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New Girl Recap: Fluffer Nutter

Last time we saw Jess Day, it seemed like she was finally ready to get her freak on. Actually, let’s rephrase that, since Jess’s relationship with Sam doesn’t really qualify as freaky. Plenty of healthy, even boring people hook up with attractive strangers who wouldn’t make great marriage material. If anything, sleeping with Sam constitutes Jess getting her normal on.

Of course, “normal” doesn’t make for great TV. Jess is a character on a sitcom; she should be full of quirks. So it stands to reason — at least in TV terms — that she’d have trouble with the idea of meaningless sex, and that she’d therefore go along with Schmidt’s plan to have the guys take her out for emotional foreplay in the form of an expensive dinner. (“It’s like we’re all dating, in a large non-sexual friend group!”) And it further makes sense — from a sitcom POV — that Winston and Schmidt would flake, leaving her on a de facto date with Nick. Oh, the awkwardness!

The problem is that the quirks of Jess’s sexuality dovetail suspiciously well with the way women in general are supposed to behave. As Nick puts it: “So you can’t separate your feelings and sex. So what? You’re a girl.” New Girl is usually better than this sort of gender essentialism. When the show began last year, critics gave Jess’s woman-child persona a lot of flack, but over the course of the first season it became increasingly clear that she’s meant to be an individual character, not some sort of paragon of modern femininity. Ultimately, it’s a lot more interesting to watch a tap-dancing nerd girl figure out her sexuality than it is to witness Everywoman handle an Every Rom-Com dilemma.

Luckily, the show’s done such a good job of establishing both Jess’s and Nick’s distinct forms of weirdness that the “fluffer” concept didn’t wind up feeling too hackneyed. Their restaurant date started out feeling a little overfamiliar, but that feeling disappeared as soon as Jess broke out her “little Scottish friend,” a plaid thermos full of white wine. And once Nick starts mispronouncing the word “ther-moss-uh,” we were clearly back in New Girl territory (otherwise known as the land of chut-e-ney.)

The more I think about it, the more Nick’s fluffer complaint — “I’m your boyfriend without the rewards” — feels insulting to Jess, not to mention disingenuous. It suggests that their friendship isn’t a reward in itself, as if all she’s worth to anyone is her body. But Nick genuinely likes being around Jess, and not just because sometimes she does deep lunges. Even their big blow-out argument doesn’t seem like a lover’s spat, so much as the kind of fight you have with a good friend after too much time together. It reminded me of the fight Hannah has with Marni toward the end of the first season of Girls, where they’re yelling insults that they’ve clearly been sitting on for months. (“You’re the wound!”)

In the end, Nick and Jess are close enough to get past their problems. There’s a reason that Nick’s exceedingly unsexy sex mix includes “You Can Call Me Al.” Okay, yes, Jess did undergo a brief moment of attraction toward him once when he was making his peanuts talk to each other at the bar. But for now, their relationship will remain happily in the realm of bodyguard/long lost pal.

Poor Winston, on the other hand, is romantically stuck, and not in a good way. New Girl creator Liz Meriwether has said that he’s developing into the voice of reason among the roommates, and this episode showcases his good judgment about other people’s lives. Not only does he urge Nick to set boundaries with Jess, but it’s his moment of genius that transforms Schmidt from a Kanye-obsessed dork in a whale belt into the sixth Romney brother.

As insightful as Winston might be to his friends, though, he’s stumped in his own relationship with Shelby. She hasn’t slept with him in three weeks, and when he confronts her about it, she blandly offers to let him fantasize about other women, then suggests they watch SVU to cool down, since she’s interpreted their conversation as a fight. It seems clear than she and Winston are just operating at totally different pitches. He might be better off with someone more passionate, or at least someone who doesn’t always seem to be half-asleep.

Even Schmidt and Cece, in their new post-breakup state, seem to have more warmth than Winston and Shelby. When Cece invites forlorn Schmidt to lay his head on her bosom, she seems practically maternal (at least until he says, “It’s like memory foam”).

Schmidt’s just a lost boy, pretending to be one of the Romneys so that he can feel like he has a caring all-American dad — and also so that he can impress a bunch of sorority girls. His indignation when he got caught was perfect: “Nitpicking turns me off. You’re all horribly unattractive to me.” It’s funny, as all Schmidt jokes are, because he’s at once got so much and so little at stake. His false identity could fall apart any second, but if it did, he’d just go back to being himself, which really isn’t so bad.

Maybe on some level he even identifies with Mitt Romney, as a guy who’s more eager to come off as a masculine ideal than as an actual person. It might be a mistake to try to read Jess as Everywoman, but Schmidt is actively trying to be Everyman. It’s just that his amalgamation of manliness — GQ, Kanye West, Six Sigma — adds up to something so bizarre and unique that he winds up being unlike anybody else.

Photo: Greg Gayne/FOX