It’s a bold move, parodying the show that leads into your time slot. And it’s a bolder move when that show is the barn-size target known as Glee. But when Jess did her best Mr. Schue impression last night, it didn’t feel like an empty elbow-in-the-ribs, see-what-we’re-doing-here pop-culture reference. Jess truly just wanted to reach a group of troubled teens through the power of music. Specifically, handbell music.
We’re first introduced to Ensembell, the reluctant-youth handbell troupe, when Jess brings them home with her. “The community center turned our rehearsal space back into a hallway,” she tells the guys by way of explanation. Immediately, the kids cause havoc, casting covetous looks at Schmidt’s water crackers and breaking the toilet.
Casa Adorkable might look like yet another installment in the glorious tradition of unrealistic TV apartments, but as it turns out, the bathroom is all jacked up. This seems mainly to be Nick’s fault. A bartender who dropped out of law school, he can’t afford to pay for repairs, so he’s been fixing things himself. His homemade plumbing cure involves removing a chunk of the wall and installing a soda bottle (hey, it works). And a montage reveals that his past innovations have included taping a roll of quarters to a broken chair leg and drilling drainage holes in the roof.
Schmidt’s fed up, but before he can start complaining, beautiful fairy music draws everyone back into the other room. There, they find Winston, who has just discovered that he is incredibly good at playing the bells. Says an astonished Schmidt, gazing in awe at his own arm: “Goosepimples. Look. Each one, a memory.”
Now, up until last night, Winston was the one roommate who hadn’t yet gotten his chance in the spotlight. At this point in the season, the show has fully established that Jess is the goofy one, Nick is the straight man, and Schmidt is the one with all the good lines. Also, we all sort of know how Jess’s relationships with the two other guys will play out: When she talks to Nick, it’s awkward and a little flirty, and when she talks to Schmidt, his excessive bro-ishness balances out her excessive twee-ness.
(If New Girl has done nothing else, by the way, it’s finally illustrated the natural affinity between bro dudes and twee girls. Both types embrace hyper-gender-specific behavior on a nearly delusional level, which is why Schmidt desperately needs to attend a networking event with Scott Caan and why Jess thinks kids will want to drink her “famous” virgin sangria.)
Now it’s Winston’s turn to get his personality quirks filled out and to get a plot devoted to his interactions with Jess. She’s so impressed with his bell skills that she asks him to join the group, pointing out that two things women love are alternative percussion players and role models. Plus, they could use bell shorthand to talk about the others: “’Nick’s such a tinkle.’ ‘I think he’s more of a tunkle.’”
Winston’s embarrassed, but he also needs this. He’s a competitive guy, an athlete stranded off court, and he’s got nowhere to put all his misplaced basketball energy. (His temp job definitely isn’t cutting it.) So he tells the kids that they need to win the concert by playing “Eye of the Tiger,” the song that ended the Cold War. The kids are genuinely impressed, even though they don’t know what “Eye of the Tiger” is. They think Winston’s cool, and Jess is feeling left out.
Soon, Winston’s boss catches him wearing a bell-shaped hat made of office supplies, working on an “Eye of the Tiger” arrangement. Handbell club has officially gotten him fired. Without his job, he’s free to pour all of his energy into being a hard-ass coach. What starts as a decent contrast to Jess’s wishy-washy encouragement (“I’m so proud of you. That’s what it feels like to play a song sort of together!”) quickly turns nasty, and Jess has to face him down in a very Glee-like confrontation. She doesn’t want to be one more person to give up on the kids, she says, even if they sound like a guy covered in bells falling down a staircase that’s also made of bells. Since Winston has made this all about him and his need to win, he’s out of the group.
Meanwhile, Nick is busy preaching self-reliance and refusing to let Schmidt use the toilet until he’s done tinkering with it. There’s a not-very-hidden subtext to this fight: Schmidt has money, and Nick has none. Neither seems particularly sympathetic. If you’ve ever had a cheap landlord, you know the special kind of rage and impotence that comes when someone’s preventing you from taking advantage of your own bathroom. Then again, Schmidt’s a rich kid who had a $40,000 Bar Mitzvah and once tried to give Nick $30 to make up for spilling a pitcher of Midori sours on a blanket made by his grandma. (In Schmidt’s defense, his Bar Mitzvah was awesome and the theme was Sports Jams. Can’t argue with that.)
Tensions between the two escalate into a full-on prank war. Nick unscrews the basketball hoop, so Schmidt, who technically owns the freezer, dumps all of Nick’s frozen food on his bed. Nick gets revenge by putting the freezer in Schmidt’s room, along with the couch. The fighting comes to a head when Schmidt discovers that Nick has used his conditioner. Even worse, he’s been using it as shampoo. When Schmidt tries to squeeze it out of his hair, they nearly get into a fistfight, and then Schmidt calls Nick a loser.
Luckily, the gentle tinkling of the bells puts both conflicts to rest. Nick makes up with Schmidt by inviting him to come see the big Ensembell concert in the park. And Jess makes up with Winston by inviting him onstage to help perform “Eye of the Tiger.” The show isn’t good, exactly — you can’t really say they won the concert — but at least they’ve won the ability to be friends again.
Quick poll: Was anyone bothered by the fact that the stealing-hair-product plot has already been done this season on Workaholics? A few weeks ago, the show appeared to borrow a plotline from The Big Bang Theory when Jess needed the boys to help her retrieve a TV from her ex. And Schmidt’s shirtless upside-down crunches a couple episodes back seemed awfully Jeff Winger from Community. I’m inclined to forgive all of this; New Girl is too weird to be truly derivative, even if occasional elements feel familiar. But I’m curious about what other people think.