“Menus” is going to be a divisive one, because it’s an atypical episode of New Girl. For all its considerable charms, this has never been a show with a strict sense of storytelling. It’s a performance-driven show, it’s a character-based comedy, and story typically follows those two qualities. This episode has different priorities, and I can see that rubbing some viewers the wrong way. I can understand not liking “Menus,” though I’m of the opposite mind.
Like last season’s “Santa,” “Menus” employs an internal device that powers the episode’s main plot from beginning to middle to end. The loft is besieged by Chinese takeout menus, and while that tree-destroying nuisance prods a character beat out of each of the principals (including Schmidt, because they’re something else he’s missing out on), it’s also fueling every step toward Jess’ first major personal victory in a long while. Sure, it’s a bit of a hop, skip, and jump from “Jess clears out Hop Foo using Winston’s MSG allergy” to “Jess rents Hop Foo’s delivery vans to take her students on a field trip,” but I like that the show speeds through the explanation. The restaurant owed her one, and we’ve already seen multiple examples of why the restaurant owes her one, so the show doesn’t need to lead us to that conclusion.
The episode’s writers, Matt Fusfeld and Alex Cuthbertson, previously worked on Community, American Dad, and the late, lamented Ben And Kate. While staying true to the characters of New Girl during a potentially tricky transitional period, Fusfeld and Cuthbertson nail their first script for this show while borrowing a little bit of know-how from their previous gigs: You could probably trace Jess’ arc along one of Dan Harmon’s famed story circles. Lamorne Morris takes a few pratfalls that could’ve been animated by the American Dad team. And like Ben And Kate at its best, “Menus” speaks with the specificity of a real group of friends.
New Girl almost always exhibits that last quality, but it’s particularly on-point in “Menus.” Schmidt mishearing “Nick’s in jeans” as “Nixon jeans,” Jess describing the “no” symbol in Ghostbusters terms—that’s some authentic weirdness that doesn’t strain to be funny. In that way, the show once more calls back to Happy Endings, which is good because Damon Wayans Jr. is around (for the remainder of season three) to help deliver the joke-by-joke funniest New Girl since “Quick-Hardening Caulk.” And the humor hits on so many levels: There are a ton of solid visual and physical gags in “Menus,” too, like Winston’s big ice cream fall (still goes for the lick while he’s going down—he’s a committed one) and Wayans’ dumpling fight (“Oh, just working out”) with Jake Johnson. Who needs Ferguson when you’ve got a bagel with wings?
It’s a thrilling example of what the show can achieve with an expanded ensemble. The trick now is figuring out where Cece fits into this—though the show may just figure that out by making Coach try to fit Cece onto his dance card. Wayans slots back into the ensemble with such ease that his extended guest-star stay looks even more like a no-brainer. (Of course, that’ll only make the sting of his re-departure all the worse if Man/Child is picked up.) The crispness of his delivery (“PEANUTS stands for ‘Physical Education Activity Nuts!”) is properly attuned to the show’s tightening up.
It’ll be interesting to see how “Menus” and “Coach” are defined by the remainder of the third season. Are they a line in the sand? Are they a reset button? Are they just the show carrying on in the direction it plotted out when Nick and Jess failed to enter the apartment together? (Together together.) Right now, the episodes feel like someone dancing to a once-favored song they almost forgot. The show has to teach itself all of these things about writing for Coach and Wayans that it didn’t get to learn the first time around. And that adds a renewed sense of fun to the proceedings, because Coach wasn’t there to watch these people acknowledge how busted they are (or to see any of their efforts toward fixing/embracing those flaws.) He gets to be additionally dismayed at Schmidt’s spy cam or amused with Winston’s too-injured excuses. (A version of this plays out in Schmidt’s corner of “Menus,” where missing out on what his friends are up to only accelerates his weirdness.) It’s refreshing to see the show take on that challenge, rather than using it as an excuse to tell a bunch of lame “Oh, Coach, you should’ve been there” jokes.
Or, in the terms of the episode’s central metaphor: “Menus” succeeds because it doesn’t sink into the couch with a bin of takeout. Instead, it tries—and that trying pays off spectacularly. Ultimately, the menus are a red herring. They’re a catalyst of sorts, a rallying point for everyone in the loft, but the individual victories result from something the characters pulled from within themselves. Jess’ resourcefulness gets her the vans she needs to show her students that sharks aren’t web-spinning arachnids. Coach returns to training. And they each get back on their feet thanks to the latent motivation within Nick.
Fitting for that motivational speech (might Fusfeld and Cuthbertson’s presence be the source of all of the Winger speeches in these new New Girls?), the key line of “Menus” is a bit of sloganeering: “Are you a doer or a dumpling-er?” With “Menus,” New Girl demonstrates it’s a doer.
- Sorry, LOLFerguson—you’ve been replaced.
- Nick is comfortable with the strength afforded by his body type: “I’m old-fashioned, Coney Island fat strong.”
- Jess, who’s also a bit of a motivational speaker: “As long as hot dogs are hats, anything is possible.”
- Nick’s greeting for an ailing Winston suggests he’s been keeping up on Netflix: “What’s up, Jason Street!” Winston’s pride in the chair, however, suggests he’s not keeping up with the news: “IRONSIDE!”
- Life’s just unfair, isn’t it, Jess? “There are menus everywhere, and there are kids who wants to see the ocean…”