|Los Angeles Review of Books|
New Girl: "Models" by Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak and Dear Television
October 27th, 2012
Fat Schmidt, New Girl
This week on Dear Television:
Last time on Dear Television:
Go Back to Start, Do Not Pass Go
THE MORE FAT SUITS New Girl puts on, the thinner the stories seem to get. My hat’s off to you both for getting as much meat as you did off this week’s slim pickings. This was a Ford Fusion of an episode. The second time I watched this episode, it seemed to me that Jess’s clunky walk against the revolving platform — effectively staying in place — was an apt metaphor for the show. Season two New Girl is built on stasis. Nothing ever changes, and everything is low stakes. It’s … boring. “Well, we’re friends now,” Cece says to Jess at the end of the episode in an almost incredible anticlimax to a thoroughly uninteresting problem.
How can an episode with all the physical comedy Phil describes and a hilarious set-piece highlighting Deschanel’s resemblance to a cartoon Russian monkey be so dull?
I think it boils down to the fact that New Girl is trying — inexplicably — to wean itself off of serial storytelling. Some earlier episodes this season seemed to promise a dip into longer story arcs, like the Schmidt-Cece relationship of yesteryear: “Fluffer” was an important follow-up to the first episode of the season, where Nick found Jess at the school she’d been fired from, crying. But then whatever throughline seemed to be developing faded away into hipsters and TV references last week and minor fights with predictable resolutions this week — nothing really seems to matter anymore. “I keep wanting to write the show off,” is what I said in week two, and Jane, when you asked “Guys — are we giving New Girl too much credit?” my heart said YES! YES.
We’ve been talking, in our glamorous behind-the-scenes e-mail chains, about the differences between serial and self-contained episodes. Which tradition does New Girl fall into, we wondered: the hyper-serialized quality of Arrested Development or the BBC’s Peep Show — both shows where if you miss an episode you’re pretty much lost — or The Simpsons, where each show resets anew? Or neither?
Not that those are the only two options, of course; there’s a sort of sweet spot in between, which is where Cheers lived. A bar is the perfect setting for a show that wants to go nowhere in particular. The bar is the unchanging backdrop, and it has the additional benefit of being a place to which the same people regularly come. Stasis is perfectly acceptable in this universe, it’s even expected. That’s why it’s delightful when a throughline appears, a hook that pulls one episode into the next. Friends tried to do achieve the same stability-with-a-difference with roommates, but it ran into the same trouble New Girl has. And it’s obvious why: problems are built into a roommate story in a way they’re not with a barfly story. The fact is, people in their twenties don’t stay roommates. Their condition precisely opposes the situation of regulars in a bar: people aren’t drifting there after work to hang out, watching their lives, whose directions they chose long ago, drift by on a sea of sameness. A story about twenty-somethings (or thirty-somethings) is a story about precariousness, fluctuation, change. People marry, they move, they go out of town for jobs. The point of the roommate story is that it’s always already nostalgic. You go into a roommate situation knowing that it will end.
(Friends dealt with the problem by wholeheartedly embracing the Sam-and-Diane principle and taking it to new levels. Romantic ties were needed to fortify the ties of friendship in order to keep everyone involved. Ross and Rachel weren’t enough — Monica and Chandler were brought on board too. It’s a testament to the show’s writers that they did this somewhat persuasively.)
That said, the greatest roommate sitcom of all time sidestepped this problem of pre-emptive nostalgia. That’s because The Golden Girls had the same expectation of stasis going for it that Cheers had: these were women for whom one life had ended: in retirement, widowhood or divorce. Whatever happened now was going to be a coda, but there was no built-in reason for anything to take place: it’s perfectly acceptable for two widows and a divorcee to never remarry. That lack of social pressure gave the show and its fans room — room to invest in their relationships for the long haul.
