“Julie Berkman’s Older Sister” almost feels like New Girl firing on all cylinders again – I say almost, because there are long stretches of the episode that just aren’t funny, particularly when diving into the wacky relationship between Jess’s father and Ashley Berkman (It’s Always Sunny‘s Kaitlin Olson). But thanks to a solid B-story and a surprisingly pleasant resolution to the episode’s main drama, “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister” is the first episode of the season concerned with something more than “Jess is starting over, romantically and sexually” – and that alone makes it the best of the season’s opening trio of episodes.
At first, it feels like “Older Sister” was going to spend most of its time in superficial territory: for the first half of the episode, both Schmidt’s proposal to win a sponge advertising account and Rob Reiner’s latest visit to 4D felt inconsequential. Early on, it feels simplistic: the former story feels like a way to keep the guys busy while telling a Jess story, while the latter is plagued by the repetition of Reiner singing Tal Bachman’s “She So High” (while I love the song, five times through the course of the episode is enough), and the feeling that Olson’s character isn’t someone to take seriously.
But slowly (and more importantly, with confidence), “Older Sister” begins to reveal some real pathos: as a woman who dealt with everything from sex addiction to weird river diseases (from events related to the beginning of said sex addiction, one would imagine), Ashley’s a character whose failed a lot in life, something Jess has had to deal with herself, albeit in less embarrassing (and potentially dangerous, at least to one’s health) ways. The episode doesn’t really acknowledge this directly, but the ultimate resolution of Jess’s views on Ashley come from her recognition of Ashley’s personal growth (not to mention when she sees how much her father actually loves her), and realizing that you can’t stick to one definition of a person. Jess’s recognition might not be a real moment of growth for her (just one where she ceases to be judgmental like the rest of us for a minute), but it was kind of nice to not see New Girl blow off guest characters as one-off jokes, instead taking something that initially feels facsimile and breathing life into it as the episode goes along (it’s not often a minor character gets to say “I left that life behind” and they actually have).
Naturally, Schmidt’s adventure into the stressful life of account manager isn’t quite as satisfying: it’s really just a good excuse to throw all the guys of New Girl together, in pursuit of a resolution that honors the show’s deepest friendship, the man-love between Nick and Schmidt. The whole story exists for Schmidt to be inspired by Nick, triggering his return to baller status (and what possibly sounds like him moving out of the loft again, for good) – and although it’s as light and superficial as it sounds, it works because it can rest on the laurels of the show’s strongest relationship, the modern equivalent of Felix and Oscar (and no, I’m not talking about the CBS reboot with Matthew Perry).
With “Julie Berkman’s Older Sister”, it feels like New Girl is starting the ball rolling, pushing Schmidt into new professional ground and setting up a big event for later in the season (her father’s wedding, where I’d imagine Jess will find herself under the same scrutiny she puts Ashley through in this episode). It does take a little while for the two stories in “Older Sister” to get going, but they undeniably come to life in the final third, bringing what originally felt like two inconsequential stories to meaningful conclusions, a surprising (though pleasant) reminder that New Girl still might have some stories to tell in a post Nick-and-Jess world.