After an incessant focus on its fizzling love stories, it’s nice to see New Girl evaluate its friendships, which have always been the show’s true center. Last night went about this with a weird, revealing look into Schmidt’s past. Turns out Nick’s terrible coping mechanisms are nothing compared to the delusion at the very core of Schmidt, and it takes the cast to some pretty strange places.
When Nick, Jess, and Winston notice Schmidt beating himself up with romantic guilt to a worrying degree, Nick and Winston tell Jess about how Schmidt is used to dealing with sadness. When Schmidt was depressed as a kid, his mother decided to write him a letter as Michael Keaton that was intended to cheer him up, unaware that Schmidt would keep writing back. For years, Schmidt’s mother wrote him as Michael Keaton until Schmidt went off to college, at which point Nick started writing the letters.
This extended fan letter relationship is kind of unbelievable for a few reasons: Why couldn’t Schmidt’s mother just continue to write him from home? Wouldn’t it be kind of suspicious if someone started sending you letters of advice at just the right time? And if your first college roommate’s mother told you to occasionally write her son emails as Michael Keaton, would you immediately move out, or stay out of intrigue? It doesn’t totally work, but it’s a brave, funny way of telling the audience, yet again, that Schmidt’s alpha male act has a lot of complicated, distressing layers. That dissection of Schmidt’s supposedly put-together persona is one of the best parts of his character, because a lot of us know at least one person like Schmidt. The most confident people we know have probably had to go through some uncomfortable stuff to reach their heightened sense of self-esteem, and any cracks in the façade can be refreshing for what they show us.
Of course, Jess jumps right into the chance to write Schmidt a letter as Michael Keaton, so she, Nick, and Winston spend the episode catfishing Schmidt. Nick warns Jess that Schmidt could break down if he finds out, which, in sitcom rules, means he absolutely will before the end of the episode. Schmidt finds his roommates sending him emails from an empty loft across the hall, but he doesn’t seem to be terribly affected by it. It is telling that when Schmidt comes face-to-face with Jess in a Batman costume, he just thinks his roommates have hacked into Michael Keaton’s account. At this point, Nick chooses to come clean, and his admission of providing Schmidt with advice for all these years adds a new level of intimacy to their relationship.
This kind of sensitive treatment of its core characters is one of the best things about New Girl. A meaner comedy would use Schmidt’s eccentric coping mechanism as a way to exploit and publicly embarrass him, but even as Schmidt’s roommates giggle away at the keyboard, it’s clear they’re playing along out of love. There are only a few seconds in the whole episode where it feels like anyone is laughing at Schmidt, and “Keaton” is a good example of why their friendship works. Schmidt has been a pretty terrible person for the vast majority of this season, but his friends have messy lives, too, and they seem to understand. These letters were just an especially weird way for his loved ones to show him they understand and to comfort him using a method that’s worked in the past.
Schmidt doesn’t break after learning a large portion of his life has been a lie, which doesn’t seem all that weird. You get the feeling that even the deeply delusional Schmidt had to have been a little suspicious after a while, and the letters appear to have done their job of making Schmidt a stronger, more self-assured person. Instead of eating entire blocks of cheese by himself in his room, Schmidt calmly packs his things and moves out. A departure from at least one of the roommates has been somewhat inevitable for months now, and this would be a much larger development if Schmidt wasn’t simply moving to that empty loft across the hallway. Surprise!
As small a move as that may be, it’s progress. Relationships between the core foursome will probably continue to shift, and it’ll be interesting to see how. Next week is the return of Damon Wayans, Jr. as Coach, and Schmidt’s absence from the apartment could mean Wayans will become a principal cast member. This seems like a subtle affirmation that we can look forward to a continued focus on the friendships of New Girl, which are compelling enough to make even messy episodes like “Keaton” work.
Last night’s episode was fairly weak on laughs and the plot wasn’t totally believable, but “Keaton” accomplished a lot of good things: it revealed quite a bit about the inner workings of a central character, strengthened important friendships, gave Schmidt’s tired love triangle somewhere to go, and increased momentum for the rest of this season. I’ve honestly been losing interest in New Girl, but the last two episodes revealed the writers are still really thinking about character development. I hope the rest of this season is just as dedicated to moving things forward.