That space isn’t available to New Girl, and it never will be, because it’s a generational comedy whose characters feel the pressure to move forward. They are on the cusp of failure. That’s the point: they are just a little too old to be where they are in life, and the premise of the show — the whole reason it’s compelling — is that the setup is intrinsically unstable. This precisely opposes the conditions for nonserial comedy. The reason The Simpsons and Family Guy can endlessly reset is that they’re structured around the most stable story-telling unit of all time: the family. South Park: childhood. Golden Girls (to the extent that it fits the reset model): retirement.
New Girl is so anxious about the intrinsic instability of its premise (even as it actively restrains the characters from developing with respect to each other) that it compulsively spins its wheels reasserting the reality of the characters’ real friendships. The finale was this. “Fluffers” was this. “Model” was this. It doesn’t work. That can’t be the story. Of course the show relies too heavily on flashbacks, as Phil points out: Nick and Schmidt, we are reminded, have been roommates for 10 years! (If that’s the case, then the storyline where Nick was going to live with Caroline in the finale needed to be much more Schmidt-focused than it was.) Winston and Nick have been friends since they were kids! Jess and Cece: always and forever BFFs! The show asserts these relationships over and over without really thinking through what they imply.
So this is the episode where they think through what it implies. Would these characters (whose artificial histories we’ve been asked to believe in) be friends if they met each other now?
The conclusion, oddly enough, appears to be no. It seems extremely unlikely that Nick and Schmidt would ever have been friends, let alone for 10 years. It seems even less likely that Jess and Cece would be friends. We in the audience watch, hoping for some justification, some reason this ragtag group is together other than narrative convenience. “Well, we’re friends now,” Cece says, lamely. No. If the show’s premise is, “Let’s have an awkward indie girl and a model be best friends!” you don’t get to resolve the obvious problems by baldly reasserting the show’s fictional premise.
Going forward, I think this will turn out to be one of the most interesting differences between The Mindy Project and New Girl: where New Girl abstemiously refuses to eat its own Nick-and-Jess birthday cake, The Mindy Project is a bon vivant. Guys, we chose our TV diet wisely. As Nick and Jess smile idiotically at each other in episode after episode, staving off their obvious romance plot for fear that it’s too hackneyed, Mindy Kaling will feed us televisual romantic comedy the way Nick feeds Schmidt Pop Tarts.
The other really interesting difference that’s already emerging (and will only intensify, I expect) is that The Mindy Project is aggressively structured through one perspective, whereas Jane, what you say about New Girl is right: in the absence of an Arrested Development-style narrator, and given the occasional dip into serialization and the unexplained skitterings back out again, there’s a sense of hyper-referentiality without anyone’s heart or head at the helm.
You probably eat fancy ramen now,
FIRST, CONGRATULATIONS to Phil on taking what was professedly an insipid episode of New Girl and generating all forms of insight on physical comedy and body consciousness. You’re of course right that Nick’s committed ridiculing of Schmidt is a sign of devotion, and that the Ford product placement generates space for us to consider how the consumer gaze functions in the show — both for viewers and between characters. Phil’s analysis vitalized my re-watching of the episode, but, still, my initial impressions of it mostly stand: the most recent airing of New Girl was just…bad. Bad-bad. That’s a personal opinion aesthetic, and such badness does not decrease a cultural object’s potential to inspire criticism, but it’s something that seems worth noting at this point.
One of the joys of writing about television — about most mass culture, really — is that one can quite easily and overtly enjoin pleasure with criticism. Sometimes the pleasure is guilty, but with shows like New Girl, it feels almost, perhaps sheepishly, legitimate. I don’t want to catapult New Girl into the glorified realms of Girls and Louie, but critics have increasingly heaped praise on the sitcom — calling it one of the best 30-minutes network television currently has to offer. It might just be that things are easier to critique when they’re good, as the recent conversation inspired by Jacob Silverman suggests, but there’s equal room for engagement in the analysis of a thing’s badness.
