Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Girl 3x01 "All In" (South of the Border Shenanigans and Puzzles)

"All In"
Original Airdate: September 17, 2013

There’s this common misconception that occurs in television, and that a lot of series eventually succumb to, no matter how hard (or perhaps because of how hard) they try to avoid it. It’s this idea that putting a couple with chemistry together on a comedy will inevitably sink the sitcom. There’s this precarious line that writers and producers walk when they deal with will-they-won’t-they tension and unresolved chemistry. Do they acknowledge the chemistry and pursue it? Do they acknowledge the chemistry and back away from it? Or do they never acknowledge the chemistry and tension and pretend it does not exist? Developing a couple with will-they-won’t-they tension on a television series is much like skydiving: there’s a chance that your landing will be smooth, that your parachute will open, you will touch the ground with relative ease, and all will be well.

But the problem is that so few series ever reach that ground because of their fear of jumping out the plane in the first place. Too many shows are afraid of destroying the tension that they’ve built up between characters, so they fail to develop anything further than “long looks and stolen glances.” What’s ironic, actually, is that THIS movement – this non-movement – is what ends up destroying the pairing in the end. Audience members become bored at best when will-they-won’t-they tension is prolonged, and downright frustrated and resentful at worst. The key, in my opinion, to making a central couple on a series work is this: remembering where the heart of the show truly lies.

So where is the heart of New Girl? Where are the stories at their strongest? While the Nick/Jess relationship is an intense and integral part of this series, as Jaime and I discussed this evening, this particular romantic pairing is intensely linked to the heart of the show: the loft. Winston is a hilarious character. Schmidt’s one-liners and rapid-fire jokes make him an amazing character. Nick’s curmudgeonly demeanor and wacky schemes make him endearing and funny. And Jess’ positivity, her naiveté, and her heart make her character both unique and significant. But what happens when these four roommates are together is something akin to the study group banding together in Community, or the gang in Happy Endings sharing a scene, or the friends from Friends supporting one another – chemistry and heart.

“All In” is the perfect title for the season three premiere of New Girl both because of its contextual significance (Jess and Nick repeat this phrase to one another frequently throughout the episode), but more importantly because of the thematic implications that will overarch this season. Liz, Brett, Dave, and their team of writers took a risk last season: they jumped out of the metaphorical plane when they had Nick and Jess ride off together in the finale. The critics are waiting for this to backfire. They’re anticipating, perhaps, that the series will lose its focus. And yes, some critics failed to enjoy the season three premiere (maybe) because of that. But I think that “All In” is exemplary of where this season is headed. The writers and producers are completely invested in their characters and in telling these stories. They’re not afraid of being wrong or making things messy. I think, perhaps, that this is something other showrunners and writers could learn from: it’s OKAY not to know how your characters are supposed to end up. And Liz has expressed this idea before. For better or for worse, she feels out stories – she has direction and plans, but she also isn’t afraid to disrupt those in favor of what is best for the characters she is writing for.

But before we dive too much into the metaphorical meaning of this series premiere’s title, let’s discuss the plot of this episode because it’s crazy and random, and yet somehow oddly grounded. If you’re ready, grab your passports and plenty of food because we’re headed to Mexico!

New Girl’s third season premiere begins with a “Previously On” segment in order to catch viewers up to speed. And, quite literally, this episode picks up exactly where “Elaine’s Big Day Left Off” – the song “I Always Knew” is playing as Nick and Jess drive off into the Los Angeles night and… they realize that they’re driving off into the unknown, which oddly exhilarates them. What I like so much (one of the many aspects, trust me) about the Nick/Jess pairing is that people often refer to them as “opposites,” but at their cores, they’re not TRULY that different. Jeff Winger and Annie Edison are opposites. They’ll never see eye-to-eye because Annie will always be driven, and Jeff will always be inherently lazy. Nick and Jess, meanwhile, are more similar than they are different – both have been hurt in the past and have allowed that to shape who they’ve become (Spencer zapped Jess of confidence; Caroline drained Nick of optimism), both are scared to open themselves up to the possibility of love, and both are actually quite immature. Make no mistake: Jessica Day is not Annie Edison. Jess doesn’t have her life together – she’s not organized when it comes to her future, and though she is kind and gentle and sweet, she’s not really a successful adult. And Nick isn’t either.

