Thursday, October 3, 2013

New Girl 3x03 "Double Date" (And That's The Way the World Works)

"Double Date"
Original Airdate: October 1, 2013

The best television shows always center around one important concept: stakes.

Whether the stakes are small (like that of locating a missing purple pen in a study room) or life-altering (such as preventing the world from being destroyed by a fleet of Daleks and Cybermen), the fact remains that they are necessary in order to make a television show relatable and successful. If there are no stakes, we feel no connection to characters as audience members. We coast from episode to episode, from season to season without any investment. How can characters possibly grow if they aren’t forced into situations that allow them that opportunity?

New Girl has never been a high-stakes series, but there’s a shift that is pretty evident in its most recent episode – “Double Date” – that propels the characters from a low-stakes situation (a double date) to a high-stakes one (Nick and Jess learning that Schmidt is cheating on Cece with Elizabeth). And truly, this is what the series needs in order to progress in a natural, logical manner. As fun as self-contained episodes are within a show, there are usually themes that bridge episodes and span seasons which serve to connect the audience to a larger narrative. These themes are what really capture our interest as viewers, and they’re what allow the characters we love to either progress or regress.

The first season of New Girl introduced us to Jess and it was focused primarily on her life transition – how would she form relationships with these three complete strangers she met on the Internet who happened to be her new roommates? The second season’s progression, in terms of Jess, was focused primarily on self-discovery and re-branding. She lost her job and was forced, headlong, into an identity crisis. She spent most of the season trying to figure out her purpose in life and in her romantic relationships. And, of course, the back half of the season was spent exploring the Nick/Jess dynamic. Threads of truth about love and life and how you can be a thirty-something and still not have it all figured out wove their way into these episodes and keep us invested.

Schmidt began the series a rather douchey but lovable loft roommate. I was talking to my friend Kim yesterday regarding his characterization (which she laments over the past few episodes). She noted that when he was introduced, he always had a “heart of gold,” even when he made poor decisions. And while I agree, somewhat, with that sentiment, I have to argue something about Schmidt’s characterization that I know to be true and that has always been true, especially after seeing “Double Date”: Schmidt loves his friends and the people placed in his life… he just always loves himself MORE.

I’ll be talking a lot about Schmidt during this post, because I think it’s important that I walk through my own dissection of his characterization (and perhaps you will find it useful as well) as this cheating storyline draws to a close. I’ll also discuss my ever-growing fondness for Nick/Jess and why the Winston storyline was both sad and wonderful this week. So let’s head below the cut for some analysis!

I’m going to first begin by explaining that I don’t hate Schmidt. As I noted in last week’s review, I don’t believe that the intent of the writers and creators is for us, as audience members, excuse Schmidt’s behavior. We’re not supposed to love Schmidt right now. I don’t think we’re even supposed to like him.

And that’s perfectly okay.

Here’s the problem, though: we don’t like being forced to dislike (or hate) characters on a series. It makes us uncomfortable to see someone villainized, especially if they were a character we once treasured. When contemplating writing this blog-review, I was struck by a comparison to Community. The response that I have seen to Schmidt’s characterization is quite similar to how viewers responded to Pierce’s arc toward the end of the second season.

Schmidt and Pierce were introduced to their respective shows with quite similar traits: both were sources of comic relief, both could be rather offensive, but both cared deeply for people around them. But “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” changed the way we perceived Pierce. I didn’t like Pierce in that episode. In fact, I really disliked Pierce.

Actually, to be more apt, I felt so uncomfortable during that episode because of how unnecessarily cruel Pierce was toward Neil that I have yet to re-watch it. Dan Harmon realized something leading up to “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”: the study group needed to have something more at stake in Greendale. With Chang’s possible entry into the study group aside, the Greendale Seven really didn’t have much in their way during their second year at community college. So, Harmon did what all creators do: he gave the study group something more important to become divided over. See, Pierce’s villainization was not without purpose. He became an intra-group obstacle. He developed into a character that Jeff, Britta, Abed, Shirley, and Troy wanted removed from the group altogether. Pierce’s characterization provided tension between Annie and the other members of the group, it provided growth in the group as a whole, and it provided a wonderful little cliffhanger to end the season.

