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New Girl Recap: Of Fish and Men

NEW GIRL:  Nick (Jake Johnson) tries out his survival skills when the gang goes on a camping trip for Thanksgiving in the "Thanksgiving III" episode of NEW GIRL airing Tuesday, Nov. 26 (9:00-9:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  ©2013 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Adam Taylor/FOX

Another New Girl Thanksgiving down, another one disastrous. Nick, whose pride is wounded when Coach insults his Thanksgiving dinner invitation, drags the gang out to the woods where he spends a day charmingly imperiling their lives. He neglects to bring food, leads a fruitless hunting expedition, and poisons Jess with a fish he “caught.” If Nick were one of your real-life friends, you would never let him plan Thanksgiving for the whole group. He’d be the guy you’d leave in charge of napkins or beer. You’d convince him that he was an essential part of the process even though he’s basically an event-planning liability. How do I know? Because I am that guy. Yet, for some reason everyone agrees to go camping because that’s something you can do in Los Angeles in November.

Last week’s episode felt like a half hour of desperately trying to stop anything interesting from happening. (Not entirely fair. Cece and Coach’s date was full of fun and interesting twists.) This week, though, everything interesting happens. Nick takes desperate action to counteract Coach’s allegations he’s lost his edge. All the while, Schmidt and Coach compete for wilderness supremacy, and Cece bonds with Winston over their shared hatred for the outdoors, leading me to wonder if those two ever even talked to each other before.

Though much of the episode focuses on Nick’s failures as an outdoorsman, the most interesting moments come out when Schmidt’s alpha-male bravado bumps up against Coach’s actual aptitude for camping. Schmidt needs to be the best, but unfortunately, he can’t compete with Coach’s Boy Scout training. Schmidt may be book smart, but Coach is … tree smart? Trail smart? Whatever thing is analogous to street smart but for the forest. You get it.

Their conflict isn’t really about camping skills, though. It’s about Cece. Her date with Coach seemed like it went well from the look of their lengthy make-out session. (Why do we always say “session” for that? Are studio musicians involved?) But Schmidt takes a great deal of pleasure in the fact that Cece refused to come up to the loft with Coach. We’ve got ourselves a good, old-fashioned love triangle, folks. Except Cece has an easy, sympathetic chemistry with Winston. Could this triangle become some sort of … dare I say … quadrangle? And what kind of four-sided figure would it be? A square? A trapezoid? A rhombus? Oh, the sensuality of a rhombus with two vertices coming so close they could kiss while the other two splay off to the sides, lonely and dejected. Regardless, the shifting relationships set the stage for even more competition and conflict, which is fun and interesting to watch.

For a show with “girl” in the name, New Girl has a pretty serious obsession with masculinity. Every week, Nick, Coach, Winston, and Schmidt struggle with how to be men. It feels like a new generation of television character. Sitcom characters of the past have been wimps and weirdos, but they were, for the most part, assured of their own masculinity. And we also understood them to be men. Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was a man. We could tell because he used power tools and grunted and expressed only a kindergarten-level awareness of other people's emotional well-being. Norm Peterson was a man. He sat at a bar and drank beer and gave the waitress a hard time. Even Frasier Crane was a man. We knew that because he lived in a nice apartment and talked down to people. Ditto Ross Geller. Going back even further, Ralph Cramden was a man. Obviously. He was his family’s breadwinner and threatened domestic violence against his wife. You know … things men do, I guess.

Maybe it was just my age when I was watching these shows, but there never seemed to be this lingering fog of confusion before. What is a man? Am I a man? Should I be more of a man? Man, man, man? It could be that I was a child before and never picked up on this theme until recently. And maybe it’s not even as prevalent as I’m giving it credit for. This whole line of thinking may boil down to my own doubts about whether I am an adequate man. It seemed so much simpler on Home Improvement. Like someone just said to Tim Allen: “Your character has never heard of a clitoris.” Then, bingo. They had an entire series.

But for all those characters’ obvious machismo and bluster, they were not better men than New Girl’s male leads. They lived up to cultural standards of masculinity: stoicism, financial independence, self-assurance. But they lacked several of the qualities that their modern counterparts embody: reflection, conscientiousness, flexibility. Clearly, the New Girl gang has some flaws. They’re not perfect. But they’re no less men than their predecessors. Their weaknesses (lack of responsibility, lack of confidence, lack of conviction) are just the opposite apex of a pendulum swing.

So what actually makes a man a man? Is it the ability to rely on one’s Eagle Scout training to fashion a sling for an injured friend? Is it the quality of one’s hat? The desire to provide food for loved ones even if it means going to a dusty general store? The willingness to dive (“Headfirst! Why?”) into a bear trap to rescue your girlfriend?

No. Of course not. Being a good man is mostly just being a good human. (“That and a pair of testicles,” as Jeff Lebowski might say.) So it comprises hunting for food as well as admitting that maybe setting the aforementioned bear trap was a stupid idea. It’s starting a fire and also heeding sensible advice on how to woo a woman. It’s both a fine leather vest and the ability to accept you aren’t the best at something. Like real people, television characters are works in progress. Nick Miller is no further from functional adulthood than Archie Bunker was. He’s less poised and more broke, but he also is way less racist and more willing to try to better himself.

The big difference between men of the past and men of the present (as shown on television at least) isn’t that one set was good and the other is deficient. Contemporary characters are more willing to question how close they are to the masculinity they seek. They aren’t overconfident and aggressive, like boys. They’re easily wounded and defensive, like boys.

In comparison to the guys’ constant probing, Jess and Cece seem centered and confident. Cece has half a dozen(ish) roommates but seems to book a ton of modeling work. She doesn’t freak out when she finds herself camping with her ex and her … whatever Coach is, although it would totally make sense if she did. It seems like her biggest conflict is which of the roommates (if any) she wants to hook up with. It’s a buyer’s market for her, assuming she’s okay with buying slightly irregular goods.

Jess just wants togetherness for Thanksgiving. She’s willing to overlook all the posturing and orienteering. Just as everybody loved Raymond despite his grumpiness and lack of warmth, Jess loves Nick even though he is irresponsible and frenzied. (And of course, Nick’s forceful mania often complements Jess’s sweet-tempered idealism.) And even though Nick may not realize he’s a man, Jess sees it in him. In the hospital, where she lies because of his magnificent (but charismatic!) incompetence she tells him:

“You’re the man that I want.”

And that, right now, is good enough.

Photo: Adam Taylor/FOX