And this is how the pair end up back at the loft after Cece’s wedding – er, non-wedding – looking at one another and contemplating their next move. After a fleeting rendezvous, Nick and Jess both realized that inevitably they would have to return to Apartment 4D. They couldn’t press pause on their lives together forever. When they drove off into the distance, they were putting into practice the line Nick uttered in “Virgins” – “Let’s not think about it.” But, standing at the threshold of their front door, over-thinking Nick and over-analyzing Jess (because these are faults in both of their personalities that we’ve seen paralyze them and their decision-making process time and time again) reemerge. What will it mean, they discuss, to be together but also live in the loft? Jess utters her fears (those that I’m certain some audience members echo) about Nick getting sick of her and being forced to leave the loft. In the moment, their relationship was beautiful and exciting and fun and reckless. But in the harsh light of the apartment building, Nick and Jess realize the complexities that are about to define their relationship, including that of their two roommates, especially Schmidt.

Oh, we remember Schmidt, right? He overbearingly texts Nick (“How many times a day does Schmidt text you?” “Like… 40.”) and Winston – at the point Nick and Jess arrive home – is still a bit loopy from being bitten by Bucky the badger. Needless to say, the weight and reality of their new relationship (and by that, we truly mean the Nick/Jess + Winston + Schmidt relationship) settles in and Nick and Jess do what they are so wonderful at doing in response: they run away.

Meanwhile, Schmidt is attempting to make a decision regarding whether he should be with Cece or Elizabeth, which is proving difficult because no one is giving him any advice on what he should do. Hilariously – much like “First Date” – Schmidt is resigned to the fact that without Nick, he and Winston will be “forced” to become best friends. Winston, meanwhile, agrees to become friends but there is a very important caveat (among two others): Schmidt CANNOT lie to him. And, in talking through it with Winston, Schmidt realizes he needs to make a decision about the two women in his life, so he’s going to choose Elizabeth. He reasons, after all, that he is DATING Elizabeth. It’s a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, Schmidt can’t actually bring himself to reject Cece to her face, so he chooses both her AND Elizabeth, without either of the women knowing about the other, and gets himself into a hot mess of trouble with Winston. Now, Schmidt kind of acts like a jerk a lot in this series, but a redeemable one and that’s always something I’ve admired. I would have hated Schmidt’s characterization in “All In” IF there hadn’t been two redeemable moments for him in his asking – genuinely – both Nick and Winston what he should do. Those two moments were so gentle, so heartfelt, and so beautifully played by Max Greenfield because it reminded us that Schmidt truly does care about these two women. He needs his best friends, though, to help steer him in the right direction. His voicemail to Nick was so touching because Schmidt genuinely does consider Nick to be his best friend and seeks his advice (no matter how messed up Nick’s life may be, he’s always there for Schmidt). Similarly, Schmidt seeks Winston’s advice as well and confesses that he has no idea what to do. But both Nick and Winston are preoccupied in this episode with other things, leaving Schmidt to make decisions by himself, without any guidance. And when Schmidt makes decisions without any moral direction from his roommates? Well, THAT is when he is at his worst. Each character in an ensemble series is part of an ensemble for a reason. The study group in Community does not function as well as it does when all seven of the study group members are together. Jeff, when left to his own devices, resorts to his smarmy behavior. It’s because that is his default setting and the truth is that the study group serves as his reminder that he CAN be a better person and doesn’t have to resort to his old ways in order to survive.

Similarly, Schmidt’s default is to be indecisive and, well… douchey, if we’re being frank. He’s at his best when there are people around him to remind him that what he’s doing is wrong, to propel him in the right direction. But, like Jeff, when those people disappear, Schmidt resorts to his default behavior. And that is when he is the least likeable. I won’t say that I loved Schmidt in this premiere, nor did I really like him. I don’t think, however, we were supposed to. Writers often write situations and put their characters into those situations in order to extract something from that particular character. In this case, the point of the Schmidt storyline (which, if the sides I had seen are correct, will be wrapped up by the third episode) was not for the audience to sympathize and agree with Schmidt, but simply to understand WHY he acted the way he did. Liz isn’t asking us to cheer for him, but she is asking us to realize that without guidance, Schmidt makes BAD decisions and that those decisions negatively backfire on the people he cares about and those not even involved.