So what does this have to do with Schmidt’s recent characterization and storyline on New Girl? I believe that creators and writers do everything for a purpose. Schmidt is not being villainized because the writers suddenly decided to heap hate upon the character. They’re providing us with this version of Schmidt because the character needs to grow up, the other characters need to struggle and – eventually – because we need to learn how to dislike him. As I’ve said multiple times before, the writers don’t WANT us to like Schmidt at this point. They made that perfectly clear by having other characters in “Double Date” vocalize how wrong and depraved Schmidt has become. They’re not excusing his behavior. And neither are we. But the problem is that, as I stated before, we don’t LIKE hating characters. It makes us uncomfortable. We want to feel warm, fuzzy feelings about Nick and Jess; we want to laugh at Winston’s insanity; we want Schmidt to be lovable and misguided. That doesn’t always happen, though. SOMEONE needs to be a villain. Someone needs to be an obstacle. And that someone just so happens to be Schmidt.

I’d argue that the writers and creative force behind New Girl are doing an excellent job with Schmidt as a character. They’re not – in my argument – assassinating his character. They’re weaving a plot and a story – this inability to make a decision, as Schmidt touches on briefly while in the car with Cece, is rooted in something much more fundamental than Schmidt being a douchebag. It’s easy to write the character off as insensitive and jerk-ish for the sake of mere insensitivity and jerkiness (and people are), but I don’t think that’s the point. I think that Schmidt’s story this season is an example of what can happen when a character doesn’t do what he knows is right. When a character makes bad decisions, it’s easy for those actions to snowball out of control. And that’s not a flaw in the writing – it’s a flaw in Schmidt as a CHARACTER and person that we are simply not used to witnessing. It unsettles us to know that Schmidt has the potential to be unnecessarily cruel and that he can justify even his worst behavior. We don’t like it; we don’t like him. But in the audience refusing to like Schmidt, the writers are actually doing something right: they’re making us FEEL something toward a character. 

The worst thing a series pilot can be, as I stated in my last post, is boring. If a series doesn’t take risks, it lends itself to being forgettable. And being forgettable is a far worse offense than being crazy, when it comes to television. Similarly, a character needs to evoke some sort of reaction and response from an audience in order to be worthwhile… in order to be GOOD. A sub-par series presents flat, unoriginal, dull characters that barely capture our interest, let alone our emotional investment. If you create a character, however, that gives you the urge to yell at your television screen, then you’re doing something right. Take, as a brief example, J.K. Rowling’s writing of Dolores Umbridge. Every single Harry Potter fan that I know abhors Umbridge with every fiber in their being. They see her on screen and their hands immediately curl into fists. They squirm. They’re on edge. They want to throttle her.

But that is why Rowling’s writing is and was so brilliant – she created a villain that stirs us into response. If you’re able to incite that kind of reaction in your audience, then you have created a real, palpable character who makes a lasting impact.

Returning to New Girl, I think it’s important to note something else: the writers not asking us to forgive Schmidt. While I was utterly impressed with how Max Greenfield portrayed Schmidt throughout this episode, I – by no means – excuse the character’s behavior, nor do I anticipate that I will enjoy watching him attempt to sabotage Nick and Jess’ relationship merely because he’s transferring the anger and pain he has with himself onto their happiness.

No, I don’t believe I’ll forgive Schmidt anytime soon for his actions. But, then again, it took me quite a long time to forgive Pierce for “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (truly, I don’t lie when I say that I cannot rank that episode as a favorite because of how terrible Pierce was in the episode as a human being). But, slowly, Pierce began to be redeemed and I recognized how necessary it was for him to be villainized in the first place in order to make the redemption and atonement, especially in his relationships with Jeff and Annie, all the more powerful.

Schmidt is now an obstacle to the happiness of other characters. And while I don’t believe that he will manage to break up Nick and Jess (only they will be the ones to destroy themselves in the – inevitable – event that they DO break up), I do believe that he will TRY. There are no stakes for Nick and Jess if he does not try, because things – quite frankly – are going far too well for the couple at this point.

But I digress – I haven’t even expressed my feelings toward the episode as a whole yet! “Double Date” is an episode that focuses on relationships (that part is rather self-explanatory). In fact, this entire season seems to be placing an emphasis on both the evolution and dissolution of relationships. When Nick and Jess ask Schmidt and Cece to accompany them on a double date, Schmidt struggles with his façade of monogamy, but eventually agrees to the date. There’s only one problem: Winston overhears the conversation regarding the Nick/Jess and Schmidt/Cece date and invites himself to be their fifth wheel.