Guys — are we giving New Girl too much credit? As Phil already wrote, sometimes critics perceive shows “to be smarter than the conventions they employ.” Phil’s questioning of the Fat Schmidt references is, I think, necessary. Like Fat Monica, this piece of Schmidt’s history isn’t just spoken of in passing. No, because to identify fatness is to see it. To laugh at fatness is to see it embodied, and New Girl goes through the pains to make Max Greenfield up for their many Fat Schmidt clips. The sociopolitical gravity of the Fat Betty storyline is missing here, but the cheap jokes remain all the same. Sometimes, a fat suit is just a fat suit. It seems that for New Girl — a show that certainly doesn’t lack attractive bodies — fatness has become a throw-away gimmick.
Does physical comedy become just a gimmick to propel viewers through insipid narrative moments? As D.A. Miller writes, it “arrests attention, but only in the process to relax the demands put on it by an ostentatiously unworthy object,” and I wonder how much weight Fat Schmidt must be carrying around to move viewers from scene to scene, episode to episode. Maybe it’s not Schmidt that’s slow and bulky, so much as the show. Scenes of pudgy Schmidt aren’t just flashbacks — they’re interruptions that make viewers perk up to gawk. They are also so much glue that sets New Girl at a level of entertaining. Blaming a sitcom for wanting to sell is a bit of a non-starter, though, so let’s turn the lens away from New Girl for a moment and ask ourselves why and how Schmidt has built these sitcom cities (L.A. and NYC, largely) on Tootsie rolls.
As I’ve written prior, food storylines have long been a narrative convention. Any one person’s relationship to food will be over-determined, and the narrative possibilities found therein must be tempting. For writers, food can mediate relationships, drive plot, and consider the physicality and externality that language can so quickly forget. This over-determinedness also leads to a bounty of analytical fodder. As a friend once said to me, “I feel like eating is way more interesting than loving in some ways,” and in New Girl, eating is in so very many ways connected to loving. It makes sense that the same episode would show Schmidt and Nick negotiate their friendship through cookie-transactions, as well as their first encounter with Fat Schmidt munching on stolen ramen in Nick’s dorm room. Giving and taking food is an act of sharing, and a sign of community. It’s a gesture of the moment, but its effects bear leftover meaning. Schmidt gets Nick a cookie because he was thinking about him, and after Nick eats it, he wishes he “could give […] that cookie back.” The pastry bears more weight and responsibility than Nick can handle, its crumbs reminders that he just carelessly consumed, as Winston notes, “a piece of [Schmidt’s] heart.”
When Nick first meets Schmidt eating his ramen, he doesn’t demand it back, but only encourages him to try it with water. In the present, 10 years later, we can still trace Schmidt’s development through his relationship to ramen. As Nick says to him: “I was gonna get you ramen like we used to eat, but you probably eat, like fancy ramen now with, like, figs in it.” Not only does this sound like a recipe for thin-Schmidt, it’s also one for Schmidt as an adult man. Maybe Nick would have been less concerned if Schmidt tossed him a ramen packet rather than a cookie. Are desserts a sign of commitment, or adoration too obviously effeminate? What’s the most a man can give a man in terms of pastry? Pop-tarts thrown at his face? The Schmidt and Nick B-plot really did, as Phil notes, play out like a closet drama. This is all the more notable if we consider how Schmidt/Nick’s relationship to food cannot be easily transferred to Cece’s and Jess’s.
Fat Schmidt is like Fat Monica, but Schmidt is only half-Monica, maintaining all the obsessive drive for neatness, without the complexes that come with getting fat again. This is even more pronounced in another once-fat-now-normalized body on television: Hanna in Pretty Little Liars. For Schmidt, fatness is a college phase. For Monica, Hanna, and Cece, it’s something more of a threat — something to watch, to juggle with, to keep under control. Schmidt gets Nick a cookie, which he eats, and then regrets, because of what giving a cookie means. Jess bakes Cece a birthday cake, which she, as a model, can’t eat, because of what a cake does. Nick wishes he could “throw it up,” the cookie, and “mash it down” Schmidt’s throat, but we actually see Cece almost throw up, again and again, because she drank too much alcohol using her mouth — refusing Nadia’s butt-drinking trick, which would decrease caloric intake.