(And, spoiler alert: Schmidt’s selfish decisions are going to backfire on Nick and Jess in upcoming episodes, too.)

In Mexico (because that’s where Jess decideded to drive to, apparently), Nick and Jess spend four days away from their loft roommates enjoying the beach, living out of Jess’ car, and wearing the tattered remains of their clothes from “Elaine’s Big Day.” When they run out of money, Jess suggests that they return home but Nick is having none of it: he doesn’t want to leave their paradise alter-egos behind and return to reality because this is NICK we are talking about. He’s finally at a place in his life where he is happy and he knows that returning to the loft will likely mean fighting with Jess and arguing with Schmidt, and dealing with all the crazy and confusion that occurs when you live with your girlfriend and two of your best friends. He doesn’t want that, but even though they both know a return to Los Angeles is inevitable, they succumb to Paradise Nick and Paradise Jess and their wishes. So they crash a fancy resort instead.

Miles away, Winston – having listened to Schmidt decide aloud to choose Elizabeth over Cece – is engrossed in completing a puzzle, which apparently is not something Winston has ever been particularly (see: at all) good at. And Lamorne Morris does such a wonderful job at taking Winston, a character we all presumed was relatively sane, and making him completely invested in low-stakes events and activities. He turns puzzles and pranks into priority, which begs the question: is ANYONE in that loft truly sane? This is what I love about what New Girl has become: it, much like Community, is a show about people you presume to be relatively normal who have these zany qualities that make them lovable and hilarious. There’s no true “straight man” in this series, in my opinion. Jess, it can be argued, is usually the most sane and reasonable of the loft. But even she has episodes where – like in “All In” – she forgoes her better judgments in order to do something crazy. It’s what I love most about New Girl, to be honest. I love that it’s a comedy about broken people being weird and messy and yet somehow managing to make life WORK.

It’s not a comedy where everyone has their acts together. To presume that Nick/Jess would fizzle out comedically or that they would succumb to a television cliché by being in a relationship is to underestimate and misunderstand New Girl as a series. The fact that Nick and Jess are now in a relationship means that there can only be more insanity, more plot, and more ways to mess up and make up. The heart of this show is rooted in the fact that the residents of Apartment 4D don’t know what they’re doing. It gives us as audience members – who also don’t know what WE are doing in our lives a lot of the time – something to relate to.

Nick and Jess crash a fancy resort, where they ultimately realize that the vacationers are all identified by green wristbands. Nick intimidates a child into giving away his to Jess as a security guard approaches, likely about to bust Nick for trespassing. And, in true Nick Miller fashion, rather than accept his fate and walk away… he runs. For the ocean.

The security guard is not amused, calls in back up, and carts Nick off to jail. Ruh-roh.

Back at the loft, Winston is genuinely furious with Schmidt over the fact that the latter lied about choosing Elizabeth. He learns this information when Cece visits the loft in high spirits (and he hugs her), looking for Schmidt. And then, in order to prevent exposing Schmidt in front of Cece, Winston begrudgingly plays along with a complex lie that Schmidt tells, involving Elizabeth… and Cece’s underwear. As soon as Cece leaves in a disgusted huff (because remember that she and Winston aren’t even that close! And also the last time they had any interaction, she threatened to beat him), Winston is close to losing his cool with his roommate.

And, momentarily, the man DOES lose his cool: he snaps that he and Schmidt aren’t best friends. He then goes a step further and claims that they aren’t even friends, period. I like Nick/Jess and Schmidt/Winston storylines, to be honest, because rarely do we get the opportunity to explore the fact that just because a group of people are friends doesn’t mean that the individuals in that group are friends (think How I Met Your Mother’s Marshall/Robin story in “The Mermaid Theory”). And Nick, however broken, IS the glue that holds these two insane roommates together.

While Schmidt and Winston are fighting, Jess returns, out of breath (she didn’t run from Mexico to Los Angeles, though she might as well have), and explains Nick’s situation to her other two roommates. Together, they drive south of the border to rescue their “glue.” After a few hilarious exchanges and the revelation that Winston is colorblind (this would explain why he’s so terrible at puzzles, but not why he is so bad at pranks), the trio finds Nick in his “cell.”

