Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New Girl 4x06 "Background Check" (Doubts, Lies, and Aquarium Rocks)

"Background Check"
Original Airdate: November 4, 2014

In June of 2013, I went out to dinner with my parents, sister, and brother. We were eating at The Cheesecake Factory in celebration of my sister's birthday. And I was celebrating telling them all about my decision to run the Walt Disney World Princess Half-Marathon in February of the following year. Let me preface this by saying that at the time, I was athletic. Not excessively athletic, mind you, but I worked out a few times a week (I had a gym membership!) and enjoyed jogging. I'll never forget the silence that followed my conversation with them. They smiled and ate their food and then the conversation turned.

"You DO know how far a half-marathon is, right?" "You're going to have to really train for this." "Are you sure you don't want to start with something smaller?" "How long is it going to take you to train?" "Jenn, it's thirteen miles. What's the furthest you've ever run?"

I remember going home that night and talking to my roommate, feeling both extremely discouraged and extremely stubborn. I was determined to prove my parents and siblings wrong. I was going to run that half-marathon and I was going to train hard to do it and I was going to show everyone -- including myself -- that I had what it took to commit to a goal and not quit. (Spoiler alert: I ran my first ever half-marathon in 2:41:55, only ten minutes from my initial goal time and I'm going to be running my second half-marathon a month from now!)

Doubt is the kind of thing that can either motivate you or defeat you because it's the kind of thing that reveals who you really are. When people tell you the word "no" or the word "can't," do you accept that as reality? Or do you fight their expectations and perceptions to prove them wrong? There's this thread of doubt that weaves its way through the most recent episode of New Girl and it's doubt in Winston and his potential. Everyone in the loft feels it -- they doubt that Winston has what it takes to become a cop. They still see him as their goofy, weird, random roommate. They don't see him in a uniform and they don't expect him to succeed. And it's sad, because Winston has JUST started to believe in himself throughout his police academy training. He's finally found something that excites him and gets him out of bed in the morning. He's found a purpose and a calling.

But what happens when the people who are supposed to support you only look at you and see a joke or a failure? That's part of what "Background Check" addresses, amidst its hilarious shenanigans and piles of lies (and "meth"... or aquarium rocks).

This episode was penned by Rebecca Addelman who, as you all know, is one of my favorite New Girl writers on staff. She wrote "Parking Spot" (the funniest episode of the series, in my opinion, rivaled only by this one) and "Cooler" and "Basketsball." What has always made Rebecca such a great writer was her ability to add severity to the levity. And when I say "severity," what I truly mean is her ability to remind us that this show is about stakes -- no matter how large or small -- and these are REAL people with REAL emotions and REAL doubts, insecurities, hopes, dreams, etc. She takes wildly absurd concepts (the group fighting over a parking spot; True American; a sex stand-off; a background check) and makes us laugh until our sides hurt... but then she also makes us think. She gives us a heartbreaking Nick/Jess parking spot conversation ("That kiss was the dumbest mistake I ever made"), she gave us "I meant something like that," she gave us the beginning of Coach and Jess's friendship. And in "Background Check," she gave us probably one of the most heartbreaking moments between Winston and Jess ever. But more on that later.

Since this episode was light on plot and heavy on shenanigans, I'm going to take this opportunity to discuss the Buzzfeed interview with Liz, Brett, and Dave that I've seen a lot of people talk about. First off, let me say this: I have never run a television show. I know, you're all shocked. I don't know what it takes to run a television show, write for a television show, or be a part of one but I imagine that making decisions about character and plot and direction aren't easy. I'm a terrible decision-maker. My best friend and I took twenty minutes one night to decide, via text message, where to eat for dinner. I need my roommate in my life -- my roommate is the one who is good at taking decisive action. Me? I waffle. I'm a people-pleaser by nature and I cringe whenever someone doesn't like a review I write or whenever they disagree with my opinion. I'm trying to be better about this and writing workshops in college definitely have aided me in becoming better at accepting constructive criticism.

