup is palpable throughout the third season’s first six episodes; it’s about time the show acted on it.
There’s a quieter echo of this in Jess and Cece’s scenes tonight, which have a really fun energy Deschanel and Hannah Simone should be allowed to tap into more often. (I would’ve gladly watched three more beats of that “Batmanmobile” bit.) After a string of episodes in which the core cast was constantly butting heads, it’s nice to get back to a half hour that finds weird friends helping weird friends work through weird problems. Or, as the holiday-specific case may be, Superfriends helping Superfriends work through super problems. Maybe we’ll get to see more of that next season—after all, these types of stories tend to spawn sequels.
- No LOLFerguson tonight, because a) There’s no sign of Ferguson, and b) Winston actually figured pretty prominently in the A-story. Crazy!
- The episode works in a non-Batman reference to Michael Keaton’s filmography with Nick’s Clean And Sober allusion—though I would argue that the ghost bit in the cold open is a nod toward Beetlejuice.
- All of the shots of Nick downloading images of half-naked women during the flashback really help to sell that sequence. Especially when he talks about how sad Schmidt made it difficult to “study.”
- Schmidt knows who he is deep down inside: “I guess I’ll always be the fat boy who eats fat-boy cheese.”
- Nick and Jess, true love: “It is his entire acting philosophy, which, I made up.” “I sleep with this person.”
- Not exactly “I want you to do me a favor: I want you to tell all your friends about me,” but a fantastic command from Jess-as-Batman nonetheless: “Go to an all-night diner. Get a blintz or two.”
- We’ll be back on November 5 with “Coach.” Until then, let’s discuss how we’ll be trying to outdo Joey Ramona Quimby and Public Serpent this coming Halloween. I’ll start: My wife and I are going as two of Kids In The Hall’s 30 Helens.