New Girl: “Sister”
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New Girl: “Sister”

At the center of New Girl is the endless promise of renewal. It’s the most substantive part of the show’s original premise; it’s right there in the title, too: Ditching Spencer made Jess the “new girl” in the loft, but it also made her a new Jess. The main thrust of the series, comedically and dramatically, involves the incremental reinventions and redefinitions these characters are undergoing, at a point where society suggests they should have everything figured out. It’s a powerful thematic engine, and it drives the most powerful material in these first three seasons, be that Nick rethinking the way he takes care of himself, Nick and Jess redefining their relationship, or Schmidt putting a new spin on his self-centered lifestyle.

Not to discount Linda Cardellini’s contributions to a half-hour named after her character, but “Sister” is a stealth Schmidt episode. It’s the latest passage in a story that’s been taking place beneath the surface since the love-triangle collapsed in “Double Date,” a way to keep him tethered to the rest of the cast after the events of “Keaton.” The loft is a big hive of crazy, and to prevent himself from going fully overboard, Schmidt moved down the hall. But that isolation is getting to him in a way his old roommates never would. As Nick points out tonight, his best friend and wingman has been doing a lot of monologuing lately. You could write it off as stir craziness, but I think Schmidt plots like the bar mitzvah ploy are building to a larger breakthrough. You could read that (and the extinguished spark between Schmidt and Cece) as an indication that the show is prepping to reunite its very first love connection—but that’s being too presumptuous. This is Schmidt rehab, behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

And it’s as this point that the “But is it funny?” alarms start ringing, which: 

  1. The best New Girl isn’t necessarily a funny New Girl, and 
  2. To be honest, it is funny.

Not on a level that can be measured in belly laughs—which I’ll admit is a letdown at the end of a solid four-episode run of hilarious episodes. There’s a subtler wit to the directions in which Schmidt is being pushed and pulled, a smarter approach to the “Let’s fix Schmidt” storylines of “Control” or “The Box.” There’s an evolution happening here, but it can’t take shape until the character attempts to pick up the straight-out-of-rehab (there’s that word again) daughter of his spiritual nemesis. And, c’mon: Max Greenfield and Jon Lovitz debating the difference between a “nutball” and a “goofball” is hysterical.

But it’s organically hysterical, a joke born of what little we know about the relationship between Schmidt and Rabbi Feiglin. And that’s a hard quantity to come by in an episode like “Sister,” which catalyzes a few episodes’ worth of story by introducing Linda Cardellini as Jess’ wild-child big sis, Abby. This is one high-degree-of-difficulty challenge that New Girl falls short of nailing: The script needs the roommates to reiterate that they’ve never met Abby, which is never not awkward. A few scenes have to be devoted to then comparing and contrasting Jess and Abby. When Cardellini and Deschanel are left alone to do sisterly riffs on their mom’s weird tics, “Sister” is fantastic. It’s getting through all the prerequisite TV stuff that weighs the episode down. That and the very strange mixture of dynamics that results when a casting department pulls Cardellini and Lovitz for the same episode. One of these actors just did career-best work on Mad Men, the other is an all-time-great comedic shouter, and putting them together—even in entirely separate scenes—makes for some tonal whiplash.

Still, the New Girl writers are smart enough to recognize when things feel forced. Take the stifling of the potential Coach-Cece match—which I’ll admit to ’shipping, even with the potential pitfalls in full view. To launch another big-deal romantic relationship right now could through the whole back half of the season out of whack, so “Sister” puts a humorous capper on the one-off makeout session. And it’s not like the show could’ve kept stringing that sexual tension out in the background—it’s already doing that with Winston and Bertie. It’s an odd choice, but there’s an evident commitment to it—one that doesn’t strain to get the viewer’s attention. It’s a natural fit for New Girl, like Lamorne Morris putting a weird emphasis on the “g” in “tang.”   

Which is why it’s important that the crux of Jess and Abby’s conflict comes down to changing the way they’re perceived. Both chafe at being considered the “baby” sister (in age or behavior), and there’s a solid foundation in their attempts to flex their responsibility muscles. Abby’s looking for the kind of fresh start that Jess got when she moved into the loft—and now the loft is affording that opportunity to a second Day sister. New Girl’s optimism has its limits (as illustrated by the existence of Nick Miller) so I don’t think that Abby’s going to turn things around completely. But wherever’s she’s headed, at least the next episode won’t have to work so hard to integrate her into the action.

Stray observations:

  • I really enjoyed the “winging”/“wung” runner in Nick and Schmidt’s plot. There could’ve been more of it, but that might’ve cut into Schmidt’s monologuing or Jake Johnson declaring that he wants to play old lady dress-up. (And it’s damn refreshing that the old woman says she’d enjoy such a thing, rather than retching in faux-comic mock-horror.)
  • Not to get accusatory, but Feiglin might’ve become a rabbi just for the jokes. FEIGLIN!
  • This is the kind of physical description that comes from years of sharing a house with someone: “Did you see a girl who looks like me but with chaos in her eyes?”
  • Abby might’ve been the first person to have a problem with Jess’ enthusiasm: “If you a cappella sing at me one more time, I will rip that stupid little dress off you and shove it down your mouth.”
  • From now on, dinner will be known as “night lunch.”

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