I love Winston, and I love Winston in this episode because I think it’s really important that they’re focusing on his singleness right now. Though it may have seemed like an “adventure of the week” C-story, Winston’s intense desire to snag a table for the group at a trendy, popular restaurant has more to do with his characterization overall than the first two episodes have. Winston, having broken up with Daisy (who he discovered was cheating on him with another guy) is recently a single cat-owner with a desperate desire to be included in his friends’ events. But Winston is clearly trying to fill a void with Ferguson and his shenanigans that once belonged to Daisy. She hurt him more than he lets on, and when the man is seated alone at the community table, waiting for the rest of his friends to arrive (let’s just dwell on the poignant irony of that for a moment), he sees the other couples that surround him in the restaurant. And the reality that he is alone, and the reality that he’s been trying to keep himself preoccupied and busied with puzzles and cats and getting tables at hip restaurants comes barreling toward him. Then, something pretty astounding happens: Winston is quiet for a few seconds, and then audience hears the sounds of the laughing couples around him. But we (or at least I) feel pained in that moment for Winston, who finally realizes that what he’s tried to avoid is truly unavoidable.

Silence is something that is really important and beautiful in this episode, and I don’t know whether to credit Max Winkler for directing (he’s directed some of my favorite episodes, to be quite frank) or the writing team or Liz, but New Girl did something pretty rare in this episode – for them and for a comedy series in general – and included moments of complete and utter silence from the characters. Background noise was still present, which gave the moments where there were no major character speaking SO much more gravitas. You could feel the air being sucked out of the restaurant and it was like time was stilling for Winston, Nick, and Jess as they watched Schmidt and Cece’s conversation. It was, I am convinced, what delivered the sucker punch to viewers.

But I feel like I’m jumping ahead of myself… because I am. Let’s discuss how the characters end up at the restaurant, shall we? Cece confronts Nick and Jess in the latter’s bedroom (with Nick hilariously trying to avoid conversation and hide himself from his girlfriend’s best friend beneath Jess’ blankets) and asks if they know what has gotten into Schmidt. With his off-beat, spastic new persona, Cece presumes he might be using drugs. Nick and Jess dismiss the idea, but it’s Jess who suggests that her boyfriend – I’ll never tire of typing that – talk to Schmidt in order to determine if there is, indeed, something going on. 

(She bribes him and it’s both hilarious and adorable, mainly because Jess bribes Nick with a “bedroom treat” – a little roleplaying activity where she gets to utilize voices. At the beginning of the series, Jess was a bit too eccentric, singing to herself and talking in funny voices. But as the season wore on, they toned that aspect of her down a notch. Now, her “voices” are fewer and far between, but I love that now – instead of being irritated or weirded out by them – Nick plays along and actually ENJOYS it. Oh, what a beautiful little pairing you two make.)

Elsewhere in the episode, Winston is intent on securing a table for the group’s dinner, and manages to scare patrons away from the community table one-by-one. Back at the loft, Nick begrudgingly confronts Schmidt regarding his recent behavior and the man finally confesses to two-timing Elizabeth and Cece. Nick, in true Nick Miller fashion, is confused at first, then horrified and angered that he would two-time Jess’ best friend. (“In your LITTLE BRAIN, how do you see this ending?” Nick snaps.)

Schmidt insists that he feels terrible for what he is doing to both women and never meant for anything to get out of hand. Nick knows that Schmidt has to choose and that it will end badly, but he can’t keep the information to himself. Schmidt gives him permission to process the news in whatever manner he chooses… so long as he doesn’t tell Jess.

This makes Nick nearly physically sick, and it’s telling that he spends the next few scenes attempting to convince himself that he can lie to Jess. There’s this amazing, if incidental, parallel between Nick and Schmidt within the span of a few scenes: clearly, Schmidt has been lying for weeks to both Elizabeth and Cece. He admits this to Nick, and admits that it’s tearing him apart. Yet, he continues to do it. I do believe that Schmidt’s indecision and subsequent cheating was rooted in fear and selfishness, but I think that he did – at one point – care deeply for both women. Nick, similarly, cares a lot about Jess. A lot. But this is where the parallelism becomes intriguing: while Schmidt claims to care about both Elizabeth and Cece, justifying lying to “spare” their feelings, Nick cares so much about Jess that he CANNOT lie to her (though he attempts to convince himself in the mirror that men and women lie to each other in relationships all the time – that’s how marriage works, he tries to reason). He cannot even LOOK her in the eye, because he knows he’ll be forced to tell the truth if she asks why Schmidt’s behavior had been so off-beat. 