He’s actually in a room in the resort, relaxing and watching episodes of Ugly Betty. Jess is elated – they can finally go home and back to their normal lives. But Nick? Nick is not fond of this plan. He wants to stay away from the crazy. He acknowledges Schmidt and Winston and asks Jess if that is what she truly wants to wake up to every morning. (Jess then says the really sweet line of: “It doesn’t matter as long as I wake up next to you.” I mean, I basically died.)

Here is, perhaps, the most revealing Nick moment of the entire episode: “I’m not ready to lose you,” he explains rather fervently. “I just got you, Jess. And I’m not letting you go.” Nick expresses throughout the course of the episode that he, too, is “all in.” He tells Jess that he has wanted this – THEM – to happen for a long time and doesn’t want to screw anything up. That’s his biggest fear: messing everything up. He’s the guy who breaks things and the one thing he doesn’t want to break is what he has with Jess. She is the ONE thing he is not willing to give up.

Nick does have a point and Jess knows it, but she hasn’t taken her repeated sentiment throughout the episode lightly, either. She’s “all in.” She knows that her relationship with Nick can’t exist in a vacuum. They can’t remain Paradise Nick and Paradise Jess. They HAVE to face the crazy. But the crazy, Jess reasons with him, is not bad. In fact, there is no them – no Nick and Jess – without Winston and Schmidt. They cannot separate themselves from that.

Jess KNOWS it’s going to be difficult. She says: “It’s gonna be really hard, but so what, Nick? So what. I believe in us. I’m all in.”

As Erik Adams noted in his AV Club review, Jess delivers a Jeff Winger speech to take us home that is short, sentimental, and beautiful:

“We’re a family. You can’t choose who you love. Sometimes they choose you. And sometimes it’s just because you got a really great deal on Craigslist. I got a really great deal on Craigslist. I got all of you.”
With that sweet statement, the gang decides that as a group, they’re completely invested in maintaining their friendship and subsequent crazy. They’re “all in.” Unfortunately, they’re also all overzealous and accidentally end up with Nick’s passport in the paper shredder. For puzzle-obsessed Schmidt, this is heaven and he (terribly) pieces the papers back together to deliver to the guard at the border.

Nick and Jess return to the loft’s front door, looking at one another and anticipating the next move while Schmidt and Winston watch in the background. Right before the pair decides to take a step back to normalcy, Nick reaches for Jess’ hand and slides the paper bracelet from the resort onto her wrist. It’s a sweet, sentimental moment but also symbolic: they’ll always have that short paradise together and the bracelet is just a reminder that they can make it.

(And then they begin to argue, which results in lots of kissing so if this is any indication of how the season will go, consider me delighted.)

Liz, Brett, Dave, and their team are “All In.” Because Apartment 4D is a wacky, weird, wonderful place. And they’re not holding anything back this season. They’re not preventing Nick and Jess from being together, they’re not placing limits on what they can or should do, and they’re not shying away from the shenanigans that made me fall in love with New Girl in the first place.

And if they’re all in? Well, so am I.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • The team cut a LOT from this episode. There was initially supposed to be an entire storyline about the guard who captured Nick being taser-happy (and they re-shot a sneak peek they released where Schmidt, Jess, and Winston find Nick), there were lines of dialogue cut from promos and sneak peeks (“I want to put a baby in you!” “That’s the place I get my underwear! Pull over!” and the creepy guy watching Jess and Nick while in Mexico), and at least one scene (the promos showed Nick, Jess, Schmidt, and Winston out of their car with their hands on the hood at the Mexican border).
  • For the record, I’m actually glad they re-shot and cut a bunch of stuff, but – as Todd VanderWerff pointed out – the editing was a tad choppy because of it.
  • “Hey Schmidt. What do you think it’s gonna look like?” “Winston, it’s on the box. THE PICTURE’S ON THE BOX. IT’S A JAPANESE GARDEN!”
  • Schmidt’s break-up marketing speech to Elizabeth is everything.
  • “If you think those shoes are brown, what color do you think you are?” wins hands down as the best line of the night. Perhaps the entire series.
  • I’m interested to see where they take Winston this season. He’s such a hilarious character that they can do pretty much anything and make Lamorne do anything and it’ll result in me laughing like an idiot. I’m really hoping for some good, actual stories with him this season because his serious moments are some of the best on the series.
  • “One day, you’re gonna meet a girl and you’re gonna really like her. And you’re gonna want to give her everything.”
  • “Oh my God! Pull over! That piñata is shaped like a monkey!”


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