And I think, to be honest, it's easy to sit on the other side of something -- a television show, a book, an album, a movie -- and judge the people who create because we think we can do better. That's easy. It's easy to point fingers and to place blame but it's a lot harder to be the one calling the shots and knowing that those people exist on the other side of your work and that, moreover, they will be VOCAL about disliking something. Funnily enough, the people who don't like something are always much louder than the people who do. The anti's are always louder than the pro's. And sometimes the anti's turn those pro's off to fandoms and to television shows and to movies and to albums and to books.

The New Girl fandom was a friendly fandom and I've dipped my toe into it on Tumblr. I now regret that because this is a very young fandom -- a fandom who, if they are unhappy with something, will not just tell you they are unhappy but will tell EVERYONE and will tell them loudly. Having been in fandom for about eleven years now, I know how difficult it is to find happy, drama-free fandoms. And I thought that the New Girl fandom was... until season three aired. Suddenly, there weren't as many well-written critiques of the series as there were flat-out bashing of the writers and the actors and Nick/Jess and Schmidt and anything they could get their hands on. And it was sad. And it was frustrating, as someone who didn't hate season three at all, to witness. So I backed away and I haven't looked back since.

Let's talk about season three, then, shall we, since it was the focal point of that article above. I didn't hate season three. I didn't love every single episode, but I've yet to find a show -- any show -- that has lasted more than one year that I DO love every single episode of. The problem with season three was that it directly followed an exceptional season two. New Girl's sophomore year was excellent and I would argue that every episode post-"Pepperwood" was absolutely stellar television. So how do you follow perfection? You can't, is the simple answer. Anything that follows perfection and is not will always be a "nearly there" or an "almost." Liz, Brett, Dave, and the writers made choices in the third season that people didn't agree with. The same people clamoring for Nick and Jess turned quicker than Florida weather in the summer and insisted that the very thing they wanted was the thing ruining the series. That's what happens in fandoms, right? WE think we know what we want. We think we know what will make us happy. And then a show gives it to us and we realize that maybe the elusiveness of the ship or the will-they-won't-they was better than the "they did." Shipping is difficult in fandoms and writers and producers walk a fine line in how they write couples. On the one hand, the moment they give their couple a happy ending, they solve one problem and add ten more: will they sustain the couple? What will their new source of conflict be?

What I've always admired about Liz Meriwether was that she claimed to not know what she was doing, running her show. I thought it ironic because I watched Community avidly, which stuck to a rigid story circle. Then I watched New Girl, where Liz claimed to not have a plan, and saw a plan clearly peeking through. I don't think Liz gives herself enough credit. I think that her decision to let her characters breathe rather than stifle them into confines is what has made her show so enjoyable and so organic and such a success. And I can see why she, Brett, and Dave pinpoint the Nick/Jess relationship (and Schmidt) as problematic. But I think that the blame is misplaced, because I don't think that Nick and Jess have the power to sink a show. I think that what happened was the writers were given this gift -- this beautiful and palpable chemistry between Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel -- and they didn't know what to do with it. So they took a chance and put the characters together and that was great. I'd argue that if you go back and watch some of the episodes from season three in which they're together ("Prince," "Exes," "Birthday," "The Captain," etc.) you'll find that they stand up.

But the problem is that the show didn't know how to develop them as a source of conflict and they didn't know how to integrate their love story into the greater storyline. That's not a fault of Nick and Jess as a pairing and it's not a fault, per se, of the writers. It's a misstep. Nick/Jess became a stumbling block for them but the pairing was never the real problem. The problem was that New Girl was always about the story of Jess trying to live with three guys who were vastly different from her. It was a story of optimism versus pessimism; a story of what growing up looks like when you're already supposed to be a grown-up. And when the writers couldn't determine what the show was supposed to really be about in season three, it faltered. Every season of a television show should be different. There should be different themes explored, characters discovered, etc.

