What obligation do single-camera sitcoms have to jettisoning the tropes and conventions established by their multi-camera counterparts? Do we even want them to do away with such things? ABC’s current crop of single-camera shows does a good job of keeping the basic core of a multi-camera sitcom—The Middle is traditional, tumultuous family fare in the vein of Everybody Loves Raymond; Happy Endings could finally be the Friends clone that’s better than Friends—while the NBC Thursday-night lineup and Raising Hope are so grounded in a love for the sitcoms of yore, they treat them as sacred texts. (Show me a eulogy to the late Sherwood Schwartz funnier and more moving than the intro to Raising Hope’s second season and I’ll eat my emergency coconut radio.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with the multi-camera format, it’s just that the shows that have sent writers, directors, and actors scrambling to projects not taped before a studio audience were so deeply entrenched in revisiting the same plot devices and lazy, uninspired relationships. And so it’s odd (yet comforting to a generation raised on reruns) that the single-camera sitcom hasn’t gone all punk-rock on dismantle the traditions of what came before.
We’ve talked before about how New Girl doesn’t quite know how to function as a single-camera show, so it’s certainly not going to be the one to break all the old formulas and rules. Still, it’s a bit of a red flag for the show to turn to the hoary “roommate catches other roommate in the nude” trope by its fourth episode. Thankfully, it avoids the “balance of power” scenario identified by Abed in Community’s “Communications Studies,” instead using the scenario of Jess encountering a naked Nick to delve into a pair of character-based issues: Jess’ inability to say the word “penis,” and Schmidt needing to prove his friendship with his roommate by seeing Nick’s dick. It’s a new twist to the trope, one that address a weirdly regressive aspect of Jess’ character, as well as what is probably a wrongheadedly progressive (but still pretty funny) notion of Schmidt’s.
In a television season where empowered female characters have so frequently been the topic of conversation, I haven’t read much about New Girl’s tendency to portray Jess as a vintage thread-wrapped naïf. It’s a trade-off for the character’s whimsical nature, and if every other character in the world of the show acted like an adult, it’d be incredibly off-putting and unfunny. As it is, Jess lives with one guy who finds close-up magic romantic, another who can’t get over his brief fling with European roundball fame, and a third who deals with confrontation by hiding in his hoodie. (An aside: It’s funny how long Nick’s hoodie thing has stuck around, when other aspects about his and Schmidt’s personalities introduced in the pilot are already evaporating. Fox spent a lot of money to send a replica “Douchbag Jar” to every TV critic in the country, yet that gag has yet to resurface.) Still, there’s something about Jess’ inability to say “penis” that’s infantilizing and unpalatable in a way that, say, Jess singing her emotions or owning a pair of “feelings sticks” aren’t. I suppose it’s the problem the occurs when a Manic Pixie Dream Girl type comes up against an issue of sexuality—and New Girl’s done such a good job so far of adding layers to and/or subverting that archetype that to see Jess regress that way in “Naked” is upsetting. Her supply of euphemisms has a lot of humorous potential, though. (I’m a fan of “bing-bong and chickidees,” in particular.)
Then again, it does make sense that a character who was hurt so deeply by the lecherous ways of her ex-boyfriend would have trouble dealing with sex. Certainly not “can’t say the word penis” trouble, but definitely “Expressing distress at everyone’s loose attitude toward sex while surround by half-clothed models” trouble. The aforementioned scene is where “Naked” ultimately finds her confronting the problem, as Cece introduces Jess to the scale-evening concept of letting Nick see her naked. Or maybe I’m just trying to argue a character I like out of a temporary portrayal that I don’t.
Either way, I’m having much less difficulty rationalizing Schmidt’s plot in “Naked,” which is an enjoyable example of the series’ most zealous character ludicrously overcompensating. Finding himself in a scenario where Winston and Jess have seen Nick’s penis—but he hasn’t—Schmidt sets about correcting this, a goal for the character that, for once, isn’t rooted in getting into a woman’s pants. Instead, it involves catching a glimpse of what’s in Nick’s pants. It’s all a bit silly, and I don’t think the plot needs to run all the way through the episode’s epilogue, but it’s played masterfully straight-faced by Max Greenfield, whose commitment completely sells the idea that Schmidt believes Nick truly isn’t his best friend unless he flashes him a bit of the ol’ cock and balls. If I was forced into making a declaration this early into the series—and I shouldn’t because this long-delayed-by-the-MLB-playoffs episode is still only New Girl’s fourth—I’d say that Scmitt is the series’ most improved character. He’s gone from aggravatingly dumb to endearingly dumb in a surprisingly short amount of time.
Of course, we’ve gone this long without making mention of the person who this all effects the most—and honestly, for putting so much pressure on him, I think “Naked” gives Nick short shrift after his big solo dance number. (Not as short as Winston, however, who’s isolated from much of the main action in an attempt to catch up on all the American pop culture he missed while in Latvia. Oh Winston: Are they ever going to find anything for you to do?) He’s the straight man among all the absurdity unfolding throughout “Naked,” and the episode doesn’t really address how he’s dealing with it. Rather than giving Nick the proverbial feeling stick, it strands him in scenes with special guest star Lake Bell, who’s her own kind of cartoony as a fellow bartender forever obliterating the line between sincerity and irony. I know Bell’s picked up a lot of fans from her work on Childrens Hospital and How To Make It In America, but this isn’t the best introduction to the actress, who plays her character’s quirks in a way that makes Jess’ “crazy giggle-scream” seem like typical human behavior. At least Jake M. Johnson gets that hilarious sequence with Zooey Deschanel in the elevator, the in-and-out-frame punchline of which I really should’ve seen coming, but somehow didn’t. (I blame the distraction of Deschanel exclaiming “I dance naked all the time.”) And, really, giving over the bulk of the episode over to Nick dealing with the situation would’ve been the typical sitcom thing to do—so New Girl deserves some props for avoiding that. “Naked” may present Jess with a plot more befitting a child actor, but how many child actors have you ever seen on TV Land achieving new levels of maturity by saying “penis?” Perhaps we can count on New Girl to break the occasional sitcom rule.
- Winston and Schmidt always sound like Winston and Schmidt in the version of “Naked” that made it to air, right? Because in the cut of the episode Fox screened for critics, sometimes their ADR lines sound like they’re being read by Paul F. Tompkins.
- I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the cutaway jokes in “Naked,” though “Mom, mom, I’m a bunny, mom” gave me a slight chuckle. Apparently Schmidt’s been ignored and scorned by women his entire life—no matter how hard he tries to impress them.
- Schmidt runs like a Jurassic Park velociraptor.
- On that note, the way the pop-culture references are strung together in Wintson’s scenes is definitely the wrong way to do that type of stuff. It’s funny for him to give similar precedence to Precious: Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire and “David After Dentist,” but he mostly just reels off a laundry list of notable properties from the last few years. In light of the plots Winston’s been getting and the ratings Happy Endings’ Halloween episode earned, I’m guessing Damon Wayans Jr. isn’t cursing the second season of that show.
- Nick and Amanda on Amanda’s sense of interior decoration: “President Obama… ” “Yeah, I like him to watch over me.”
- Nick has had enough of Jess’ euphemisms: “Ick, gumbo pot—get out.”