It’s a damn good thing that New Girl hired Linda Cardellini to play Jess’ sister. The actress is superb work as the Day family hell-raiser, pulling the right kind of delirium out of Jake Johnson and giving Max Greenfield a new direction for channeling all of Schmidt’s pent-up sexual frustrations. But there’s a hitch there: Everything Abby has done in her stay at the loft says more about the regulars than it does about her. In “Sister” and “Sister II,” the guest star serves more as a mirror than a character, reflecting harsh truths about the people who we know will still be around after next week’s “Sister III.” This is a common function of TV guest players, but the Frank Grimeses of the world (or the “Grimey”s, as they like to be called) typically stop by for an episode and ask “What is wrong with you people?” To me, the question on Abby’s mind is “What could be more wrong with you people?”
For the second week in a row, I found myself enjoying what New Girl is promising more than I enjoy what it’s presenting. “Sister II” boasts a handful of quotable lines (“Girl, I got an obligation at a sandwich meeting to go to”), spectacular give-and-take in the Coach-Winston scenes, and the introduction of Sky Knife. Sky Knife should be enough, right? It’s the demented cousin of True American, and its degree of danger has “Abby” written all over it. But even that underlines the mirror effect of the character, reflecting the differences between her and her sister. One Day sibling inspires her roommates to play a drinking game that incorporates elements of playground horseplay and U.S. history. The other Day sister throws sharp objects at the ceiling. Fun, but it left me wanting more. Specifically, it left me asking the following questions:
If Jess is a “fixer,” what does this mean to Nick? I give huge kudos to the “Sister II” script for only intimating in this direction, a notion that New Girl has flirted with throughout season three but never spoken outright. Jess is someone who looks for ways to improve everything in her life; she’s the embodiment of and staunchest advocate for the “renewal” theme that cropped up in the first act of the “Sister” trilogy. So does she view her relationship with Nick in a similar light? Is she secretly fixing him the way she wants to fix her sister?
New Girl has danced around this topic and/or integrated it into episodic plots often enough that I don’t think it needs to be directly addressed. The level of acceptance between Nick and Jess is one of the best parts of their relationship, and I’d hate to see it messed with for narrative purposes. As the couple continues to settle down, does it blunt some of the romance? Absolutely, but the same thing happens when you’re dating someone in real life. To gin up this type of friction would be a disservice to the natural, “it was just the right time” way the writers brought the characters together. It’s a classic TV catch 22, so I’m eager (and nervous) to see how the remaining episodes of season three handle it.
Has Winston truly hit rock bottom? This is another “Well, you’ve been telling us this was the case all year, so why stop now?” situation. It’s also one that is stated outright in “Sister II”: After it’s revealed that Winston didn’t fill out the back of the police exam—of which there was no back because the exam is administered electronically—Coach vocalizes what many of us have been thinking all along. “You failed, man. You fail hard at everything.” Winston, who for so long was defined merely by Lamorne Morris’ comedic chops, finally found definition in season three, and that definition was failure. The guy could use a win, but to declare that he has no further to fall destabilizes the Winston outlines that season three finally managed to get in place.
This is another narrative trap, one that coincides with general trends toward serialization across the TV spectrum. There once was a time when a sitcom would be content to let Winston falter week after week, ad infinitum. The most recent failure would be reset when the credits roll, and then it was on to the next when the theme music played seven days later. But as funny as that kind of thing can be when the actor and writers all have a firm grasp on a character, it can prove awfully empty. No one wants to play or write a one-joke character, so character development started to work more closely with the development of the larger narrative being told by the show.
And I can start to sense that kind of conversation occurring between the general direction that New Girl is heading in and the way Lamorne Morris’ character is evolving. It’s the kind of tension where what the momentum of the show takes priority over what the character needs, and that’s out of step with the aspects of New Girl I enjoy the most. Reversing course could be a great thing for the character formerly known as the show’s thinnest—but taking a few padded blows to the head from Coach can’t be the furthest Winston can sink.
Schmidt and Abby: A ticking time bomb? This is the kind of storyline a character like Abby has the greatest impact upon, so that’s nice to see—even if it speaks to the narrow of relationships on New Girl, where all of the principals are either dating, friends, or friends who have dated or are dating. The loose cannon is taking aim at the emotionally unstable target, and this is the area where Cardellini’s wild-eyed troublemaker could create the greatest amount of chaos. Schmidt’s still the one who’s in the sharpest focus here, but Abby has to have some sort of ploy in motion that goes beyond free room and board.
But that’s just another knife that’s stuck in the ceiling tiles, waiting for gravity to pull it down. It’s an anticipation without a whole lot of payoff, save for Max Greenfield’s amazing mid-handjob grimmace. (“Look away or look right at me.”) It’s a tease that starts to lose its sense of fun after the second 22 minutes. Solid gags and great performances are all you can really ask for from your Tuesday-night Fox comedy—but I feel like New Girl is capable of a little bit more, and it’s holding itself back by waiting for that last knife to fall.
- There are lots of lies being told and secrets being kept in “Sister II,” which might contribute to the hanging sensation of the middle portions. This is the frustrating form of waiting for the other shoe to drop, because the dramatic irony doesn’t completely sync up. We know Abby knows about the apartment, but there’s a disconnect between her retaliation and Jess’ continued pitch for the NoHo apartment. Should’ve taken Nick’s advice: You can’t lie to a liar.
- Here’s one thing we can say for certain about Abby: She’s the kind of person who will mess with Winston’s head just so she can steal his bagel.
- Jess’ panicked guess at the nature of the “stuff” Abby alludes to in her cold-open fake-out is perfectly Jess: “Cocaine drugs?”
- Winston Bishop, literalist: Coach: “I’m trying to [Suggestively whistles.]” Winston: “Oh, you’re trying to whistle!”
- Nick doesn’t take kindly to the Twins analogy Schmidt applies to the Day sisters. “You calling Jess the DeVito?” (Jess DeVito definitely sounds like it’s someone’s name—someone whom I’d wager to guess owns a number of first-pressing Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen LPs.)
- Coach, the AT&T of motivational speakers, really Brittas his attempt to psyche Winston up: “Seriously, it’s like the Winston of pep talks.”