If there’s a reigning champion of sitcom pseudonyms, a rightful heir to the throne vacated by Seinfeld’s Art Vandelay, H.E. Pennypacker, and Kel Varnson, it’s Parks And Recreation. The show’s writers haven’t just endowed their characters with humorously realized alter egos like Bert Macklin (R.I.P.?), Janet Snakehole, and Duke Silver—they’ve created a battery of back-up characters who can carry and/or drive their own storylines. Ron Swanson’s sax-blowing alias won’t ever be the main subject of a Parks And Rec episode, but Ron and April’s quest to keep that identity a secret from their co-workers was a highlight of the fourth-season episode “Dave Returns.” These characters-within-characters are just one of many tools in the show’s arsenal, and like turning on a Seinfeld rerun to find Kramer masquerading as a wealthy industrialist, it’s a treat whenever Andy and April’s rich fantasy life (or Ron’s secret life) bubble into an episode.
I don’t think New Girl is quite at that skill level when it comes to deploying pseudonyms for its characters. Sure, I’ll gladly note any time one of the roommates gives themselves a new identity, but that’s largely because fake names are almost always comedic gold. With the exception of Theodore K. Mullins, there’s rarely a character behind the name; Dr. Gavin Daytona, Thirsty Mendelson, or Two Boobs Johnson are products of the New Girl patter machine, not alternate personas that characters on the show can affect when the story calls for them to do so. Not yet at least.
Which leads us to Julius Pepperwood, ex-cop, ex-Marine, thoroughly Chicagoan (“I’m from Chicago. Thin crust pizza? No thanks—I’m from Chicago”), and the newest student in Jess’ adult-education creative-writing class. There’s an inkling that Pepperwood is the man Nick Miller wishes he could be, but that sense isn’t as immediately evident as it is with Andy Dwyer and Bert Macklin. Pepperwood’s more of a Varnson type—good for a quick laugh, but you don’t want an entire episode put on his back. The great temptation of an alter ego like this is in the way it reflects different facets of a regular presence on the show. The risk is in the possibility that the alter ego will hijack the entire episode. At a certain point, “Pepperwood” belongs more to its namesake than it does the people around whom New Girl revolves on a weekly basis. And that can be trouble for a show whose main draw is its characters and the regulars who play them.
Don’t get me wrong: Jake Johnson is hilarious as both Julius Pepperwood and the frustrated writer playing Julius Pepperwood in this episode. “Pepperwood” is a funny episode all around, even as it’s digging its heels into the shaggy-dog Rear Window scenario that arises from an investigation into the true intentions of Edgar (Nate Corddry), the star pupil of Jess’ class. Credited writer Nick Adams deserves kudos for spearheading a Jess-Nick story that breaks the characters away from the orbit of the loft and plunges them into such a hard-boiled, suspenseful milieu. Like the main thread of “A Father’s Love” last week, that storyline can be seen as an ongoing experiment in dropping strong, road-tested character dynamics into situations with legitimate storytelling stakes. It’s just that, like last week, it doesn’t fully work.
That’s particularly vexing with “Pepperwood,” because Nick and Jess’ Hart To Hart routine bumps up against the type of material New Girl does very, very well: simple relationship drama that spins big laughs from the littlest details. In this case, it’s the personal quirks the roommates and Cece joke about behind each others’ backs. Winston’s visible-through-pajamas (and well-acquainted with his roommates’ body parts and/or pizzas) erections, for example, or Jess’ habit of acting the insufferable know-it-all. These are all spectacularly specific quirks that nonetheless feel universally relatable; in order to keep any sort of living situation civilized and sustainable, we must all begrudgingly tolerate—and occasionally blow off steam about—the irritating tendencies of our fellow humans.
