A quarter of the way through New Girl’s second season, I ought to trust the show with topics like the one that gives “Menzies” its title and Jess-Winston storyline. I’ve stuck with the show through the rough spots, gained a respect for the principals and an appreciation for their unique interplay, and come to terms with the fact that if a group of people is going to make a funny, charming, primetime omelet on a weekly basis, they have to break some “Bad In Bed”s. I’ve come to look forward to each new episode of the show, and yet I have some weird trust issues with it. Tonight’s episode, for instance, brought with it fears of lame jokes about tampons and limp euphemisms like “that time of the month.” But it shouldn’t have, because the producers and writers have proven themselves—multiple times—to be above such material.
Maybe I feel this way because the show’s house style is to write stories that play chicken with its worst impulses—often vaulting over those impulses at the point of collision, reaching heights befitting a quality television show. Case in point: “Menzies” begins with Jess declaring that her PMS (later identified by Nick as “pre-menstrual something”) is adding more tension to the already tense process of finding a new teaching job. There’s talk about her heightened emotional state, and threats that she’s going to “kick the testicles clean off” her roommates—and thus the indication that this type of easy, Aunt Flo-driven conflict will dictate Zooey Deschanel’s contributions to the entire episode. Faith in the people behind New Girl should’ve dictated that it wouldn’t, but the evidence presented itself to the contrary. It appeared that “Menzies” would be a throwback to the low points of the first season, where Jess responds to an intimate, delicate issue in a uniquely “Jess” way that confounds, terrifies, and/or infuriates Nick, Schmidt, and Winston.
Of course, there’s a sleight of hand occurring in that cold open, with Jess providing a diversion from Winston’s sly admission that he’s feeling a little under the weather as well. The truth of the matter is that he’s having a rough go of it after breaking up with Shelby, but an unbalanced Jess presents to him the perfect cover. Under the guise of “sympathy PMS,” Winston can mope around the loft all day, call in sick from work, and pretend that it’s Jess’ “alpha female” aura that’s causing his temperamental spiral—not the end of a romantic relationship. The true cause of Winston’s funk is held to the end of “Menzies,” revealed in classic “I was just pretending the whole time” fashion, but the vulnerability it exposes in the character is so refreshing, it glides over the hoariness of Winston’s ruse (in abstract, not the sympathy PMS specifics) and the “female character acts crazy because ovaries” plot. The episode successfully avoids clichéd material, generating a worthwhile plotline shared by Deschanel and Lamorne Morris.
But even without this last-minute reveal, there’s a sense “Menzies” could have dipped its toes in some tired comedy waters and still emerged as an enjoyable half-hour. It’s right there in the scene that precedes Winston’s confession, where Jess, Nick, and Schmidt commemorate Jess’ full-time return to the workforce—and therefore the return of hot water to the loft, since Schmidt suspended the gas service “out of principle” when the once and future Ms. Day could no longer pay her share of the bill—by pogoing through the loft to the strains of House Of Pain. New Girl is so celebratory when it comes to these characters and their dynamics, there’d still be some joy in the theoretical episode I feared “Menzies” might become. In the real thing, the relief Winston and Nick find in inventing an affliction and water massage, respectively, overrides the squicky, unfunny subtext of emasculation and gay panic in the jokes. The jokes aren’t told at the character’s expense, spinning instead from all-too-human material for Lamorne Morris and all-too-Nick behavior for Jake Johnson. Not to keep harping on Johnson’s consistently excellent work this season, but he puts in a lot of Emmy-reel-worthy work during “Menzies,” vacillating between Nick’s own emotional poles of personal-breakthrough bliss and “irrationally angry 365 days a year.” It’s all the more impressive that his funniest scenes are played against a silent partner, a clever acknowledgment that if Nick stopped to listen to himself, he’d realize how ridiculous he sounds half the time.
Nick’s miniature journey of self-discovery fits well with the second seasons’s recurring themes of identity and self-fulfillment—just another sign “Menzies” will ignore the low-hanging fruit and stick to the type of character-based comedy at which New Girl excels. That’s present in Cece’s portion of the episode as well, as being told by Robby that she’s a “nice girl” causes her to question the entire cut-and-cutting persona she’s crafted for herself. Hannah Simone has to play it cool so often on this show that it’s fun to see her confidence shaken—that was present in “Models,” but she has a better grasp on playing a personality crisis here, to the point where there’s an invigorating ambiguity as to whether or not Cece manipulates Schmidt into kissing her, thereby confirming her “bad girl” bona fides. That scene lights a long fuse that’s hopefully connected to an episode late in the season, as Cece’s uncertainty is mirrored in Schmidt’s resigned (and hilariously understated) declaration of “I’m a monster.” On the surface, Schmidt’s talking about the about the Fifty Shades Of Grey spoof he’s entered into with guest star Carla Gugino—whose character is also pretending at something she’s not—but he could just as well be referring to the fissures he’s caused (intentionally and unintentionally) in Robby and Cece’s relationship. Putting the characters through these introspective motions every week could grow dull, but for the time being, they’re providing a wonderful emotional foundation for the riff-heavy digressions and slapstick setpieces.
And if I’m really as enthusiastic about episodes that deploy those devices as well as “Menzies” or “Fluffer” do, it should be a given that any episode of New Girl has the potential to do so, regardless of the vaguely taboo subjects it’s nominally about. After all, part of becoming engrossed in a show is learning to recognize its rhythms and understanding that, even if the first five minutes feint toward one direction, there’s a good chance the episode will build toward something much better by the time the end credits roll—or earlier, in the case of tonight’s first zippily edited, presumably improvised Nick Miller montage. These are the marks of a TV series excelling (or as Schmidt would say, “killing it”) within its groove, recognizing that it knows what works even when some of its actions say the opposite.
- Another name for the “List of New Girl alter egos” Wikipedia page: Moises Perdue, the name by which Schmidt asks to be identified in any autobiographical accounts of his tryst with Carla Gugino’s character. (There’s a bonus alter ego if you count Jess’ exclamation: “You don’t control my heat, Theodore P. Gasbags!”)
- Director Jason Woliner navigates the challenge of the water massage sequences admirably—but of course he does, having previously staged the greatest TV pratfall of this young decade.
- Please consider Zooey Deschanel weeping about a teacup-sized dog alongside Claire Danes in all surveys of 2012’s finest cry faces.
- I’m iffy on college-age flashbacks on this show, but I can’t get enough of Childhood Nick and his disgruntled-grandpa vernacular. Quotes the young Miller to two preteen lemonade sellers: “This is some watered-down nonsense! You’re some no good shysters!”
- Nick digs his new friend’s no-nonsense style: “I like your hat—I like how it’s not a team or a logo; it’s just blue.”
- The biggest laugh of the night is also the scariest provision of Schmidt’s non-disclosure agreement: “Guaranteed mercury poisoning?”
- The secret to Schmidt and Cece’s physical fitness? No moral qualms about anything: “We sold our qualms, and we used the profits to buy perfect bodies.”
- Credited writer Kim Rosenstock presents a new threat for everyday use: “If you don’t, I’m going to water massage you again!”
- Jess hears Schmidt’s pedantic notes on her drumroll, and turns the quibbling right back on him: “Cymbals are part of the drum kit!”