If the New Girl writers could get away with episodes composed of nothing but setpieces like tonight’s round of the entirely incomprehensible drinking game/physical challenge/presidential-trivia quiz True American, they would. The uproarious sequence features the young series at its best. A little silly and a little noisy, it scores laughs just by prompting the cast to spout thematically appropriate, call-and-response nonsense like “FDR! JFK!” Like any good fictitious game spawned by a pop-culture product, True American is utterly convoluted to the people outside of the scene—and, temporarily, Russell; nevertheless, the riotous, “floor is lava” spirit of the game is infectious.
Of course, the twin beasts of character and narrative demand to be fed, so Jess and company must eventually put down their ping-pong paddles, pick up the discarded beer cans, and take London Calling off the turntable. There’s not a whole lot of downside to this—aside from losing further insight into True American for at-home play—because “Normal” is on point with regard to the elements a good piece of television builds around its goofy setpieces.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Real Apps aside, “Normal” sets about capturing the anxiety that comes with making a new romantic partner part of your world (with Nick accidentally dropping Aladdin lyrics and Jess inadvertently invoking The Spice Girls, it’s hard to believe a Little Mermaid allusion didn’t find its way into tonight’s script) and nails it. It also nails how the characters of New Girl would fret about making the right impression, only to overcompensate in a manner that gets the older, white, rich dude sent to the hospital. When Jess expresses reservations about asking Russell to spend the weekend at the loft, that’s based in an all-too-real concern about other people scotching a promising relationship. And, given the cutaway that follows this expression—in one segment, Schmidt sneaks up behind Russell in an aborted attempt to check the label on his suit coat—she has reason to worry. Her roommates vacillate between despising Russell for what he stands for (he’s a sushi novice in Schmidt’s eyes) and wanting everything he has.
New Girl has done a wonderful job of exposing and prodding at different sides of its characters with the help of guest players, and Dermot Mulroney’s Russell continues to be a great fuel for lighting a fire in Nick and Schmidt’s bellies. This week, their shared passion revolves around a proposal for Real Apps, the smartphone case that performs all the real-world tasks the App Store or the Android Market will never be able to complete: opening a bottle, for instance, or holding a corncob. It’s a silly concept, yes, but one that puts the two characters together in a previously unseen formation, realizing Nick’s newfound ambition through Schmidt’s goal to coast to Mark Zuckerberg-like status on the merits of charm alone. In other words, it’s their key to becoming self-made fancymen, so Russell’s the perfect guy to help get the project off the ground. Unfortunately, their overeager pitch to their potential benefactor goes south quickly—expertly emphasized by the way in which Jake M. Johnson’s pitch attire goes from crisp to rumpled in a flash—and it’s back to the ol’ idea book. Hey, at least those three will always have True American, right?
It looked like Russell and Jess might be left expressing similar sentiments to one another at the end of “Normal”—but Mulroney needs to be around long enough to drop off his daughter at the loft in next week’s episode, so his tense moments with Zooey Deschanel are resolved by way of a Serious Conversation and that aforementioned Spice Girls quote. Even when the episode threatens to push Russell into the “Am I the only adult here?” position so skillfully filled by Winston/Theodore K. Mullins last week, I was glad to get another half-hour with Jess’ current beau. Sitcoms need characters like him or Lizzy Caplan’s Julia to react to the hijinks of the regulars—otherwise, True American is just four 20somethings screaming the names of dead presidents for their own amusement. That Russell can so easily (and plausibly) adapt to those hijinks marks him as a guy who’s worth keeping around. That, and the fact that he doesn’t mind that his much younger girlfriend is raiding his underwear drawer in cases of laundry emergency. It all comes down to whether or not he wants those things to become part of his new normalcy.
Russell’s just one piece of the continuity game “Normal” sets up for itself. Schmidt and Cece’s coupling runs through the background of the episode, generating some gleefully dirty-yet-still-weirdly-sanitary talk for Schmidt (Of his bedroom: “This is Darwin’s jungle, where open-minded people do weird things with each other”) and giving Jess the chance to acknowledge that CeSchmidt doesn’t have her full approval. The hilarity of True American is nearly outdone by the roommates' battle with their garbage disposal, their tactics for and familiarity with which are called upon by Russell’s well-meaning discarding of Jess’ generically titled “ethnic noodle” dish. Even Winston’s search for fulfilling employment continues, removing him from the preternaturally wise purview of young Elvin and dropping him into the hostile talk-radio domain ruled by the dyspeptic Joe Napoli (actual Los Angeles-area radio personality Phil Hendrie). Loud, brash, and so intimidating he cows co-worker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who, being someone who once left a size-17 footprint across Bruce Lee’s chest, knows from intimidating), Napoli is the type of character New Girl could push right over the edge.
How far the show can take Napoli’s “Boss From Hell” persona remains to be seen, but he’s already serving as the type of presence Winston can stand up to and prove that failed athletic aspirations don’t make the character a fuck-up. To my eyes, at least, Winston’s back-story and redemptive arc make him a television character with whom, like his roommates, the New Girl writers display increasing confidence each week. Hell, maybe it even makes him a True American. The rules are laid out really, really quickly, so it’s difficult to tell how exactly one becomes the “True American”—or if that’s even the goal of the game. Either way, it looks like a lot of fun.
- If anyone can make heads or tails of the rules of True American and host a round of the game somewhere in the Chicago area, I am there.
- Nice touch on Kareem’s note of warning to Winston: The salutation is an autograph, complete with a “#33.”
- For Entrepreneur Schmidt, a great invention is not a great invention by any other name: “That’s why they call it ‘basketball’ and not ‘peach-basket catch-it-up.’”