My Bro King of the Year: Jake Johnson’s Quarter-Life Heroes

Now more than ever, pop culture is about the small stuff — an obscure TV show, a few notes in a pop song, a tweet. To celebrate a year of micro moments, every day a new Grantland writer will highlight one specific thing — a Big Little Thing — that we won’t soon forget.

There’s a scene from Season 2 of New Girl that I’m pretty sure was meant specifically for me. Not people like me. Me.

Schmidt, the convicted douche with a heart of gold played to cashmere-smooth perfection by Max Greenfield, brings home a cookie for his best friend and loftmate Nick Miller — played by Jake Johnson. There’s no ulterior motive, just a spontaneous act of caring. When Nick balks at the idea that male friends should think about each other in their spare time, Schmidt is incredulous. “We’re men, Schmidt,” Nick shoots back. “The only time a man is allowed to think about another man is when that man is Jay Cutler.” Even as someone who has thought plenty about Jay Cutler, I have to disagree. Mostly because I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about Nick Miller, the man who plays him, and what he has to say about people who are my age.

Based on a few context clues, I’m pretty sure Nick is 30. He’s a law-school dropout, aspiring but terrible zombie novelist, and professional bartender. When he goes to buy a cell phone, the employees gather around and fall to the ground laughing when they see his credit score. In his closet sits a moving box full of bills he has no intention of paying. At one point last season, I was talking with my friend Conor (who’s also someone that would angry-fix a sink) about Nick. “I like Nick because he makes me feel better about myself,” he said.

Like me, Conor will be 26 at year’s end. He has a job that doesn’t pay him as much as he’d like, student loans that seem to have regenerative powers, and a sneaking suspicion that professionally he was meant for something else. For him, and I’m sure for plenty of others, Nick is something resembling a quarter-life-crisis proxy that men in their mid-twenties haven’t seen much lately. Lena Dunham’s protagonist in Girls may have enough anxiety for both genders combined, but Nick is a plaid-clad stand-in absent from pop culture. If my generation already had its Troy from Reality Bites, I certainly missed him.

A lot of Nick’s resonance has to do with money. The portrayal of late-twenties living standards in the sitcom world has always been problematic. Monica and Rachel’s apartment will never make sense, and I’d love to see the pay stubs from every character on Happy Endings. The exception from that world would be Adam Pally’s Max, who’s also bearded, jobless, and aimless. But Happy Endings was never aiming for the same tone as New Girl. And that’s where Jake Johnson comes in.

The first time I can remember seeing Johnson was in Ashton Kutcher’s No Strings Attached, in which he and Ludacris (yep) played the pair of Kutcher’s friends who insisted from the beginning that it was all too good to be true. Even then, Johnson had enough charm to be memorable, and his roles started to expand.

I didn’t watch New Girl during its first season, so the next time I saw Johnson was in 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, in which he played Jeff, a jaded magazine editor looking to take advantage of a wacko named Kenneth, who’d placed a classified ad looking for a partner with whom to travel back in time. In a not terribly subtle twist, Jeff spends most of the movie doing some time-traveling of his own, reconnecting with his high school fling and eventually realizing that he’s been chasing the wrong things all along. Looking back, the part and Johnson’s success in it make sense. It’s in line with much of what he’s done since.

Jeff and Nick have different veneers — Jeff is cruel while Nick is just clueless — but each takes comfort in irreverence. What Johnson is able to do so well is mine why that irreverence is a product of sincerity. We all want to care as little as Nick and Jeff seem to. We all actually care as much as they do. Johnson makes that second kind of moment work because we still manage to like him through the first kind. Even in the ridiculousness of him returning the cookie favor to Schmidt, the reason Nick is one of the best characters on TV is evident. He wants to do the right thing, even if he often doesn’t know what that is.

Earlier this year, Johnson starred as Luke in the excellent Drinking Buddies alongside Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick. Again from Chicago (as both Nick is on New Girl and Johnson is in real life), Johnson upped his status as a self-doubting bro icon with an Old Style hat, beard, and a Chicago flag forearm tattoo that I’ll admit to being jealous of. The film hinges on the tension between Luke and his local brewery coworker, Kate (played by a perfectly, shockingly messy Wilde). The flirting is constant, if innocent, and it’s clear that if it weren’t for Luke’s girlfriend (and soon-to-be fiancée), Jill, it all might be different.

I won’t spoil the end, but let’s just say it involves more of the same doubt that is pervasive in Nick — of commitment, of ourselves. What Johnson eventually finds is that the doubt isn’t always a bad thing if it leaves you with what you need instead of what you want.

A couple of weeks ago, Conor sent me a text.

“Finally saw Drinking Buddies,” he said.

“And?” I asked.

“Yeah, mannn.”

Yeah, man is right.

Filed Under: Jake Johnson, New Girl, Robert Mays

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Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays

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