So he dons a helmet and does what Nick Miller does best. He avoids confrontation. That is, until Nick has to look Jess in the eye – Jess, this woman he’s admitted to not wanting to let go from his life at any cost – and admit that he did discover why Schmidt has been acting odd. Nick Miller and Jess Day handle confrontation differently in this episode, and it’s pretty wonderful to watch how each of them deals with the Schmidt/Cece issue. Nick, as mentioned, panic moonwalks both literally and metaphorically away from events that will cause him to make a decision. Jess, in the car ride to the restaurant explains that when the people she loves get hurt, she takes ACTION. She cannot be like Nick who, because he loves Schmidt, WON’T become involved.

(Fun reading-between-the-lines moment: after Jess enters the restaurant to talk to Cece, Nick leaves his conversation with Schmidt because he cannot – as he explains – let Jess be the one to break Schmidt’s cheating news to Cece. So, incidentally, NICK becomes involved when the person he cares about most has the potential to get hurt. Chew on that, friends.)

When Jess discovers, via Nick, that Schmidt has been cheating on Cece, she becomes irate. The way you know that Jess is irate is that she begins to use non-curse words at a very curse-word-like volume. Nick is still trying to avoid the confrontation altogether, dancing in the corner with his helmet on, while Jess and Schmidt have an intense staring match. She insists that if he does not admit his infidelity to Cece, SHE will.

The two stare at one another moments longer, and Schmidt’s resolve begins to visibly crumble. He understands what must be done, and is ready to face the consequences of his actions… until Cece bounces through the door, excited about the double date. It is then that Schmidt’s selfishness kicks back into high-gear: he high-tails it out of the apartment with Cece, leaving Nick and Jess scrambling to race them to dinner.

Schmidt then takes another easy way out of his unfaithfulness: he blames Nick by lying to Cece and telling her that Nick has been cheating on Jess. Again, as I stated earlier, you don’t have to like Schmidt. You shouldn’t, when he’s being selfish and blaming other characters (as he does at the end of the episode) for HIS mistakes. It’s something I’ve never recognized about Schmidt’s character, but it IS an element that exists. He makes poor choices and then blames others for his actions. I know people like Schmidt in real-life. I know people who continue to make excuses for their faults and flaws and who refuse to acknowledge what they already know is true.

So Cece grows irate and insists that they turn the car around and head to the restaurant where she can punch Nick for being cowardly and selfish. In the car, you can see that Schmidt registers the fact that his façade is drawing to a rapid close and that he has spun a web that is entirely too complex to get out of unscathed. But the problem now lies within the fact that Schmidt has dragged others into his mess – he hurts (physically) Nick because of his own selfishness. That’s what the lie of self-centered living is, really: this notion that if you are out to protect yourself and your own interests that you’re only, really, affecting yourself in the end. The truth of the matter is that Schmidt’s selfishness negatively impacted Nick and Jess. And he had to be the one to pay the price in the end.

Nick and Jess pull up to the restaurant after Schmidt and Cece do, but not before they have a heart-to-heart in their own vehicle. Jess knows that Nick is afraid of pretty much everything, especially confrontation. Jess, conversely, isn’t afraid to act when it involves the people she cares most about. Jess then tries to prove that she isn’t afraid of anything and sticks her finger in the car’s cigarette lighter, which really hurts. And then Nick – beautiful tropical fish that he is – asks Jess if she’s okay, kisses her quickly, and then sticks his OWN finger in the cigarette lighter too. When Jess asks why in the world he would do such a thing, he responds with: “So we’ll both be in the same amount of pain.”

And with that lone, throwaway line, I believe that Nick understands more about relationships than any other character on this entire series.

