I’ve had the same two best friends since I was in seventh grade, a relationship that’s stretching into its 16th year. One of them lives right around the block from me in Chicago; one just recently bought a house not far from where we grew up in suburban Michigan. We don’t see each other as often as we’d like (not that I want to put words in their mouths, though the nature of our relationship implies that I should be able to, right?), but I’m still comfortable in calling them my “best” friends because, even though we often go months without a face-to-face interaction, when we see each other in the city or at holidays, we pick up the conversation as if we just hung out the night before. As we’ve grown older, what we initially bonded over has transformed from specifics to generalities—going, say, from sharing the same favorite bands to merely enjoying the same styles of music—but that might have just made our connection stronger. Because what maintains our friendship today isn’t an affection for The Beatles or a thorough knowledge of The Jerk, but a basic understanding and love of who each of us is as a person, and a respect for the decisions we’ve made in the course of the last decade and a half.
In the era of the low-concept hangout sitcom, it can be difficult to imply such a strong connection between characters. Friends did an excellent job retconning a back-story for its ensemble, and while that led to a few too many flashback episodes—hey, you gotta make that Fat Monica suit earn its money—the show has become the standard-bearer for how sitcoms of its ilk explain why their characters are, er, friends. It also introduced the most frequently recurring three reasons these kinds of characters come together in the first place: Either they met when they were kids (Rachel and the Gellers), during college (Ross and Chandler), or when they moved to The Big City (Chandler and Joey; Monica and Phoebe).
Fittingly, though frustratingly, the three shows that have most successfully duplicated and adapted the Friends formula in recent years—How I Met Your Mother, Happy Endings, and New Girl—hew close to those three archetypal origin stories. The core of the Happy Endings gang all grew up in the same neighborhood; Schmidt met Nick during New Girl: The College Years; Robin was drawn into the twisted web of HIMYM’s mythology when she met Ted one fateful night at McClaren’s. There’s a distinct lack of variety to these scenarios, but there’s also an honesty to the roots of these relationships: Not to keep getting anecdotal, but the majority of my lasting friendships were formed during similarly transitional periods, either when I was preparing for the shift into high school, finding my feet as an undergrad, or learning the ropes in a new city. (Of course, this could also be used as evidence that I should watch more shows that aren’t so close to my own life experiences—in which case, point taken.)
These backstories provide the “How?” of friendships on shows like New Girl; it’s up to an episode like “Models” to provide the “Why?” And while moving on to that second question provides the type of character analysis that helps viewers feel connected to the people on their TV screens, for my part, I could usually do without it. If the show’s doing its job, it’s explaining why these people are friends on a weekly basis—even if, like Jess and Cece and Nick and Schmidt, they’ve known each other for more than a third of their lives.
“Models” serves as a quasi-sequel to last season’s “Secrets”—and not just because Josh Malmuth is the credited writer on both half-hours, or because of his scripts’ skillful, sparing use of Cece’s horrifyingly racist roommates/fellow models. Both episodes put Jess and Cece’s friendship in a more perilous position than it usually occupies—and it’s almost always on the brink of disaster. It doesn’t produce the episode’s most fruitful plotline, but this is a relationship that deserves to be treated to the “Why?,” if only because the writers keep finding ways to challenge it.
Conversely, Nick and Schmidt’s relationship enjoys steadier footing on an episode-by-episode basis, but it’s the one you’d think the show would spend the most time questioning. The characters have slotted into basic odd couple roles, with Winston and Jess acting as a buffer—but their disagreements rarely boil over to the type of not-on-speaking terms passive-aggression portrayed in “Models.” But if they were reaching such extreme heights of disagreement on a regular basis, New Girl would be more difficult to watch: The sting of seeing Nick admit that he doesn’t care about Schmidt as much as Schmidt cares about him is made more potent by the obvious mutual affection between Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield. The “I didn’t ask you to do that” argument about the random acts of kindness Schmidt performs for Nick around the apartment—including, but not limited, to lining up shoes at the door, setting the DVR, and turndown service—is hilarious, but the humor is underlined by genuine emotion.
