In The Dark Knight Rises (one of the weird new Batman movies, according to Nick Miller), it seems that handsome billionaire Bruce Wayne has nothing to live for. He exists only for the time he spends fighting crime in his Batsuit (or Batmansuit, as Jess Day might say). One of the film’s themes is the push and pull of the identity with which you’re born against the identity you create for yourself. At least, I think it is? I have a better recollection of the film’s more prominent theme, which was, of course: Prisoners in a pit will be surprisingly deft chiropractors and will encourage one another’s efforts to escape.
Michael Keaton’s Batman dwelled in less darkness than Christian Bale’s version of the character. He fought a less sinister Joker, and he was (at least in my memory) a more unambiguous force of justice. It’s appropriate, then, that Michael Keaton (in absentia) served as Schmidt’s guide from chubby doofus to asshole Adonis. Keaton’s Batman was the hero Gotham needed, not just the one they deserved. The actor was the perfect role model for turning a traumatic childhood into a confident adulthood.
One of my favorite aspects of New Girl is how neatly we see the impact that the past has on the present. Nick, always trying to escape responsibility, is the clear product of his intense mother and huckster father. Winston lacks a fully formed sense of self because he spent so long defining himself through athletics. (It seems like this is the light we’re meant to see Winston in. He’s no longer the hypercompetitive alpha we once knew. Even in his fantasies, Winston wants to be Robin. He can’t handle the stress of being Batman. (I like him as the silly weirdo who pretends[?] to have seen The Truman Show.) Jess was a confidently weird kid who blossomed into a (telegenic but) confidently weird adult. Schmidt went from jovial, sheepish Fat Schmidt to contrived, assertive Fit Schmidt. He’s not a person so much as he is a set of stitched-together personality traits and habits, a Frankenschmidt if you will. (Fine, Frankenschmidt’s Monster, but here they’re one and the same.)
“Keaton” raises an important question of identity: Are you the face you present to the public or the person you are in private? Are you Schmidt or Fat Schmidt? Batman or Bruce Wayne? Real Michael Keaton or someone’s best friend who pounced on the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org?
Halloween is the perfect time to explore those questions. A Halloween episode of New Girl is also good for that. I think I like Halloween installments of TV shows more than I enjoy real life Halloween at this point. In my experience, Halloween for adults means a dress rehearsal for New Year’s Eve. You spend lots of money making questionable decisions and then cringe when photos end up on Facebook. There is rarely candy involved anymore, which is a shame. Halloween on television is way more fun. It’s all about elaborate costuming and external representation of internal qualities. After all, what better way is there to manage your image than through your choice of Halloween costume?
Jess dresses up as Joey Ramona Quimby. Of course she does. What other costume could she possibly wear? Dressing as both musician Joey Ramone and YA character Ramona Quimby says: “I’m a punk who styles herself like a spunky child.” That’s Jess’s ethos in a nutshell. Her costume lets her have her heroin and eat it, too. Nick simply wears trash he found in his car, which is a pretty accurate referendum on his sense of self-worth. Winston attends Jess’s party as David Letterman, for whom he believes himself to be a dead ringer. Racially, there’s a lot of stuff going on there that I will not attempt to unpack. Schmidt, bolstered by “Michael Keaton’s” affirmations, wears a form-fitting lizard costume and a necktie like an American’s idea of a Japanese strip club. Obviously. He thinks of himself as a snake dressed up to be someone he isn’t really.
Over the course of “Keaton,” Schmidt learns the truth about his hero, comes face to face with Cece in humiliating fashion, and gets beaten up by children. Even though a few weeks ago, he seemed irredeemable, Schmidt has once again grown sympathetic because we see how his past led him (almost inevitably) to this iteration of the present.
In the end, Schmidt realizes that identity is a continuous and evolving quality. Even when he’s sad, he’s not the old Schmidt. That Schmidt is gone forever. But when he’s at his most confident, he’s never fully the Schmidt of his dreams. What he sees as regression is actually an even newer, more highly evolved Schmidt. And it doesn’t matter that he never corresponded with Michael Keaton. Michael Keaton was inside him all along. Or he was inside Nick. Someone was inside someone else in a lesson-y way, like at the end of a movie about high school football. Then Schmidt moves across the hall into his new apartment (The Schmidcave?). So really, he was more like the Christian Bale Batman. He spent so long convincing the world that his constructed identity was real, he lost touch with the wounded, lonely self who built the façade. (I know I’ve been writing a lot about Schmidt, but he’s the most dynamic character, and his story line is by far the most interesting plot the show has going.)
Here’s a weird tangential thought you can feel free to not read: The experience of watching New Girl causes the audience to forget reality in favor of construction. There’s a weird moment every week that you probably miss if you watch online or via DVR. Technically, it’s not part of the show, but it’s a jarring element of the New Girl viewing experience. During a commercial break, Zooey Deschanel appears (as herself) in an ad for Pantene shampoo. For 30 seconds, we are presented with the reality that Jessica Day, weird goofball, is a fictional character. Zooey Deschanel, the actual person, is a strikingly beautiful actress who endorses beauty products even though she looks exactly like Jessica Day, a doofy fictional schoolteacher. Then we immediately have to forget that Zooey Deschanel exists so we can enjoy watching Jessica Day. (What must seem to network executives and shampoo moguls as good corporate synergy comes off as a weird reminder that acting is happening.)
Zooey Deschanel is Jessica Day, but Jessica Day isn’t really Zooey Deschanel. She’s a character. That relationship doesn’t go both ways. In that way, Schmidt is separate from Fat Schmidt. And Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne. And Bruce Wayne isn’t Michael Keaton. (Or Christian Bale. And he’s especially not Val Kilmer or George Clooney.)
I don’t know. It’s like one in the morning right now, and all I’m sure of is that I’m not the person I was in high school, and I’m not the person I was in college. I’m probably not even exactly the person I think I am right now. And unless you’re a totally centered Buddhist monk, the same is probably true for you. But everything that happened in the past informs who we are now, for better and for worse. And you can’t retrace your steps. So even when you think you’re moving backwards, you’re probably moving forwards in a different way than you expected. Let’s all just try to be decent to each other.