The problem with season three was the same problem with season four of Community: it didn't know what kind of show it was supposed to be anymore. So it tried on different hats -- was it a romantic comedy? was it just a comedy? was it just a romance? -- and now, in season four, Liz and her crew have hit the reset button and determined what kind of show New Girl is again. I'm loving this year not because I think season three is bad but because I think the trajectory is better. But what I truly admire most of all is that Liz is willing to admit that her show has faults. I can guarantee you that not every showrunner is willing or able to do that. Not every showrunner can look at their work -- the thing they spend sleepless nights and years of their life on -- and have the courage to tell you that it is a flawed vessel. I've waited for years for the Community showrunners to admit that their show has flaws and needs work but instead, they try to distract their audience with promises of new homages and more characters. I've seen countless shows pretend that their series is at the top of its game when I know good and well that it is not.

The courage that it took for Liz and Brett and Dave to hit that reset button is what makes them great showrunners. The fact of the matter is they don't just KNOW that their show is flawed, but they are determined to do everything in their power to make the best show for their audience. If that doesn't earn them some respect in your book, kindly show yourself out of my blog. #sorrynotsorry So yes, I know that New Girl is flawed and yes I know that some people in the fandom have been receptive and a vast majority have not. And yes, I know that this show is sometimes messy and the showrunners sometimes make mistakes. But I love this show. I love it because it's weird and quirky and willing to figure out how to tell the story of their characters the best way possible. THAT is why I keep coming back to New Girl. That is why I think (I hope) you do too.

But let's talk about "Background Check" for a bit, shall we? So the plot of the episode is this: Winston is preparing for a background check for the police academy and that check is about to occur at the loft. Once Winston is out of sight, Jess begins to panic and tells Schmidt, Coach, and Nick why: she has a bag of meth in her closet. The four of them understandably freak out (Jess explains that she bought a footstool and found the giant bag inside of it) and then spend the rest of the episode trying to hide the meth from both Sargeant Dorado and also Winston. Lies and shenanigans run rampant this episode and every last moment was absolutely hilarious.

The lies begin to snowball, which is horrible news for Nick who -- as we know from season one's "Secrets" -- sweats when he lies. By the end of "Background Check," Nick looks like he's been swimming. Lying isn't going well for the other characters, either, as Schmidt has to kiss Cece in order to keep her from blabbing in front of Dorado, Coach makes up a child that Winston supposedly mentors and then has to go find a child to play the part, and Jess begins to spiral into panic as she always does with authority figures and uncomfortable situations. The lying -- as it is want to do -- causes the shenanigans to escalate: Nick has to throw on a kimono of Schmidt's to cover up his sweaty back. Jess hides the meth in her bra and then spills it on the floor in the bathroom, leading her and Cece to frantically try and flush it (THAT goes horribly awry). Coach tries to pick up a child on a playground until he realizes exactly how bad that looks. All the while in this episode, Winston is oblivious to his roommates' lies and their odd behavior.

That is, until Jess cannot hide the drugs for much longer and discovers the mess in the bathroom that she tried to cover up. It's then that "Background Check" swings from 'hilarious hijinks' to 'actual stakes.' Winston asks Jess why she didn't just come to him in the first place. It's this sweet little earnest question, one that he probably expects her to answer with embarrassment for her behavior. Instead, Jess quietly admits that she didn't expect Winston to be successful in his endeavors to becoming a police officer. She doubted that he would be able to stick to the training and she doubted -- quite frankly -- that he would be any good at it. That's why she didn't come to him in the first place. It's this little moment, but it's heartbreaking, because WE are so used to seeing Winston as the guy who puts together puzzles or as Theodore K. Mullins or as the roommate who is way too attached to his ex-girlfriend's cat. We're used to seeing how absurd he can be, but it's painful because in that moment, Winston realizes that those little doubts he has about who he is as a person aren't just doubts in his mind: they're things his friends think about him too.

So Winston does what he's always done: protect his friends. Remember the end of "The Captain"? Remember "Bells"? Remember "Quick Hardening Caulk"? Remember all the times that Winston Bishop has proven over and over to these people that he cares about them and will support them and be there for them, no matter how insane it may seem? The truth of the matter is that Nick may be the glue that bonds the group together and Jess may be their dose of optimism and Coach and Schmidt may be the people who make the loft fun and weird and adventurous, but Winston Bishop is their protector. He's the one who steps up and rescues them when they need it. THAT is why he will make a good cop. And as soon as Jess sees that he's willing to risk his career -- something he genuinely loves -- and possible freedom so that she can be let off the hook, she realizes the kind of person she is and the kind of person she's doubted.

