We've mentioned how oft-maligned Mark Brendanawicz of Parks & Recreation, shouldn't be so maligned and definitely not so oft. Brendanawicz was not a fan-favorite character, but he provided a certain grounding for the show that helped the other characters shine. I think the early versions of Nick from New Girl operated in much the same way and since New Girl has seen somewhat of a resurgence thanks to COVID Netflix binging (and might possibly even have a reunion), then I think there's no better time to give you my "angry Nick was the best Nick" rant. So here we go.
In a quick summary, the evolution of early-season Nick Miller to the Nick Miller by series-end would seem to be standard fare for sitcoms. Nick started off as an angry dude who had dropped out of law school with only three semesters left to go and was perpetually hung up on his ex-girlfriend. He gets over that anger and learns to accept himself and, in doing so, finds happiness with Jess and becomes a successful novelist. Look at the mighty elegant curve on that character arc, right? Well, no, because that arc doesn't take place over the course of the series. It takes place over the course of one episode in season 2.
Nick meets a guy that he names "Tran" on a park bench, and by episode's end, he states, "I'm not angry anymore." That's coming from a guy who, up until that point, would be prone to outbursts like these:
Nick's character was almost wholly reinvented in one episode and granted, there were certainly positives to this. It's hard to have Nick do silly dances if, in the next scene, he's supposed to go full Christian Bale on his roommates.
Nick's character is more fan-friendly and fun than his previous cantankerous demeanor would ever allow him to be. For a show where a majority of the humor is derived from "and now this character says this crazy thing," it's an understandable move.
But what we gained in light-hearted Nick moments, we lost tenfold in emotional depth. Nick's anger was intriguing. Sure, it's not like a mystery on par with the polar bears from Lost, or Baby Yoda ending every Mandalorian episode by saying, "Burn the non-believers, Daniel. Spread my gospel with fire," but it was enough of a hook to drive the show forward through those silly moments. Why was Nick so angry? Why did he, despite being positioned as a promising potential lawyer, leave law school so close to earning his degree? Why was he always so damn sad? Answers are teased out throughout the rest of the series, but done as an afterthought because Nick already had most of his emotional catharsis.
Take this moment from the season one episode "The Injury," where Nick has a cancer scare and is sent down an existential spiral.
Now, we've seen cancer used in a million soap operas, and the reason those moments read as melodrama and not drama is that the characters have no stakes. They've already lived thrilling lives as astronaut doctors with five families. But it's been thoroughly established that Nick's dreams have gone unfulfilled, and when Jess tells Nick that he's done nothing with his life, it has weight. It doesn't matter if Nick does or doesn't have cancer. He's in pain, and we feel that pain because we can relate to it.
Now compare that moment to Nick's proposal from season 7.
Nick claims to have wanted to create the perfect proposal and not to be nervous about it, but he has the ring in a plastic bag. He's fine, and while we know that this is supposed to be a big moment because it's two characters we've grown to love getting engaged, we also know the engagement is on lock by this point. There's no character flaw to drive tension. Nick's demons have been conquered so long ago, that even if Jess were to say no, he's healthy enough to move on. (In fact, if she were to say no, and Nick's character development slowly progressed throughout the series, then it'd be a much bigger sign of growth as it's a thing he'd never have been able to do with Caroline at the series' start.)
I'm not saying that Nick had to remain a big old crank from beginning to end for this show to be good. I'm just saying that in a show where Jess is the weird one, Schmidt is the weirder one, and Winston is just batshit insane ...
... that Nick provided a grounded point of sanity. We could relate to Nick through his flaws and in things more concrete than just some avant-garde "weirdness." Does that make for a better show? I'm not sure, but it certainly makes for a more meaningful one.
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Top Image: NBC