Creating a successful period piece takes enormous attention to detail, as evidenced by Schmidt’s walk-in scale model of Don Draper’s office. A less celebrated accomplishment is creating a fictional present rooted in an actual past. Ugh. This would be easier to explain if you were on mushrooms. Mad Men offers a past that gets all the details right. What New Girl delivers is a present that’s informed by the past in very believable ways.
The show’s sporadic flashbacks help us learn about who the characters were before we met them. Nick, for example, was a guy who wore tie-dye and kissed girls, which means he must have come of age during the very specific era when hacky sack was cool. The death knell of that era, obviously, being Freddie Prinze Jr.’s spoken word poem in She’s All That. Schmidt was fat. Jess was a dweeb. Winston was … I don’t know … black? We could stand to learn a little more about Winston.
New Girl’s sense of internal history helps the tenderness between the characters feel more earned. The Nick-Jess dynamic at the beginning of the episode made me cringe. Stop trying to fix her bangs! screamed the knot in my stomach. Why do you think you can fix bangs? If that interaction had occurred between a new couple with less shared experience between them, we would root for them to break up. He’s too paternal. She’s too needy. But as the episode continued, Nick figured out how to channel his need to repair things into the real problem: Jess’s anxiety about making friends. Because we know the characters so well, we understand why Jess might worry about being uncool. And we also get why Nick would think that alcohol was the antidote to her problem. Nick was YOLO before YOLO was YOLO.
The strong groundwork that has been laid for each character also excuses their weird, desperate behavior in this week’s episode. Even Winston’s bizarre decision to murder Daisy’s cat can be partially explained by his previously established love of, and inability to execute, pranks. It’s possibly the character’s most consistent attribute, and the more we see it, the more it makes sense. Winston loves competition and has no concept of what kind of retribution is appropriate for a given situation. His revenge plots have no eye for nuance; everything is black and white, which makes sense in a way, as we (and he) learned of his colorblindness last week. Winston always brings a gun to the cat fight, a badger to the wedding, and so on. Maybe he just needs to find a partner who matches his sex drive. Toward the end of their relationship, Shelby became a human pair of sweatpants, and he had to break it off with Daisy when she couldn’t stop hooking up with her Sasquatch on the side.
Also crucial to New Girl’s ambiance are the lingering cultural echoes from the characters’ pasts. The fact that Nick became an adult during the ascendancy (and decline) of Ja Rule might explain why he told Jess that he was going to “put it on” her. (Meaning sex, not lotion or a hat.) It’s the kind of weird, specific bit of slang that you picked up somewhere, but you can’t exactly place the origin. (I find that mine are mostly lines of Simpsons dialogue.) If Nick were five years older or younger, he might not have a quote from the long forgotten Ja Rule–Ashanti song on the tip of his tongue. (The song, “Put It on Me” came out in late 2000, about a year after She’s All That.) Similarly, when Jess recalls her bullying at the hands of the cool teachers, the soundtrack is “Bouncin’ Back (Bumpin’ Me Against the Wall)” by Mystikal, which was released in 2001 and may have been contemporaneous with Jess’s time as a high school student. Schmidt refuses to recognize Winston’s use of “swag” even though “swag” seems like the ultimate Schmidt slang. Of course it isn’t, though. Schmidt’s idea of cool was cemented a decade ago, back when people still said things like “metrosexual” and “off the chain.”
As an episode, “Nerds” unleashes its best jokes by focusing on the immediate past. Nick recoils at Schmidt’s tale of suckling a cat at his teat. (Does he do the suckling? Or does the cat? Is suckle one of those words that means both sides of the same thing, like how in Spanish the word for guest is also the word for host? Let’s not worry about it.) Cats can’t get enough of Schmidt’s nipples, as Nick is horrified to learn. In the next scene, when Winston mentions his new pet, Jess excitedly mentions that Schmidt has the best cat story. The second cutaway of a shirtless Schmidt nursing a kitten lasts only one beat, but it gets a way bigger laugh than the first shot of the same scene. The big difference is that Nick is horrified to learn such a bizarre fact about his best friend, while Jess already knew the anecdote and was delighted by it. Anyway, thank you for joining me for this week’s installment of “Josh Explains a Joke to Death.”
While I’m talking about history, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the “guy on two simultaneous dates” is probably the oldest recorded sitcom plot. Maybe next week, he’ll have some kind of wacky mishap with a conveyor belt! Regardless, even though I’m ready to move on from the sticky schmidtuation we’re mired in right now, I don’t think that he’s an irredeemable person. He’s a self-made bro with a good heart who’s making bad decisions. If you just plunked me in the middle of this story line, I would not give him the same benefit of the doubt.
Our foreknowledge of Schmidt is all that’s preventing us from hating him. He is very hatable right now. He is dating two women. Like, seriously dating. (He is also proving my theory that polyamory constitutes a logistical nightmare.) The only reason he is bearable onscreen is because we get the impression that he really loves both Elizabeth and Cece. He’s been smitten with Cece since the day he met her. And his relationship with Elizabeth dates back to his Fat Schmidt days. Nick is too wrapped up in his best approximation of happiness to give him any advice. Even Winston, who has a job? He has a job, right? He has to sleep during the day, doesn’t he? Did I make that up? Even Winston is occupied letting Ferguson the cat into his second cat/heart.
Schmidt needs to make a choice, though. Just as his office is a two thirds replica of Don Draper’s, his personal life is a half-strength batch of Mad Men–style intrigue. The other characters are moving forward. Nick is learning how to best express his protective concern for Jess. Jess discovered that getting laid is more important than impressing her co-workers. Winston figured out that he’s a cat person. I’m ready for the Schmidt to hit the fan (SORRY!), though. We love a show that’s rooted in the past, but we need the characters to be looking toward the future.