The entire group then watches as Winston starts to confess to having meth, but Jess admits to it first. Dorado lines the group up and makes them wait while she examines the meth which -- shocker! -- isn't meth at all but IS a bunch of aquarium rocks. She then tells Winston and the rest of the group that he passed his background check and not only that, but he's actually a promising cadet who works hard and really cares about his job.

I loved the way that "Background Check" ended because it reminded me of "Big News" -- it's this moment that is so fundamental to New Girl as a series, where the group spends the entire episode being weird and crazy and farcical, but then... then we're reminded that these people really love each other. They really care about each other and support one another through the lies and through the absurdity and through the craziness. There's a message New Girl has always striven to share with its audience and it's the one thing, to me, that makes this show so utterly special. It's the message that no matter how weird you are, no matter how messy your life is or how many times you've screwed up, there are people who love you in the middle of the mess and who will do anything to be there for you in it.

That's the message of the show, honestly. And that's why I keep coming back.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • Welcome back from hiatus, New Girl fans! Did you miss me? I missed me.
  • The show updated its credits in order to include Damon and Hannah. I am partial to the "hey girl" ones but I'm glad everyone is in the new ones now.
  • "I'm going to the outlet mall today!"
  • "Holy frickin' whaaaaat."
  • "Cover your ears and sing 'Landslide'!" As a related aside, I think that Nick Miller singing "Landslide" and effectively butchering the lyrics was one of the funniest things this show has ever done. Jake Johnson was hysterical during those scenes.
  • Jess deciding that she's under the effect of meth throughout the episode was also hilarious. I feel like we've seen her do this before -- believe she's under the influence of something when she's really not -- and it was fantastic.
  • Cece tricking Schmidt into thinking she was dating Mark-Paul Gosselaar was amazing.
  • "Like I always say, you can’t put peanut butter and jelly on the same shelf and expect them not to mix... because somebody's gotta make a sandwich."
  • "Some day you're going to make some lucky girl... really uncomfortable."
  • "Jess, are you crying right now?" "I don't know. I'm on drugs."
  • "It's medical meth for my... cramps."
  • "And I sawwwww the puppies / with their eyes so blind" was one of the lyrics for Nick's version of "Landslide" and I died laughing.
  • "You say a prayer every time you get on an escalator."
  • "Congratulations, Nick. You have the willpower of a six-year old."
  • "And if you come and visit me in prison... please don't wear that robe."
Thank you everyone for enduring this rather long New Girl review (even if most of it wasn't even a real review). I'll see you guys back here next week. Until then, hit up the comments with your thoughts about the episode! :)


  1. I don't know if you've listened to the Community season 5 DVD commentary, but Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna do discuss the missteps they made in season 5.

    I know Dan often talk about Community in a very, idk, arrogant-ish way, but I think he realizes that their are and have been flaws. Not just with season 4, but with his own work.

    So. Just wanted to point that out. Thank you for the stuff you said about the New Girl fandom though! I was very happy in it for a while but boy was season 3 a shit-storm with everyone. I also pretty much left the fandom, and am much happier for it. But that's also sad that I had to leave in the first place. That vocal minority of haters are real pieces of work.

    1. (I apologize for the spelling errors in this post, but Idk how to edit it...)

    2. Thanks so much for reading the review, Tate! I... admittedly haven't even bothered to purchase the season five DVDs yet. I'm glad to hear that Harmon is willing to recognize the show's flaws. However, I have yet to see him correct anything (for instance, mentioning at CommuniCon that there would be more additional female characters is not a fix for the poor decline in writing of the three he has had for five years, etc.) that actually needs correcting, which is why the show has fallen out of my good graces.

      But yes, I totally agree about leaving the New Girl fandom. Vocal minorities don't represent an entire fandom, obviously, and I've found a lot of people to be pleasant on Tumblr, but still... I don't go into the New Girl tag anymore for a reason!

      Again: thank you for reading and commenting!