A long-standing theory of TV criticism that I just invented says you can’t really know a sitcom until you know how it deals with death. The death of Marshall’s dad on How I Met Your Mother, for example, is a perfect symbol for the way that show embraces pathos. I didn’t remember 90 percent of the funeral episode until I looked back at the recap, but I definitely remember crying. Whereas when Susan died from licking too many wedding envelopes on Seinfeld, that cemented the show’s ability to turn anything into a joke.
New Girl falls somewhere in the middle. Like in How I Met Your Mother, the show mostly relies on the rest of the gang to provide the “com” part of the sitcom, thereby taking some of the pressure off Nick to be funny. But this episode wasn’t a tearjerker. Nick’s dad only appeared on the show once. It’s not like anyone in the audience is going to miss him, so the emotion here comes from watching Nick interact with his messed-up family — much less of a weeping-while-you-fold-the-laundry sort of a topic.
And that opening definitely took a page from the Larry David playbook. Jess comes home with a bouquet of balloons she bought from a guy in a van. Nick gets tangled in them (funny!), then exits to take a phone call. Jess, Winston, and Schmidt start huffing the helium (also funny, and weirdly relatable?), and then Nick comes back to deliver the bad news: His father has died of a heart attack. Silence. Then all three roommates begin offering their condolences in a chorus of munchkin voices. It all takes place in just over a minute, and it’s perfect — fast and risky and dark and hilarious.
If only the same were true for the portrayal of Nick’s relatives. When Nick’s mom memorialized her husband with the line, “That bastard was a saint. A saint! That bastard,” it seemed like the beginning of some deeper insight into her relationship with her husband. But from there, she turned into classic Midwestern sitcom mom: mildly embarrassing (on Jess: “Is she a Spanish?”), protective of her kids, packing snacks to show that she cares.
This isn’t entirely the show’s fault: There was something a bit Silver Linings Playbook about Nick’s family’s house, what with the regional accents (different region, I know), the sense that everyone’s a bit unhinged, and the floating skepticism about the new woman in his life. But there’s no way a 23-minute show can draw characters as fully realized as the ones in a two-hour movie, especially if said characters are being played Oscar-nominated actors.
Along those lines, though, Nick Kroll seemed like a smart choice for Jamie, Nick’s brother, especially since he’s so good as the Douche on Parks and Rec, but it was a little hard to get a handle on what he was going for here, other than more of his patented douchebaggery. Still, he got some great lines. “Whoever denied it supplied it” is a wonderfully ridiculous thing to say to someone you’re accusing of sleeping with your sibling. And this off-the-cuff mini-eulogy was flawless: “My pop had a table at every diner in this city. He had silverware from the finest hotels in the area. He had a gold chain as thick as floss, but, like, thick floss.”
Speaking of which, is there a statute of limitations on how long a particular comedy can own a joke about mispronouncing the word eulogy? Zoolander came out almost twelver years ago, but when drunk Nick arrives at his father’s funeral and starts tossing around words like gigliography and eulojish, I immediately flashed back to this:
The circumstances behind the joke, though, were touching and rang true. Nick’s family, it turns out, relies on him to be the responsible one, so they’ve delegated all of the funeral planning to him. Because he can’t write the eulogy while he’s pricing Elvis impersonators — Walt wanted an Elvis-themed funeral — he outsources the former task to Jess. It’s a totally unfair request, but it’s the kind of thing people do in times of stress, and it suggests just how much Nick trusts her.
Initially, this feels like yet another way for New Girl to leave Winston out of the action. Nobody loves Walt like Winston, and the feeling was reciprocated; Walt once said he preferred Winston to his own son. And Winston’s a radio guy — a good talker. But he can’t help with the eulogy because he’s too busy helping Schmidt confront his fear of death, which is somehow tangled up in his fear of poorly constructed double-breasted suits. (How great was Schmidt’s panic attack? “This middle class button system! Get it off of me!”) Of course, later, when Winston looks into the casket and dissolves into wails, it becomes clear why he wasn’t asked to speak.
As a continuation of the Schmidt-and-Winston bonding from last week’s episode, this B-plot was sweet, especially Schmidt’s speech at Winston’s pretend funeral. But the best part — and another reminder that this episode isn’t being pious about death — was Schmidt’s fight with the Boston cousin over Walt’s chain, which literally takes place over Walt’s dead body. Macho barking (“ALL DAY!”) has become one of Max Greenfield’s trademarks this season, but this is the first time we’ve seen him do it while repeatedly dipping his head in someone else’s casket.
Another through-line from last week: the characters giving each other speeches about how they’ll be around even in times of the deepest stupidity. Jess’s funeral pep talk to Nick is almost identical to the one Schmidt gave Winston when he was trying to convince him to help on his fish quest: “I have your back no matter what, no matter how stupid it gets, and you and I both know it can get really stupid.” Nick’s response was both drunker and cuter than Winston’s, though: “I am the stupidest of all the boys!”
With Jess, meaningful friend stupidity tends to involve putting on a show. So it’s not totally crazy that she winds up replacing the barfly Nick found to play Elvis for $20. (He’s unsuitable because (a) he passed out and (b) “I thought you wanted me to kill Elvis for 20 bucks!” Oh, and (c) “Whose birthday is it?”)
It is, however, totally crazy that the Chicago-themed Elvis song she chooses for the funeral is “In the Ghetto.” It has a nearly unsingable chorus, so good on Jess for getting everyone to sing along. And good on New Girl for pulling it off, even while illustrating just how awkward Elvis songs can be without all the background music. The quips from the other roommates help, too. Winston: “You know, this is every day in North Korea.” Schmidt: “I really feel transported to the ghetto.”
In the end, Nick pulls it together enough to deliver a stirring eugoogily. His mom apologizes for depending on him all the time and grudgingly accepts that Jess now plays an important role in his life. And Jamie gets engaged and punches Nick in the yard. This could all be a watershed for Nick, the moment when he begins emerging from his dad’s shadow and figures out a path for himself. It could also signal a change in his relationship with Jess, as the two realize they’re as connected emotionally as physically. Or it could just be a one-off, a way to take the show out of L.A. and get some fresh perspective on all four roommates. Either way, it’s a reminder that even so far into the season, this is clearly the year of “New Nick.”