Jess enters the restaurant to confess what she knows to Cece, while Nick confronts Schmidt in his car. The latter is sitting, seemingly paralyzed, and admits that he never meant to hurt anyone. Nick knows this, in his heart, but also speaks some truth into Schmidt: regardless of what he did or did not mean to do, Schmidt needs to be a man and own up to his mistakes. And Nick cannot let Jess be involved in the fallout from his best friend’s mistakes.

Someone on Tumblr noted this (because Tumblr is the place where I garner all of my wisdom these days) important and interesting moment: when Nick decides to leave the car and protect his girlfriend, he does exactly what Schmidt insisted a good boyfriend needs to do in last week’s episode. Nick WAS protecting Jess in this episode. And he WAS trying to protect her in “Nerd.” I think it’s pretty fantastic that this particular theme carried itself into “Double Date” as well.

Cece, still under the belief that Nick is cheating on Jess, punches Nick in the junk – twice! – before Schmidt intervenes and explains that he lied to her and has been cheating on her with Elizabeth. What ensued was a beautiful portrayal by Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone. Schmidt’s speech to her, meanwhile, though seemingly sincere was littered with clichés and trite excuses. Cece – obviously devastated – calls him out on his behavior and his excuses. “That’s the best you can do?” she snaps. The scene ends with her declaring that she doesn’t even know who Schmidt is anymore and then walking out of the restaurant.

(It is then that we get the few powerful and meaningful seconds of silence as the camera pans over each character processing the conversation.)

Later that night, Jess and Nick are brushing their teeth. Jess is worried, having not heard a word from Cece. Nick tries his best to encourage her by noting that Cece NEEDS her, but she also needs to be alone right now. She’ll talk when she’s ready, he assures Jess. And then, in the most swoon-worthy way possible, Nick says this:

“Look, I’m here for you. There is nothing I know more than the fact that I want to be with you, Jess. Okay?”

This visibly comforts Jess (and comforts me, too) and the two kiss, but are quickly interrupted by a noise from the hallway. Elizabeth, standing at the threshold of the apartment’s door, shoves a pie into Schmidt’s face while the man stands unmoving, accepting his punishment. Once Elizabeth leaves, Nick and Jess look at the pie-stained Schmidt… who then vows to enact his vengeance on the couple because they destroyed his relationships with the women.

Nick, Jess, and the audience are aghast – it was SCHMIDT, after all who destroyed his relationships! We know that. And the characters know that. And I think that even Schmidt knows that. It’s just much easier, in his mind, to continue justifying his behavior rather than face the fact that he is not even remotely the person he needs to be. That’s unsettling, isn’t it? When you look at your life and your decisions and realize that you are so far from where you thought you would be; where you examine your decisions and choices and recognize the fact that you’ve done things and said things you swore you’d never do or say? Perhaps it’s just me, but I have experienced those moments in my own life – not to the degree that Schmidt experiences them – where I wonder who, exactly, I have become.

Schmidt isn’t emotionally mature, by any means. His actions aren’t excusable and every character on the series recognizes the fact that he is in the wrong. It’s going to be interesting, then, to see how and when Schmidt’s redemption actually occurs. It’s something I’ll be looking forward to.

Because the fact of the matter is that if I can love Pierce Hawthorne, even when he degraded and insulted Neil, turned his back on the study group, and hurt the people around him… then I can forgive Schmidt.

I just need some time. And so does he.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • I like that this episode was written by Luvh Rakhe, who also wrote the Schmidt-centric “The Story of the 50.” I think he definitely has a grasp on who Schmidt is as a character, what his flaws are, and what will redeem him in the end. Kudos to you, Luvh for the episode.
  • “If you talk to him, I’ll give you a treat.” “Bedroom treat or kitchen treat?”
  • The final few minutes that focus on Nick and Jess discussing what Schmidt could possibly use to break them up is FANTASTIC. I would have gladly watched an entire episode of them discussing their differences.
  • “I’m not convinced I know how to read. I just memorized a lot of words.”
  • “I’m afraid of pears.” “Okay, you’re afraid of pears?” “… And pear-shaped people.” “Um. That’s… interesting.”
  • Everyone clapping when Winston had a friend arrive at the restaurant was the BEST.
  • “I believe horses are from outer space.” “I believe that too!”

Thank you everyone for reading this blog-review. I’ll see you next week for my review of “The Captain”! As always, have a wonderful weekend. :)


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