Julie Berkman’s Older Sister
My cable guide cut off the title of last night’s episode, leaving me only with “Older Sister,” and my heart stopped. Could it be? Would they dare? Does the Bringer of Darkness ride again? Is Abby Day back?
Mercifully, the answer was no — or not yet, anyway. But given the events of last night’s episode, here are just a few story lines it seems like we can prepare for as season four unfolds:
• There will be a long ramp up to the Big Wedding between Bob Day and Ashley “Trashley” Berkman, which will send a few characters (certainly Jess and Cece; possibly Nick and Schmidt; maybe Coach; probably not Winston) further into a tailspin about their own singledom, leading to …
• … a mad dash as each roommate tries to secure a date to said wedding — might some of them end up going with each other? Will Nick go with Jess or with Brittany? Will Winston bring a cat? (WHAT HAPPENED TO FERGUSON?)
• the introduction of a multitude of kooky new characters, many of whom will be old classmates of Jess and Cece’s, played by a who’s who of the L.A. improv scene. That’s the part I’m looking forward to. The part I’m dreading is what a wedding in Jess’s family means. And what it means is that season four will inevitably bring with it …
• … the return of Abby Day.
Please, please, don’t bring back Abby Day. I love Linda Cardellini, I really do. But Abby is the direct center in a Venn diagram of things New Girl doesn’t handle particularly well: family-based sentimentality and “crazy” female characters. For proof of these shortcomings, one must look no further than “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister,” which, unfortunately, trafficks in both.
The episode opens on Nick and Schmidt in a fight, which serves as a reminder of both the fact that they are now literal roommates and that Schmidt is just as much of a grade-A weirdo as the rest of his friends. Because Schmidt isn’t a complete social leper, he’s often relegated to the real-world weirdness of guys who think Entourage was a good show and abbreviate the names of high-end watch brands. But he’s also got a highly specific kind of mania bubbling just beneath the surface, and any time that is allowed to come out, as it does with his insistence upon the use of his insane kitchen-appliance organization system, that’s when you get Max Greenfield’s genius performances at their best.
The fact that this show is so good at identifying and exaggerating the things that make Nick and Schmidt so bizarre and perfectly broken makes the shortcomings of this episode especially frustrating. New Girl, I’m beginning to realize, has no idea how to write weird women.
Abby Day. Angie. Kat. Emma. Daisy. The major shortcoming for each of these women is their sexual appetites and/or deviancy. As if to prove my point, Jess’s father, Bob (Rob Reiner, who flounders a bit amid the untethered material he’s been given), announces that he’s bringing his new girlfriend over. We are then introduced to Ashley “Trashley” Berkman (played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson), the older sister of Cece and Jess’s high-school friend.
We learn almost immediately that Ashley is crazy, but not the kind of crazy that might make a person totally unfazed by becoming stepmother to a woman her own age. No, as far as New Girl is concerned, Ashley is crazy because she was promiscuous in high school and because she’s a recovering sex addict. Those aren’t really fun, sitcom-y types of crazy, those are just details a woman who’s unstable for other reasons is oversharing at the dinner table.
Instead of just telling her father that she thinks the relationship isn’t going to work — and the show gives us no real indication that it will; plus, there is zero chemistry between Reiner and Olson — Jess digs through Ashley’s phone to try to prove that she’s cheating on him. When it later turns out that the scandalous texts Jess finds are from a client at her sex-therapy practice, it’s hard not to wonder why Ashley’s sexual history was discussed before Jess even asked about her profession.
I was so not onboard for the A story here. Between the realization that New Girl is unsettlingly comfortable slut-shaming and the unearned, schmaltzy “you don’t have to take care of me anymore” scene in the car, I kept praying to the comedy gods for more sponge-focus-group action. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to know that much about Jess’s family. Knowing that Jess watched her parents go through a painful divorce is good information about what makes her tick, but any time we actually see the Days onscreen, it seems the plots get thinner and the jokes get weaker. To add insult to injury, we are then expected to be onboard for hugging and learning at the resolution to a problem we were probably better off not knowing about. It’s a testament to everything that’s ever been good about New Girl that I don’t want to believe Jess’s family is as deeply damaged as it is. The more we learn about Jess’s family, the more I want her to seek professional counseling, and fast.
Luckily for “Older Sister,” the rest of the roommate gang is getting up to the kind of loveble high jinks that don’t make me fear for the psychological integrity of the people I am watching. Schmidt is trying to land the sponge account (the fact that it’s only ever referred to as the “sponge account” is one of my favorite jokes in any episode of New Girl, ever) by rounding up Nick, Winston, and Coach to act as a focus group.
But really, it’s all a big silly excuse for everyone to shout “sponge” a bunch of times, and for Winston to attempt to pronounce “Mjölnir,” and I loved every minute of it. All the plot of any New Girl episode needs to be is a jungle-gym framework in which its characters can play. We’ve seen it before, time and time again. New Girl is at its very best when the very least is happening. Plus, watching these guys attempt to “bro out,” we once again get a sense of sublime, specific weirdness: that of boys so caught up in chasing ideals of masculinity, they are unable to really “man up”.
It may be four seasons deep, but New Girl is still full of untapped potential, and I am still hopeful that the best is yet to come. You know what? I laughed a lot at this episode, and at the end of the day, what else matters?
On a completely unrelated note, go back and watch that first flashback scene. Young Cece is a dead ringer for Hannah Simone. Well done, New Girl casting department.