Like many a sitcom before it, New Girl uses Thanksgiving to take a holiday-related survey of the surrogate family being built at the show’s core. And if the episode is any indication things look like they’re going to start getting pretty incestuous pretty soon. But not before guest-star Justin Long can monkey with the character dynamics for a few episodes.
Long’s long-promised arc on the series begins with the oddly timed “Thanksgiving”—Maybe New Girl is just trying to beat the holiday rush?—and it wastes no time in establishing Long’s character, Paul, as the male equivalent of Jess. He’s a bright-eyed teacher, he’s prone to singing, wears vintage fashions, and is not averse to over-sharing. We learn a lot about the character over the course of the episode, and it comes out in multiple info dumps; for instance, we already know his preferred copy shop. (It’s not that one—it’s the other one.) We also meet him while he’s dressed as a squash, and Jess is dressed as a turkey—a move which rings as a little “twee for twee’s sake,” but who’s to argue with Zooey Deschanel in poultry-based costumes. The actor and the role are obviously a good fit, and Paul doesn’t require a whole lot of energy from Long. Paul’s the kind of gawky outsider he’s played since Galaxy Quest, and Long falls right into the character’s quirks, which include a very male-Jess ignorance regarding professional sports and the ability to completely redeem himself in an episode’s third act. He doesn’t end up leading the gang in a rendition of a film-soundtrack staple from the 1980s, but he does manage to raise everyone’s spirits with a sackfull of turkey subs.
In a move that’s entirely fitting for the holiday theme and the gorgeous-looking meal which Schmidt is continually thwarted from serving, “Thanksgiving” is a table-setting episode. Nearly every plot here is working toward setting up a payoff that we won’t see until the series ducks out for December break. Jess and Paul flirt throughout, the episode hints that they both want to get together, and in its final moments, we see them walking down the street hand in hand. The actual relationship stuff comes later. In continuing with last week’s deepening of CeCe’s character, “Thanksgiving” has her warming up to the idea of sleeping with Schmidt—but we’ll have to wait to see if either party actually goes through with it. The seeds of Nick hating Paul for interrupting whatever’s going to happen Nick and Jess are planted, and… mostly, Nick is still angry about Paul’s intrusion into the group. “Thanksgiving” still functions as a self-contained episode of New Girl, but it feels like everything that’s established here won’t matter until we get deeper into the season—after Jess realizes Paul is too much like her for their relationship to function, after Nick screws up his relationship with Lizzy Caplan’s character, and after they both share a kiss in the waning seconds of the season finale.
At least for the time being, “Thanksgiving” lets the characters work through some of the issues that are driving them to other people. I might not see why Elizabeth Meriwether and her writing staff are in such a hurry to pair Nick and Jess off, but following their blow-up in the hallway, I’m entirely on board with some conflict existing between the two for a few episodes. It’s been building to this point, after all, seeing as Nick remains the least outwardly tolerant of Jess’ shenanigans. All it takes is a catalyst in the form of Paul to set things off, and Nick’s feelings for Jess turn into a shouting match outside the neighbor’s apartment which ends in Jess expressing how badly she wants to sleep with Paul through a series of increasingly ludicrous-sounding sex acts. (“And the ‘What’s For Lunch?’ and the ‘Give Me That Hat!’”) I’m excited to see the pair explore the Odd Couple-like aspects of their relationship—too bad poor Paul has to get hurt in the process.
And maybe that’s the biggest problem I have with “Thanksgiving”: Paul’s not sticking around. He’s just here to be a Jess doppelgänger for a few weeks, because Justin Long still has enough cache left over from those Apple ads that he doesn’t need to do episodic TV. There’s funny stuff to be found in Paul and Jess’ courtship (particularly if the two continue to choreograph their singing) as well as the pain of their eventual break-up, but it’s hard to find Paul amusing or care about him at all when you know he’s not a permanent fixture. His eventual departure is predictable, and that kills a certain amount of the fun we might have with the character.
But you know what’s not predictable? The roommates and their Thanksgiving guests finding a dead body. If surprise equals comedy, then the unseen corpse of Mrs. Beverly is the perfect capper to the gang’s incrementally ruined holiday feast. It’s a bit dark for New Girl, but the reveal taps into a very raw nerve for Paul—and requires Long to top Zooey Deschanel’s wrestling match with Hanks Giving, the Thanksgiving turkey in terms of physical humor. Not only is it in-character for Paul to be so unnerved by the body so soon after his grandmother’s death, but his fumbling attempts to avoid the stretcher actually require Long to put his back into his work. Consider this review fully in favor of Operation Terrify Justin Long With Human Remains.
And so “Thanksgiving” ends the way a lot celebrations of its titular holiday will come next Thursday: There’s a little bickering, a lot of love (which leads to a further bickering), some football (Go Des Moines!), some parades (Go Robot Turkey!), and a carcass which helps symbolize how people come together to help one another in times of need. And there’s also a turkey. (Thank you, thank you. Remember to tip your waiters and have a happy early Thanksgiving, everyone!)
- Paul’s “deep” Halloween madrigal might be the show’s first, completely effective use of a cutaway joke. There’s something inherently funny about singing monsters—particularly singing monsters confronting the prospect of growing older. (That’s what “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” is about as well, right?)
- Winston’s underutilized here, but his bonding with Paul over their grandparents was the sweetest element of the episode. However, he gets a good, quick laugh at the end of the show by popping into frame to accept Paul’s turkey subs. (PS Who wants to go to Best Buy all of a sudden?)
- The Douchebag Jar’s back! And it was referenced twice!
- Oh hey, the show takes place in Los Angeles, as per Paul’s conversation with Nick about the weirdness of an un-crisp November. I’m with Paul on this one, though, as moving to climate where the weather stays nice through Thanksgiving is unsettling.
- Schmidt informs Jess that Thanksgiving is the least-sexy holiday of the year: “What are the most sexy holidays?” “The most sexy holidays are Fourth Of July, Independence Day, Women’s History Month, and Christmas.” I’m assuming the pilgrims take all the sexiness out of Thanksgiving.
- Paul’s a big fan of traditionally terrible NFL teams from the Midwest: “The mighty, mighty Lions of Des Moines”
- Schmidt says what we’re all thinking: “It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”