“I’m tired of the way things are!” – Jess Day
For comedies – especially successful ones – embracing change is a difficult thing, even for the greats. Whether behind the scenes or in front of the camera, these alterations to the status quo always threaten to alienate the audience: part of maintaining an audience is maintaining its familiarity, particularly for longer-running shows. Not everyone is Parks and Recreation, able to flip characters, locations, and relationship dynamics on the fly – including New Girl, which has struggled to find interesting avenues for its ancillary characters in season three (in part because they’ve taken a lot of care with the Nick/Jess material, which has been terrific all season).
On the surface, “Menus” is an episode about perseverance – in particular, persevering through the challenges that come from traveling off the beaten path. It’s a vehicle for the writers to fully embrace the changes they’ve made to their world, finding meaning in new relationships (Nick/Jess, Coach and everyone, etc.) and making an important point about sticking with something, even when it hits a rough patch – or even, when it looks like the point of no return. It’s an episode about having faith in a new direction – and in a clever little way, acts as a meta-commentary about the changing dynamics of the show itself (especially with characters like Winston and CeCe, which I’ll talk more about).
The writers waste no time getting right into the theme of the episode, either: “Menus” opens with Nick and Jess talking about calling each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”, then smartly putting their relationship on the back burner for the entirety of the episode. It doesn’t pull its attention from either, however, constantly drawing parallels between Jess’s frustration and Nick’s reluctance: it re-establishes their “two sides of the same coin” dynamic, both of them manifesting their fear of failure in equally cringe-worthy ways. It even goes so far as to draw out their issues from the same well: Nick eats Chinese food to try and convince himself he’s the same, and Jess starts a war with the manager of the restaurant to prove she can still make a difference (it’s really a fucking genius bit of writing).
At the same time, Coach and Schmidt are struggling with the own changes in their life – changes that came about from their own doing, whether they want to accept it or not. Both of them are feeling alone, looking to lean on their friends for reassurance, without actually coming out and asking them for them help. Boiling down their various dramas, they’re all being dishonest about the changes in their life – right down to Nick and Jess, who don’t realize that being boyfriend and girlfriend means they can count on each other to help them find solutions to their problems.
It all culminates in the loft living room – and surprisingly, it’s the dumpling-er Nick who steps up: after he sees himself surrounded by a roomful of Nicks, he delivers the first “inspirational” speech of his life, reminding them all why they’re strong people who can handle a few small life difficulties, like a lonely apartment or an empty spot in bed. The important thing is to never give up: stay true to who you are, and the answers will eventually come. It’s when you’re dishonest with yourself about reality (trying to maintain a reality that no longer exists, as Schmidt tries to do) that bad things happen – just look at Jess’s face when Menu Maker Man gets fired after her protest succeeds (“Earth warrior!”).
The final living room scene is what makes “Menus” such a special episode of the show: not only does the scene draw out the connection from the many moving parts of the episode, but also speaks to the idea of being faithful to the sitcom willing to take risks. Yes, many expected there to be a will they/won’t they with Nick and Jess: but how long has it been since we’ve seen a sitcom go full-in on a new relationship, refusing to use it for broad comedic opportunities (*cough* Friends *cough*). Being with Jess has changed Nick, just like it’s changed New Girl: would we ever have thought Nick could inspire anyone/solve anyone’s problem before he started dating Jess? In “Menus”, it feels like a natural evolution of the character – and goddamn, if it isn’t a fantastic moment to watch.
As New Girl has proved with numerous characters (Winston, Schmidt, CeCe) introducing new directions can be a rough thing. But this is the way of the world: things are constantly changing, and that dissonance is naturally going to cause some friction – be it a comedy or real life. We may not all smooth things out as well as New Girl often does, but “Menus” gives its characters, itself, and us all some important lessons about not giving up on challenging new directions: there might just be a hot dog hat waiting for us as an award at the end (and at the end of the day, isn’t that the goal in life?).
– if it wasn’t clear already, this was one of my favorite episodes in the series.
– little worried about how quickly Coach has stepped in front of Winston and CeCe in terms of narrative importance, to the point where they make it the butt of numerous jokes in the episode (Winston trying to prove he’s as strong/interesting as Coach, CeCe showing up to look hot and literally get paid).
– Outside Dave imparts some knowledge: “People grow up, especially young people.”
– “Those jeans are so tiny… he looks like something some Italian whittled.”
– Nick: “Abs? I just thought God didn’t give me those.”
– SUNY Binghamton shout out!
– Winston’s burns are getting better, aren’t they?