I know I’m veering into elevating-the-gimmick territory, so let’s return to that closing scene where Jess, Cece, Nick, Schmidt, and Winston lie around their living room and share Cece’s birthday cake. It’s the first time we’ve seen the five alone and together in awhile, and it made me recall why I like New Girl so much. That even if we know Cece and Jess being “friends now” is a scripted construction, there are moments and convergences in New Girl, such as Jess and Nick’s wildly organic romance, that make me believe there’s more there that even a gimmick can’t obfuscate.
SO IT'S BEEN A MINUTE since we’ve talked about our loft pals, and I’m anxious to get back to it. Since Mindy got bumped last night for an awkwardly time-slotted X-Factor episode, we’ve only got New Girl to dish about this week, but, lucky for us, there’s plenty to do. Should we unravel the many splendors of the Nick Miller Cryface? Or perhaps we could discuss the fact that the last 10 minutes of this episode were a fairly straightforward Ford Fusion commercial? Or maybe we should just sit back and admire how good these actors are at pulling off heart-to-hearts? I’m sure we’ll get around to all of these things this week, but, for now, I want to start us off by talking about physical comedy.
Unlike, say, Parks and Recreation, New Girl is by no means primarily a showcase for its stars’ talent as physical comedians. As we’ve noted before, and as was certainly on display last night, this show prefers to get its laughs from the violently awkward emotionality of its leads and their densely idiosyncratic intimacies. Of course, there’s the great lingerie set-piece from “Bad in Bed” and Nick’s extraordinarily dexterous leaping earlier this season as well as a history of slap-fights, but, by and large, the moments we might be tempted to remember as particularly funny pockets of physical comedy — the Nick and Jess butt-slap fight, the private dance-off that ended the last season — are physical expressions of that emotionality rather than bits of comic bumbling.
Last night’s episode, however, was sharply divided between these two orientations. On one hand, there was the Nick-Schmidt argument about the state of their friendship, a subplot that played almost like a closet drama. The flashbacks that were a part of that line, however — featuring the origin story of mustachioed Nick and Fat Schmidt — alongside the Jess-Cece argument, played out in a particularly slapstick key. What is New Girl doing when it turns to physicality like this? What exactly is New Girl’s body consciousness?
Let’s talk first about Fat Schmidt. We’ve seen this flashback regularly throughout the series, and he’s already appeared a number of times this season. He, like so many things about New Girl, is an oblique reference to Friends, a show that did very much the same work with flashbacks of Courtney Cox’s Fat Monica. In both shows, the fact that the character who is now enviably slender and fit used to be problematically overweight is meant to provide insight into the character’s neuroses — Schmidt tries too hard because he had to try so hard to overcome his weight problem and become attractive to the shallow women he wants to bed, and Monica is obsessed with control in the kitchen and home because she struggled so hard to lose those pounds. But these characters are also fan favorites, and it’s not because fans love being reminded about the pathos of self-definition and body image struggle. Nick has a moustache and Winston has a silly hair cut, but Schmidt is fat, and all of these things are embarrassing. It was a pickle when Friends did it, and it’s kind of a pickle now that New Girl is doing it.
But it’s not just the fat suit; it’s how you use it. Last night’s episode, particularly, featured a lot of Schmidt slapping his belly, body-slamming Nick, and gleefully assenting to humiliation. “Sit there while I throw things at you!” “Try to catch the pop tart, big boy!” The thing about Fat Schmidt is that New Girl’s writers haven’t just reproduced Fat Monica. They lean so hard into it that you are tempted to think they are making fun of the trope. But, of course, that’s what critics like us say when shows we perceive to be smarter than the conventions they employ go ahead and employ those conventions. And there’s no way out. No matter how much self-consciousness we ascribe to New Girl or Mindy or Girls, Fat Schmidt is still getting laughs for being Fat.
