For all the focus season three of New Girl has put on Nick and Jess’s relationship, it’s still found plenty of time to mine interesting material from the ever-growing ensemble. “Basketsballs” is no exception, delivering another solid Nick and Jess story while finally giving some quality material to Winston, a promising start to the new direction the show pushed him in last week. There are times where “Basketsball” shows the writer’s growing strain to juggle a large set of characters and tell rewarding stories, but with such a strong foundation to work with, it’s hard not to argue this episode for one of the season’s best.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t require any of the subtler, deeper themes of “Menus” or “The Box”: “Basketsballs” is very efficient with both its narrative and its comedy, letting the funnier elements of the episode carry things until the third act. For the first two-thirds, the episode is a lot of slapstick, physical humor (Nick sexy dancing, Nick and Jess sexy dancing, etc.) and jokes about old people trying to work in the advertising business. That material is plenty funny, but it takes awhile – particularly with Winston’s material – for it to find definition, delivering a round of succinct conclusions in the closing minutes.
A few of these don’t land as well as they could – but as expected, the attention is squarely on Nick and Jess’s argument over the Pistons and Bulls, which is really about the compromises to identity we make in relationships. Nick’s Chicago jersey is more to him than some memories of watching Michael Jordan play: it’s a component of who he is – and more importantly, is one of the few connections he ever made with his father as a child. Putting on the Pistons jersey to have sex with Jess isn’t just an empty declaration of sexual weakness: it’s another in a list of signs Nick is maturing as a man (and by the same token, Jess as a woman wearing the Bulls jersey), even if that maturity is coming in baby steps (Nick’s five reasons for being friends with Jess initially: vagina, boob, buttcheek, boob, buttcheek). His new found ability for self-examination allows him to realize the identity of who he was and what he loved isn’t as important as who he is become, which is a confident man who is actually able to give constructive advice to his friends (his suggestions for conversation starters with Jess were hilarious).
Jess isn’t left out of this, either: “Basketsballs” takes a look at Jess’s changing dynamic within the group, since she hasn’t had quite the drastic change as a human being since the pilot episode. Using Coach as a catalyst to do this is genius: it addresses the weird, uncomfortable feeling of someone trying to get to know their partner’s best friend. Although Schmidt and Winston still view Jess as a friend, she has become “Nick’s girlfriend” – and as the new guy in the group (relatively speaking), that’s the only way Coach knows her. Jess takes to being a Pistons fan for two reasons: both to appease Coach, and to define herself in contrast to Nick, as a reminder that her place in the group isn’t defined by her relationship.
Now, the episode stumbles when it grasps for meaning with Coach: the closing tag of “Basketsballs” hints at deeper emotional issues with Coach, who apparently moved around a lot as a kid. Knowing this adds more emotional weight to “Coach”, giving more definition into why Coach is so depressed over his girlfriend breaking up with him. It is an interesting way to add complexity to Coach’s internal struggles – but it almost feels more like an afterthought, a way to overtly define Coach’s sudden obsession with the Pistons (which is pretty clear from the beginning), without trying to expound on the idea any further.
Where the episode is the strongest – as its been almost all season – is with Nick and Jess: like Coach’s own revelation, Winston’s deciding he should try to become a cop is a rewarding moment (if only because it gives Winston some much-needed direction), but one that’s gone in a whisper. At times, “Basketsballs” is a little too ambitious for its own good, scratching the surface of heady ideas like identities in a relationship and finding one’s true professional path, but not ignoring the show’s funnier, less emotionally rewarding accents. With a large cast, it makes the balancing act of character and comedy even harder to pull off: and it’s a testament to the writing of New Girl that the episode makes (almost) all of it work.
– Jess, describing Coach: “What a walnut!”
– “She turned 45, so she was fired.” “Obviously.”
– Schmidt falls down a metaphor hole: “The minnow tips his tiny hat to the shark, and then lays down on the toast to be eaten.”
– Nick has a disposable camera full of selfies he’s trying to get discreetly developed.
– The funniest part about Winston wanting to be a cop to avoid desk work is how much paper pushing is involved with working for a police department.