As I mentioned last week, New Girl is stuck in a holding pattern until Zooey Deschanel goes on maternity leave, which means the first few episodes of season five spin their wheels a bit. The premiere was buoyed by the enthusiasm for Cece and Schmidt’s engagement — and by the flashiest distractions the writers could muster — but the show’s lack of momentum is plainly visible in “What About Fred?”
In the episode’s first story line, Nick and Schmidt become part-owners of the bar, and predictably, Schmidt micromanages everything to the point of near-ruin. He tries to bully Nick into acting seriously as a manager, and institutes corporate-culture ideas like uniforms for the bar staff, properly measured drinks, and a troubling one-napkin policy. I have to say, though, that Schmidt’s absurd napkin rule is completely correct. If a server ever said, “Are you sure?” after I requested an extra napkin, I would absolutely back down — and I’d feel deeply ashamed for having asked.
This bar partnership plays out exactly as you’d expect. (And that’s never what you want to see in a comedy.) After Javier and Cece show some “sass,” Nick makes the snap decision to fire Javier, so Cece leads a strike among the bar staff. Nick and Schmidt have to convince Javier to take his job back, which will put an end to the strike, so Nick tries to find a balance between being managerial and not being a jerk.
The episode’s larger story line is a Jess-driven one, based on a premise as gossamer-thin as fairy wings. While gazing wistfully upon Cece and Schmidt’s engaged bliss, Jess declares that she wants to skip first dates and go straight to the comfortable, cozy, established stage of a relationship. This impulse pushes her to give prospective suitors a chance in spite of her reservations, which is how she finds herself on a boring date with Fred (Taran Killam), who still lives with his parents.
Fred is a blank and Jess can’t connect with him, but she quickly discovers that she loves his parents Flip and Nancy (played by Henry Winkler and Julie Hagerty). They’re well-traveled, they make great coffee, and they even have park days. They fulfill the most obnoxious-seeming, Wasp-y stereotypes about Baby Boomers, wrapping us in warm blankets woven on the looms they store in their barns.
Jess doesn’t have much use for Fred, but she desperately wants to be with Flip and Nancy. (Don’t we all? I bet Nancy would take us to her favorite home-goods store and buy us a whole set of very fancy flatware.) The sole five-minute conversation she shares with him suggests that he’s not shy; he’s just awful. Case in point: His favorite hobby is “towels.”
Winston steps in, suggesting that Jess figure out how to hang with Flip and Nancy without Fred-the-drip. (Yet again, though, Winston is essentially left hanging in the breeze this episode. What gives?) To pull this off, he offers to distract Fred outside a restaurant, while Jess tries to woo Flip and Nancy on her own at dinner.
I’ll be honest: This episode is pretty lackluster. The saving grace of “What About Fred?” turns out to be … Fred himself. First, Officer Winston and a cop colleague hold Fred up at a traffic stop and demand that he complete a number of tests, including one where he “pretend he’s about to break-dance” but not actually break-dance. Tillam plays this little bit of physical comedy with an utterly deadpan face, so it’s a nice break from the show’s usual mania.
Fred’s dance-that-isn’t is only a taste of what’s to come, though. Flip and Nancy refuse to hang out with Jess on their own, and instead suggest that she “learn to love” their astonishingly dull son: “You and Fred equals you and us!” Fred is so boring, Flip and Nancy are desperate to find someone else to interrupt his tedium. They give Jess the hard sell, even inviting her up to their Vermont farmhouse. (They’re neighbors with Terry Gross, naturally.) Jess considers their offer. It’d be hard not to.
But then, Fred arrives to deliver what begins as a “ha ha, he’s dull” monologue on model railroads, then escalates into a legitimately hysterical discourse on railroad inanities. I want to transcribe the whole thing, frankly, but let’s just skip to the end: “I also was the first to implement wire-framed humans so that the people are poseable. Station agent — now he can bend his arm to say hello as the train passes. There’s one little girl I use — I call her Sally. I’m also quite good at flocking snow so I’m quite popular around the holidays.” This is one of those little miracles of dialogue writing that gets it just right — long enough to be funny, short enough to not overstay its welcome, detail-specific enough to be plausible and hilarious and petty. Anyhow, Jess has had it. She gives up, screaming.
In the end, Jess loses Flip, Nancy, and Fred, Nick gets the bar back in order, and everything goes back to where it started — almost. “What About Fred?” hints that Nick’s new responsibilities at the bar could actually spell some interesting growth for his character. He ends the episode looking over the books, a thoroughly un-Nick-like behavior. Is he finally acting like an adult? It’s possible that this season could see some development for Nick Miller. (And I do mean real development, not just “briefly stepping up for his father’s funeral”–style change.)
That hasn’t happened yet, and in the meantime, New Girl feels like it’s waiting for the hammer of Jess’s absence to fall so it can get on with the rest of the season. Here’s hoping that happens soon. Until then, please consider letting Fred tell us more about his model trains.