For a little more than a year—starting around the time Schmidt left the loft in “Keaton”—a confined space has been one of New Girl’s most potent devices. A cramped living situation made the tension leading to Nick and Jess’ breakup feel incredibly real; a locked cruise-ship cabin was a great comedic punchline for the ups-and-downs of season three. But it wasn’t until “Background Check” that the series applied that pressure-cooker sensibility to every character and every storyline for an entire episode. Pinning the roommates and Cece in the loft for the entirety of a police academy-mandated inspection, “Background Check” sets a high degree of difficulty for itself: It’s a bottle episode that plays out in real time. There is no room (pun intended) for error here.
Though Rebecca Addelman’s script takes a couple of shortcuts—Coach leaves the loft for a scene that’s as brief as the jump from “all-lady fur factory” to the Usual Suspects tableau against the blue door—the episode earns all of its points and then some. Building off of what was previously season four’s funniest episode, “Landline,” “Background Check” delivers an audaciously written, electrifyingly performed New Girl. It’s a series-best installment confirming that the show has rediscovered its stride, all the while providing a much-needed win for Winston. I’ve watched the episode three times now, and I crack up every time poor Sergeant Tess “The Fish” Dorado (Cleo King, a deadpan grown-up among slowly disintegrating children) realizes she doesn’t have to get home to feed her bird.
Like any good bottle episode, “Background Check” takes a while to announce its intentions. Being a great bottle episode, “Background Check” establishes its stakes early and firmly, to the point that I thought, “No, Cece—it’s a trap!” when Hannah Simone interrupts “The Fish”’s initial interview. The key to pulling off this type of TV is a bit like sleight of hand, creating the necessary misdirections to keep the audience’s mind on the action and not on the fact that the front door is suddenly inoperable. With Winston’s chance of being a cop at stake, everything matters just a little bit more—even the fake kiss between Schmidt and Cece.
In an interview that’s scheduled to post after the West Coast airing of tonight’s episode, Rebecca Addelman and New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether told me that the challenge of “Background Check” involved striking the proper tone. The script was originally much more of a farce; in a later draft, it wound up dwelling on the kind of emotionally grounded material Jess and Winston work through in the bathroom. What ultimately made it to the screen is an expertly calibrated hybrid of both tones, a high-pitched comic frenzy that depends upon and enriches the friendships between the principals. These characters know each other and the writers know their characters; that’s why a quick round of zings at Jess’ expense makes for one of the best joke runs of the night. (A joke run that Coach wins with “What, did you steal a kiss and hide it in an envelope?”) Confined to the loft, New Girl draws upon previously established information and characteristics and doesn’t scramble to invent: Nick’s overactive sweat glands get a workout. Schmidt’s kimono makes an excellent cameo. The panic moonwalk returns! And the whole enterprise hinges on Winston’s most defined characteristics: He’s a weirdo and an incorrigible screw-up.
One of those traits is reinforced throughout the episode; the other is contradicted in a deeply meaningful way. This type of episode is good for Winston: After all, it was season three’s quasi-bottle episode, “Clavado En Un Bar,” in which he quits the radio station and vows to start making his own choices. That’s about proving himself to himself; in “Background Check,” Winston’s moment with Jess and the vote of confidence from “The Fish” are proof of his abilities in front of his friends. And in retrospect, that line ratchets the tension of the earlier scenes. We know now that Jess is trying to hide a bag of aquarium rocks in a place where there’s nowhere to hide, but amid all of the sweat and the lies and the rocks in bra cups, Winston really could’ve lost a job. “Background Check” is a supremely silly episode, but it’s a supremely silly episode that means something.
That last point comes through in the performances on display, like Zooey Deschanel’s psychosomatic crystal meth freakout or Jake Johnson’s increasingly moist meltdown. (An excised tidbit from the Addelman-Meriwether interview: The most prominent time element of the episode—and therefore one of the trickiest aspects of shooting scenes out of order—is the slickness of Johnson’s face and back.) In the vaguely theatrical setup of a bottle episode, acting is crucial to the show’s success. The New Girl cast, the most bafflingly un-decorated ensemble on TV (just the two Emmy nods, neither of which went to Johnson), commits so amusingly hard to “Background Check,” hitting notes as subtle as the Mark Paul Gosselaar tease between Hannah Simone and Max Greenfield and as loud as the shaky-cam bag disposal panic shared by Deschanel, Greenfield, and Damon Wayans Jr.
The final reveal in “Background Check” could knock some of the wind out of the episode: The bag is full of stones, not meth, so there was no need to panic. It’s a fakeout, but everything leading up to the grand finale is real. We’re watching people lose their minds because they want to make sure their friends aren’t kicked out of police academy or charged with possession of a very, very large amount of a controlled substance. For all the antics packed into the episode, for all the contrivances of its vintage sitcom setup, Jess, Winston, Nick, Schmidt, Cece, and Coach still form the core of “Background Check.” The episode takes place (almost) entirely within the loft, but that’s not the restriction it sounds like. The loft is more than a few walls in a former biscuit factory. The loft is the people that live there, and the people that live there make “Background Check” a great piece of television.
- “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl psuedonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: They call Sergeant Dorado “The Fish” because that’s another name for a mahi-mahi, though Winston has some theories of his own: “I’m pretty sure they call her ‘The Fish’ because she’s tough, but fair—like a lot of fish I’ve met.” (Also: Coach calls him Duquan Feldman, but Duquan would prefer if you called him “Jose.”)
- Parallel thinking from sitcom writers’ rooms: When Coach goes looking for a Duquan, his accidentally predatory invitations are nearly identical to those in Black-ish’s third episode, “The Nod.” It’s like a man can’t pull up to a group of kids gathered in public these days without realizing that everything he’s saying to them sounds like he’s trying to lure them to their inevitable kidnapping and/or doom.
- Nick has a good excuse for refusing Schmidt’s kimono: “I’m not putting on the kimono. It legitimizes you owning it.”
- Of Nick’s many confessions, I love “I once tried on my girl cousin’s wool tights and I didn’t hate how it felt” the most.
- “I have no idea why you live with these people. What kind of person would urinate on an electrical socket?”—Truly, “The Fish” doesn’t like jokes!