Adulthood: Nobody is good at it. That was the semi-reassuring message of last night’s New Girl, which brought in Martin Starr and a cast of college kids to remind us that the line between sophisticated Fancyman and drunk bartender puking alongside the road is thinner than we might think.
If Dermot Mulroney’s Russell is a stand-in for a particular kind of adulthood — the kind that involves a lot of money and responsibility — then Starr’s character Dirk is his polar opposite. Where Russell has a job and a family, Dirk just has scarves and graduate degrees. His false maturity throws Russell’s real maturity into relief.
Can we talk about how perfect Martin Starr is for the part? He gets cast as a generic sad sack a lot, and he’ll always be remembered as sweet, gawky Bill Haverchuck in Freaks and Geeks, but it’s roles like Dirk, or Roman in Party Down, that let him tap into an undercurrent of nerd-boy entitlement that nobody else captures quite so well. These guys have had it rough, and they feel like the world owes them something for their troubles. Ideally, the world would pay them back in respect, acclaim, and super-hot groupies.
As a houseguest, Dirk is terrible. As a ladies’ man, he’s worse. When Cece walks into the apartment and announced that someone left the door open, he replies, “Someone left your face beautiful.” You get the sense that he’s been smacked down enough that he just doesn’t care anymore — that, and he probably thinks Dylan Thomas would have used a similar line. Cece isn’t fazed. She’s seeing someone, she says, and she’s the boss. So he’s your “sexcretary,” says Dirk. Dude, Schmidt is right there! Awkward.
Entitlement issues are not Schmidt’s problem, but even his puppy-dog need to please has limits, and he’s getting fed up with Cece. She tries to slip into his room for a quickie and he shoots her down, explaining that he’s busy working — he has to get the name of everyone in the company into a version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Anyway, he says, the sexcretary plays a vital role in the company, as opposed to the sex receptionist. In other words, he’s the Joan Holloway Harris of sex, or would be if that weren’t totally redundant. And he’s quitting.
Cece wins him back by making him talk to her boobs, who are named Harold and Kumar. But since she can tell he’s still unhappy, she dresses up as the sexcretary to seduce him. It fails, mostly because she looks like his aunt Frida at Seder, so she makes a last-ditch peace offering: They can have sex in “fantasy location No. 30.”
Said place turns out, mildly disappointingly, to be the back of Schmidt’s car, the Manbulance. It’s not very kinky, but it does serve the plot, because Winston has just borrowed the car to drive to Mexico. He wants to find Shelby, his girlfriend, who’s down there for a bachelorette party, so that he can apologize for suggesting they needed space.
Winston and Shelby are having one of those minor hiccups that sometimes happen to couples right before they get serious. Cece and Schmidt, by contrast, are just dysfunctional. With Winston singing the Wicked soundtrack in the front seat, Cece whispers that she’d rather have Schmidt pee himself than let anyone know they’re dating. Yet she and Schmidt both seem radiantly happy to be spending time together, even if it’s naked and hiding in the back of a car.
Eventually, Shelby reaches Winston on his phone and tells him she doesn’t want space either. She’s back at the apartment, so he gives her a passionate speech about love and tries to hightail it out of Mexico. Of course, that’s when Schmidt and Cece get caught by border patrol. “How do you explain this?” asks the American officer, gesturing to the two of them. “I can’t explain,” says Winston. “Nobody in the entire world can explain that.”
At least Schmidt and Cece have successfully consummated their attraction. Jess is upset because her first date with Russell ended with nothing but a pat on the back. She’s totally intimidated by him, since he’s probably fifteen years older than she is and has done all sorts of refined things. On a second date, she tries to act more mature and winds up inquiring after the health of his prostate: “Our bodies are decaying.” Just as she’s asking why Russell didn’t kiss her earlier, he gets a text and disappears.
Jess gets a lot of mileage out of being adorable, but she doesn’t like how childish she feels next to Russell. In a way, this validates her speech to Lizzy Caplan from earlier in the season about how appreciating birds and polka dots doesn’t mean she’s not “smart and tough and strong.” She might not come off as particularly adult or womanly, but she doesn’t want to be dismissed as naïve or ditsy either.
Dirk, however, is at that moment counting on the naïveté of younger women. After lecturing on poetry at a local college, he throws a party at the gang’s apartment, explaining to Nick that undergraduate girls are easy to date. “All they want you to do is tell them their photography has potential,” he says. Also: “Have you hung out with a 20-year-old dude lately? Trust me, they are setting the bar very low.” And: “Hey, when’s the last time you had mono? Tomorrow, you’re going to say yesterday.”
The college girls don’t feel any pressure to convince Nick that they’re sophisticated. They’re just impressed that he knows how to mix drinks. Nick is simultaneously charmed and disconcerted by their youth: “Look at them! They don’t know what Saved by the Bell is and they’ve never felt pain,” he tells Jess, who has just returned from her unsuccessful date. To the college girls, he’s Fancyman.
Jess, meanwhile, is sad and just wants to drink. By the time Russell arrives at the party, she’s so wasted that she puts him off by slurring, “I’m not Jess. I’m her cousin Sylvia.” (She actually says something closer to “Suuulllvia.” Zooey Deschanel playing drunk is the world’s best example of vocal fry.) Russell takes her out for a private conversation, though Nick, Dirk, and some random college girls tag along. As the rest of the group passes out in the backseat and Nick vomits all over a random field, Jess tells Russell that she understands now why he likes her. It’s because she’s younger, so she’s easily impressed. She’s susceptible to his Fancyman powers.
Russell counters that he doesn’t care about Jess’s age. He just thinks she’s cool. And if he hasn’t made a move, it’s just because he hasn’t been on a date since 1989 and can’t remember how these things work. In other words, he’s just as awkward as everyone else, even though he comes across as a paragon of adulthood.
Maybe that’s why the kiss that follows is so wan. Or maybe it’s just that Zooey Deschanel and Dermot Mulroney fundamentally don’t have any chemistry. Fancyman is perfect as a screen on which everyone else gets to project their issues about growing up. But it’s hard to imagine that he’ll stick around for long.