‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.
“What, are you afraid they’ll go through your dream journal?”
“I have a bag of meth in my closet.”
The unassuming New Girl joined Fox’s line-up in 2011 and has quickly become one of their flagship comedies. Many people’s doubts that the “adorkable” Zooey Deschanel wouldn’t be able to anchor a sitcom have been put to rest, while also seeing the rise of a fantastic supporting cast that has only strengthened over time. Elizabeth Meriwether’s series became primarily interested in telling relationship-based stories, and with so many of the show’s main characters living together (and even the central premise of the series hinging on the fact), the idea of turning to a bottle episode seems totally natural.
Granted, with the sort of environment that New Girl has established, simply having everyone hanging out in the loft together would constitute a standard bottle ep, but wisely, the series has always felt the need to inject some high emotional drama into the situation in order to justify effectively bring the walls in closer around everyone. The series saw unprecedented success with their first attempt at this in the second season’s “Cooler” (also written by Rebecca Addelman), leading them to pursue the format more and more. In fact, the show might arguably turn to the device too regularly, with nearly every holiday episode also nearly fitting the bottle ep criteria (and this is a show that loves their holiday episodes). What makes “Background Check” a particular standout is that the whole thing plays out in real-time – something that the series does not do very often – as well as the very high stakes that are in place, as crazy as they are.
Here, Winston (Lamorne Morris) is undergoing the titular background check for his police academy training, which sees a no-nonsense sergeant, “The Fish”, headed to their loft for inspection. Normally an event like this might be stressful for the gang, sure, but not any sort of red alert situation. However, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) happens to mention that she’s just been hiding a tremendous bag of methamphetamine in her closet. Time to start panicking. It’s crazy that it almost feels like the plots of “Background Check” and Breaking Bad’s bottle episode, “Fly” should be swapped, with Jess and company trying to swat a pesky insect all episode, rather than hiding a fat ol’ bag of narcotics, but they somehow pull it off. The episode highlights how the show seems to so effortlessly execute these sorts of episodes at times, while also being a perfect example of how to service both sides of the coin that is New Girl.
All of the right elements are getting incorporated here, as if a beyond-nervous Jess wasn’t enough comedic fuel, trapping a beyond-jealous Schmidt in the same space as Cece is also likely going to explode one way or another. A continually snowballing lie from Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) even sees him needing to invent an impressionable youth named Duquan (in the episode’s only cheat and departure from making this a true bottle episode, but it’s such a minor escape). Everyone is doing some of their best work here, with the increasingly frayed versions of these people being wonderful. It’s Winston, though, who has slowly grown into such a weird, perplexing, lovable character, who is the one truly getting showcased here, with Morris rising to the challenge. More than anything this episode functions as an example of how capable Winston actually is and that he’s finally ready to be a cop. Keeping him out of the meth situation until so late in the game is the right way to handle the story, and even if the conclusion of everything might seem like a cheat, it shouldn’t detract from the episode any. It’s really the only way to move forward from a situation like this.
One of the smartest things that “Background Check” does is adopt such a frenetic pace to all of this craziness. The stakes are already so high by the end of the cold open that you wonder how they’ll continue to rise, and yet the episode manages. The bag of meth tearing open and spilling everywhere as Winston and the sergeant are on their way up the elevator is one of many fantastic comedic set pieces here. All of this is intensified by “The Fish”, this pseudo-interrogator, (played to perfection by Cleo King) that is keeping them hostage so to speak, poking and prodding their bottle trying to find cracks in it. A slower speed (which earlier drafts of the script did employ) could have absolutely killed an episode like this and to see things continually get worse and worse for everyone is one of the great joys of it. There’s even a somewhat old fashioned sensibility to the comedy – vaguely vaudevillian – as these sputtering, hyperbolized performances try to keep covering up for Winston. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching theater necessarily, but it does feel like sprawling, captivating improv playing out before you.
A huge thing about New Girl is its desire to find balances, whether it’s tonally or between the emotional and absurdist moments of an episode. The show works incredibly hard to have an emotional core to each of its stories, learning greatly from its success in its second season. “Background Check” does a commendable job of finding this balance (with it definitely pushing down on the “absurdist” side of the scale though), but its earlier drafts were a lot different, giving you a glimpse of just how much work can be put into these supposedly simple, minimalistic outings of television.
For instance, prior drafts had the gang contained to the bathroom for the majority of the episode, bottling up this episode to an even more claustrophobic degree. It also skewed the broader, more absurd side of things with Cece (Hannah Simone) having to adopt a lisp as a wry way of hiding that she said “meth” in front of “The Fish” as well as her plot with Schmidt (Max Greenfield) not being there at all. This emotional touchstone that occurs between the two of them that was eventually built into the episode while the crazier aspects were turned down, a classic example of New Girl thinking about the big picture and their series’ mission statement. Schmidt kissing Cece literally interrupts the direction the former draft would have taken. The high stakes of the one storyline necessitate that of the other, rather than just feeling manipulative with a big kiss, and that’s why all of this culminates so well.
Simply looking at how much thought and troubleshooting was put into all of this, to make sure it didn’t skew too far (whereas some other sitcoms might have been all too comfortable just churning out a wacky outing for the sake of it, that had no strong center to bring it all back together in the end) gives you an idea of why it’s such a charged, successful episode. While some viewers might have taken exception to the direction the series has headed, “Background Check” is a strong reminder of what makes it work.
New Girl certainly is not done with bottle episodes any time soon (and surely “Thanksgiving V” is just around the corner), and with such a polished cast that truly feeds off of each other, there’s really no reason to be. As long as these entries continue to have some subversion to them and a balanced measure, these fun experiments shouldn’t hit a level of diminishing returns.
Hopefully season five won’t see Schmidt trying to hide a pound of heroin…