Putting aside the return of Nadia and Jess’ brief attempt at highlighting the features of/being “fun, sexy, and American” in front of a BRAND NEW FORD FUSION, “Models” earns its title by nearly being the quintessential New Girl episode. It’s 95 percent characters pinging off each other and 5 percent Zooey Deschanel getting her Lucille Ball on. The second season’s been light on physical comedy for Deschanel thus far, so her moment on the big turntable next to the BRAND NEW FORD FUSION WITH ECOBOOST ENGINE makes a big splash—even if it’s hard to tell whether she performed the set piece’s most difficult stunt, which involved slingshotting around the BRAND NEW FORD FUSION WITH ECOBOOST ENGINE AND STANDARD VOICE-ACTIVATED SYNC. Eric Appel’s direction of the sequence is also an ingenious way of working around the car commercial that suddenly crops up in the third act of “Models,” throwing up a number of misdirects and visual gags that distract from the fact that Malmuth’s script is temporarily hijacked by advertising copy. Eschewing the de rigueur goofing on product placement, New Girl simply neutralizes it; Deschanel’s stumbling, Appel’s direction, and a Hall & Oates cut on the soundtrack reduce the pitch for the car to easily ignored background noise.
Too bad that segment exists mostly to serve the weaker of the answers to the episode’s friendship questions. Jess comes to a better understanding of her best friend by literally walking in her shoes—which is a facile “Le sigh: the life of a model!” conclusion, but one that nonetheless proves Jess’ devotion to Cece, through thick and thin, slaps to the boobs and movie dates with Jessica freaking P. Given the satisfying conclusion of Nick and Schmidt’s storyline, however, the writers earned a gimme. That B-plot is perfectly constructed—the simple gesture of Schmidt buying Nick a cookie naturally mutates into a bond-shaking event—with the runner of Nick wanting to buy a pet turtle blinding the character to the fact that he already has the companionship and affection he’s seeking from a friend in a half shell.
Maybe it’s the fact that it afforded Lamorne Morris the chance to give an impassioned-yet-hilarious speech (“What is the problem, Nick? Do you not want me to have a good night?”). Maybe it’s because we’re knee-deep in The Year of Nick Miller. (“You can’t say ‘butt drinking’ and not say what it is. It has two of my four favorite things.” I expect to learn what the other two are by season’s end.) Maybe “You’re the only turtle I want” is a more satisfying piece of dialogue than “It is just pointing at stuff, but this is hard.” (Kidding—the turtle bit is definitely stronger.) Nevertheless, Nick and Schmidt’s half of “Models” is the more resonant one because it’s simultaneously weird, honest, and funny, all the while providing a thematic echo to Jess and Cece’s half.
The “Why?” in both relationships is universal; it’s a variation on a theme mentioned above: These people respect and love one another, despite growing differences or opposing philosophies. “Models” keeps a more in-depth question running alongside its big elemental inquiry—“Do you think if we met today, we would still be friends?”—but in a smart move on behalf of the writers and producers, ultimately refuses to answer it. Sometimes, there’s no to question what keeps people together. Sometimes, just knowing that you’re together is good enough.
- Nick’s initial skepticism about the cookie feels like such a classic starting point for a sitcom episode that I might have loved that plot even if it didn’t plumb the emotional depths.
- Nick may not be the most empathetic guy in the loft, but he has his… reasons: “I can’t go around saying ‘good-night’ to everyone and buying people cookies. I am not a titan of finance, sir.”
- Nadia hasn’t bedded a former star of That ’70s Show, but she has hit upon the first line of a potentially great children’s book: “You put on pajama, Wilmer Vamalama.”
- Someone must’ve shared the foley demos of Jess and Cece’s boob-slap fight, because there’s real pain in Hannah Simone and Zooey Deschanel’s reading of the following: “Okay, what did you do to me last night? Can you sprain someone’s chest?” “You should see the other guys.”
- I don’t know about any of you, but I could certainly go for a nice, warm plate of chocolate-chip Ford Fusions.