“Menus” could’ve been New Girl‘s most depressing episode this season. It covers a lot of uncomfortable grown-up scenarios: attempting to assert control and importance in shifting social circles, trying to help someone out of a downward spiral, and looking for truth in the aspirational, yet increasingly unrealistic slogans of childhood. And somehow, the writers keep this episode from sinking too far into the dark, thanks to its lighthearted nature and some side-splitting writing. Maybe my laughter was nervous because of how real this episode started to feel, but “Menus” is super funny in the midst of its characters’ sad trudge through adulthood.
Jess is distraught after a superior tells her a field trip she’s been planning isn’t possible, so she attempts to compensate for her resulting feelings of powerlessness by picking up a worthless cause. After noticing an abundance of Chinese food menus under the door of the apartment, Jess drives to the restaurant and tells them how much paper they’re wasting. The manager puts up a fight, so Jess spends an excessive amount of time trying to find leverage in order to make her case. We know environmentalism isn’t the real reason for Jess’ frustration, but I can’t think of a more apt, timely metaphor for lack of control. Sure, you can recycle a takeout menu or use a tote bag at the grocery store, but will that really make a dent in the Pacific Garbage Patch? Moreover, Jess’ disappointed students are starting to question if she was telling the truth when she told them anything was possible. That’s usually a thing you just tell children, but Jess has always seemed to really believe it, and such a small obstruction makes her doubt whether or not she can actually bring about change.
The source of Jess’ pile of menus is Nick, who insists on eating takeout for breakfast. Coach notices his friend is out of shape and decides to become his personal trainer. Last week, Coach’s heartbreak made him the subject of his friends’ concern, so he can’t get too high and mighty when the tables are turned. He doesn’t, but I couldn’t help but think Coach has absolutely no business in intervening, but maybe that’s what a good friend does after noticing a mountain of takeout boxes in the apartment. I know people with way weirder and more worrisome eating habits, so I sat and wondered how weird this situation really was, but let us not forget these guys are now in their thirties. Once you reach that number, an abundance of Chinese food and strip club visits can start to look especially sad, and perhaps Coach sees his sorry state from last week reflected in his friend.
It’s this kind of reflection that brings Nick to action and ultimately keeps “Menus” buoyant. After Nick refuses to let Coach train him, Coach wonders if his name might actually be a misnomer. Meanwhile, Jess’ thinly veiled concern for the environment ended up costing an innocent man his job, so she and Coach follow Nick’s example by burying themselves in Chinese food. In a nice parody of the inspirational speech trope, Nick gives Jess and Coach a super-weak pep talk that somehow manages to psych them out of their sadness. A few short compliments are rarely enough to get most people out of mental holes, but Jess and Coach are incredibly light spirits. It’s hard to imagine either of them feeling discouraged for too long, and the fact that they can bounce back so quickly might actually be what finally gets Nick off his ass.
Everyone’s in a better place by the end of “Menus,” except, of course, for Winston. This week, crazy Winston finds a wheelchair in the street and suffers an allergic reaction to MSG! But somehow, it didn’t necessarily feel like the writers were giving Winston hell out of sheer cluelessness, as it often does. Winston is clearly also suffering from feelings of impotence, particularly in his social crowd. He’s never been, by any means, a queen bee, but the return of Coach has opened up old wounds for Winston, and they’re becoming a little more pronounced with every week. The presence of a big jock like Coach turns Winston into more of a laughing stock than before, and it’s ironically this emphasis of his haplessness that’s making him seem like an increasingly more well-defined character.
Damon Wayans, Jr. will officially be staying on for the rest of the season, so tensions are sure to escalate. Coach’s presence is interesting in more ways than one — it’s a nice break from the “one black friend” casting scenario that’s so popular in current sitcoms, and it brings the show back to its original analysis of how much one person’s presence can shift social paradigms. We can’t know what it felt like to be friends with Nick, Schmidt, Coach, or Winston before Jess moved in, but Wayans, Jr.’s accidental return gives writers a good reason to show us how much has changed between these old friends.
“Menus” is a lot lighter than it could be, but for all the dark territory New Girl often covers, this is still comfort television, and the end of any episode is far more likely to be reassuring than disturbing. Maybe it isn’t realistic that everyone seems happy and comfortable by the end of the episode, but it’s an admirably healthy resolution. Sure, we’re absolutely powerless in the grand scheme of things, but if we thought about that all day, we’d get nothing done. The tidy endings of sitcoms may not feel challenging, but they still have an important purpose: to act as some kind of proof that messy, goodhearted people, can pick themselves up. Who’s to say the rest of us can’t?