In slowly revealing these so-called pogoes (a term spun-off of Winston’s anatomical pogo), “Pepperwood” puts the proper character at the center of the mystery: Schmidt. Only image-obsessed Schmidt would care so deeply about the secret frailty that drives his roommates nuts while simultaneously bonding them together. And gross toenails—which are, wisely and thankfully, never seen—is such a Schmidt frailty. There are cracks in his chiseled façade, and they’re the kind that can be easily hidden with a pair of good socks. Whenever “Pepperwood” turns its attention to the pogoes, it gets better in the space of a few lines. Yet the mystery of the pogoes in and of themselves wouldn’t be enough to sustain an entire episode of New Girl. They’re good for a cold open, a spectacular coda, and an episode-long runner, but a totally pogo-centric episode would eventually get bogged down in the larger consequences of each roommate becoming acutely self-aware of their personal quirks, and that has as many pitfalls as determining whether or not Edgar is secretly a murderer. Nevertheless, the scene where Nick and Jess’ pogoes come out—and Cece desperately tries to prompt the reveal of hers, despite pogoes being “a loft thing”—has enough New Girl A-game to make me curious about what this episode would look like if it was called “Pogoes” rather than “Pepperwood.”
And as satisfyingly as New Girl pokes and prods and the minutiae of its core relationships—allowing its talented cast to spit out as many jokes about that minutiae as can fit in a single, swift camera setup—it’s heartening to see the show try something as new and offbeat as the farcical mystery that arises from Edgar’s visceral short stories. That kind of material has a high level of difficulty, and while it makes for an odd fit for this show, it does push the performances of Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson in intriguing directions. If they weren’t game for this silliness, “Pepperwood” would be dead in the water, but the physical contortions they go through and the elements of the Edgar story that feed off their natural energy (particularly the sequence revolving the safe word “apricot”) prop up some of the saggier portions of the episode. And while I’ll still cry foul if some sort of romantic entanglement arises between the two characters, it’s a delight to watch the producers and directors of New Girl pit Deschanel and Johnson against each other in games of close-quarters chicken, testing to see how physically close they can put the actors together without making them kiss. The proximity they share in tonight’s episode demonstrates an immense amount of comfort between actors and characters.
Still, that’s Nick’s comfort with Jess—not Julius Pepperwood’s. The entire Pepperwood persona arises from Nick’s friendship and sense of devotion to his loft-mate, and deep down the bullet points of his faux biography probably has something to do with his desire to be, if not a better person, than a more heroic one. For so much of “Pepperwood,” Nick Miller’s personal Bert Macklin pushes the episode toward something that simply isn’t New Girl. But in its final minutes, when Jess is reading how the investigative experience shaped Nick’s latest writing project—a zombie-noir Julius Pepperwood novel that would certainly earn a Jess Day gold star for its use of first-person narrative, then lose that accolade for the uninventive name of Pepperwood’s girl Friday: Jess Night—it all fits back together in a way that is decidedly New Girl. It’s fun to watch the show try on some new clothes, but it’s stuff like the closing scene of “Pepperwood” that make the show worth returning to week in and week out.
Grade: A- for ambition, B- for execution.
- This week in New Girl pseudonyms: Well, see above.
- Like what Schmidt’s toenails actually look like, the contents of Edgar’s duffel bag are best kept as an enigma. Though, given the way gimp suit is the only part of his “write what you know” graphic novel that isn’t explicitly mentioned later in the episode, there’s almost definitely a gimp suit in there.
- One point of experimentation that completely works in “Pepperwood”’s favor is the mini-montage of Schmidt needling Winston about his pogo. Max Greenfield with Audrey Hepburn eyebrows is such a good final beat for that sequence, too.
- “Like a $4 Christmas sweater” certainly elevates Max Greenfield’s tortured-pronunciation game (“sweat-hair” to a new level.
- Jess brings Nick back down to Earth: “If Pepperwood taught me anything—” “There is no Pepperwood!”
- Schmidt speaks some sartorial truth: “They make socks for your penis—they’re called pants.”
- Jess gets caught yelling “apricots” repeatedly into her phone, but thinks on her feet: “No no no—I just have a deaf grocer.”