But, that said, nearly all of this episode was occupied with commanding performances like Schmidt’s, forced humiliations in the name of love. Even if New Girl is getting mileage on fat jokes, it’s at the very least thinking about them before it makes them. When Jess parades her failed ballerina/street walker outfit, the boys bark instructions, “Let your bones prop you up!” The wonderful Nadia practically press-gangs Jess into a boogie slave: “Do song again! Dance, monkey! Dance, monkey!” And she later delivers harrowing erotic mandates to Fake Wilmer Valderrama: “Put on pajama — top only! — then you make me salad, bitch.” And, of course, there is Jess’s slapstick modeling, for which she is commanded to be “fun and sexy and American.” Zooey D is a very funny physical comedian, and I personally thought she did a great job pulling off a bit that looked frankly awful in the promos this past week. But, naturally, the impossibility of imagining Jess as a model belies the fact that Zooey D actually is a model, IRL. But it’s not entirely a She’s All That scenario. New Girl insists that we both believe Jess to be almost undesirably weird and that we also see no difference between her and her real life counterpart, who is Indie Dream Girl #1. All the way down to Nick and Jess’s unrequited — possibly unwanted — love, New Girl is a fantasy we are asked to pretend isn’t fantastical.
But I digress. The important part about Jess’s pratfalling isn’t so much that it points to a foundational irony about the show (and, let’s be real, most sitcoms ever on earth), but that it’s part of this episode’s obsessive concern with the relationship between control and physical performance. And this dynamic is contextualized with all of the food: the cookie heard round the world, the Jewish star cookie, the cake Cece refuses to eat, the pop tarts, the ramen. I still don’t really know what New Girl is doing here, but whatever it is, they’re really doing it. While we see Schmidt perform his fatface routine in flashback, we see Jess do her skinnyface routine for the boys in the loft. It can’t be coincidental that after refusing to eat cake and having Jess express concerns about her relationship to dieting, Cece spends the rest of the episode fighting the urge to throw up. We’re getting body trouble thrown at us from all directions.
Is this a theme episode about eating disorders? Probably not. But it is an episode that articulates the messy, inconclusive networks of physicality and performance that are a part of the life of a friendship — certainly a theme New Girl likes thinking about. What is a friendship anyway, what does it consist of? Is it about being so close with someone that you can slap her boob in anger? Is it about performing on command for someone, knowing precisely what they want to see, and achieving intimacy through that? Is it about being laughed at and affirmed at the same time? Is that the difference between Nadia and Jess and Nick and Schmidt? Midway through the episode, Nick tells Jess that Schmidt loves him too much. “All I do is tease him,” Nick says. And Jess replies, “That’s all you can do.” The phrase has a double meaning. It’s reflective of Nick’s relationship with Jess (friends is all they can be?), but it’s also a sobering admission about a friendship that seems implausible but whose realness we never doubt. To know someone well enough to tease them the way Nick teases Schmidt is to have a kind of intimacy. But that teasing is not just a frivolous part of Nick’s life. It is, as we saw in the prank wars of the last episode, a devotion. Not every expression of love is a tear or a hug. Sometimes it’s a butt-slap fight, sometimes it’s a thrown pop tart, sometimes it’s about mutual respect, sometimes it’s about submission and domination. “We’re not animals,” Schmidt says, but, in the end, all he wants to be is Nick’s turtle. It’s not healthy, but it’s love for sure.
Is Fat Schmidt a cheap joke? Yes. Does New Girl, like Louie or Girls, earn points for simply putting a subject on the table even if it doesn’t appropriately deal with it? I don’t know. New Girl made jokes both nimble and lazy last night, but it didn’t let us away from its inchoate interest in food and weight and performance. It might be too much to ask that an episode that featured such a gross instance of product placement was throwing out the component parts of a critique of objectification and the consumer gaze for the viewer to reassemble. Then again, it’s also turning Nick and Schmidt into one of the most heart-rending love stories on the air. Show me mischievous!