Sitcoms and second chances go hand in hand. So many of the greats begin with characters beginning again: Mary Richards moves to Minneapolis and secures a job at a local TV station through sheer force of spunk. Diane Chambers is left behind by her fiancé in a subterranean Boston bar and decides to stop waiting (for him) and start waiting (on tables). Rachel Green flees her own wedding and discovers a flotilla of New York friends who’ll be there for her (for 236 episodes).

The touchier-feelier school of sitcoms of the past decade have taken this sense to (big, mushy) heart. Michael Scott gets his redemption story; every day at Greendale Community College is another chance to correct past mistakes—and to make new ones. That’s the thing about making a comedy about somebody’s second chance: It sets up the expectation that they’ll need a third, fourth, or fifth (or 88th, 89th, or 90th…) chance. New Girl opens with Jessica Day secure in her relationship status, her living situation, and her employment, but she loses the boyfriend and the apartment by the end of the pilot’s cold open, and she’s out of a job by season two. For most of New Girl’s run, its characters have had nowhere to go but up.

But the great thing about the show, and the great thing about “Walk Of Shame,” is that it never forces Jess and her friends to apologize for the way they are. They do embarrassing stuff all the time, but they’re never embarrassed. They suggest to one another that they should be embarrassed—as when Coach tells May his social circle is “not even really a circle, it’s more of a swirling mass of idiots”—but the overriding mood of “Walk Of Shame” is one of ownership. As its members each perform their own little walks of shame, the New Girl gang learns that they don’t have to feel that titular emotion if they don’t want to.

That’s the notion behind a lot of season four’s highlights, and it keeps the show going strong as the characters wander away from the safety of the loft this week. Like another contemporary classic of hangover comedy—30 Rock’s “Greenzo” (what, did you think I was going to say The Hangover?)—“Walk Of Shame” skips its night of debauchery to languish in the aftermath. What Jess and Cece did under the influence of salon-quality hair (“You know how it’s impossible to make your own hair look great?”) isn’t important, though details dribble out as the episode plays on. Jess spontaneously composed a musical with Bearclaw (a returning Josh Gad), Cece couldn’t stop calling the guy who’s not Bearclaw “Schmidt”—what really matters is that Jess, in her optimistic way, decides that no one is going to make her or Cece feel bad for whatever it was they did.

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With blasts from the past like Bearclaw and Justin Long’s Genzlinger, “Walk Of Shame” is, like last week’s “Spiderhunt,” keyed in to New Girl history. More importantly, it’s locked in on Jess in a way you might not expect from a series this far into its run. TV shows tend to (and often need to) expand their focus as they age, and doing so within its first handful of episodes was one of New Girl’s first signs of promise. But Jess is still at the center of this thing, and “Walk Of Shame” doesn’t let us forget that, giving the character a fun, funny story alongside her best friend—and, eventually, her music-teacher-turned-musical-clown ex-boyfriend. “Walk Of Shame” is a Jess-led companion piece to “The Crawl” (they even share a title convention: alcohol-fueled locomotion) and it demonstrates why Jess-and-Nick were a feasibly compatible couple: In their own weird way, they’re inspirational figures. At the very least, they’re inspirational figures to this swirling mass of idiots.

That’s a quality that’s been with Jess since the days when her only other defining trait was a bunny-eared iPhone case, and it grows more potent and poignant with time. It also faces greater stakes now that Jess is in a position of authority: She tries (and fails) to use her vice-principal status to intimidate the young girls she and Cece encounter outside of Bearclaw’s place, but there’s also a faint hint of epiphany in Zooey Deschanel’s voice during that declaration. She’s a vice principal, goddammit—she has no regrets, but should she be staying out late like this, doing the types of things that would give other people regrets? New Girl loses a sense of purpose if its characters head down a path where they need no second chances, so “Walk Of Shame” is just another step down the path to responsibility, a destination where the only hose you drink from is your own.

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If Jess and Cece’s “Walk Of Shame” storyline is about not apologizing for yourself, then the guys’ half of the episode is about not apologizing for the people you surround yourself with. Of the two storylines, this one is more bluntly stated: Nick and Winston realize that Coach didn’t invite them to May’s art-gallery performance because he didn’t want them embarrassing him. Turns out Coach is severely out of his league with May and her classical-music-loving clique, and it turns out New Girl isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to this Damon Wayans Jr. farewell tour. There’s genuinely meaty material for Coach in “Walk Of Shame,” in which he wrestles with his own inferiority complex while projecting the same upon two of his best friends. There arguably wasn’t enough room for this type of plot earlier in Wayans’ return engagement, but the pending departure of a cast member is a reliable source for urgent storytelling. Coach has never felt more like a part of the team—even when he’s renouncing his membership to that team. Getting a toothpick stuck in his leg can really put a guy’s priorities in order.

That toothpick is a good analogy for what everyone’s going through in “Walk Of Shame.” There are all of these fears being talked around—the fear of being spotted walking home from a guy’s house; the fear of not being good enough for your significant other—when the only real solution is to yank out the toothpick and face the fear head on. Sometimes that means running into an ex as he prepares for a weekend-afternoon gig as a party clown; sometimes that means finding out that your current girlfriend likes you so much, she learned how to play the Monday Night Football theme on her “standing up guitar” Embarrassment, humiliation, mortification, shame—they’re all about fear. With great confidence and purpose all its own, “Walk Of Shame” demonstrates that when you remove that fear from the equation, when you can confidently and without apology present your roommates with a hastily composed musical about woodland creatures, you can move past messing up and seize your second chance.

Stray observations:

  • “Who’s that girl?” This week in New Girl
  • pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames
  • : The phone number you have dialed may belong to Nick Miller, but the attached voice mailbox is property of Penis Wilson.
  • And after all that talk about second chances: One of “Walk Of Shame”’s most remarkable achievements is the rehab jobs it does on Bearclaw and Genzlinger, my two least-favorite New Girl guest characters. Gad’s creepy, mumbly stumbling is kept to a minimum, the real punchlines reserved for his Tony-nominated pipes. Meanwhile, Genzlinger, the horrible male counterpart to “adorkable” early-first-season Jess, is treated as the clown that he is. Boy was I ever upset to see Justin Long show up; boy was I ever happy to see how poorly things have gone for that character in the interim.
  • It took me this long to realize that Coach’s first name is probably Ernie because that was also the first name of the Cheers character whose nickname was also Coach.
  • Can Coach bring Nick and Winston to the art gallery? Allow me to answer that question with two questions: Did one of them just duct-tape his slipper back together? And doesn’t the other one know the name of the guy who died in the water-park accident?
  • The superbly edited litany of Winston’s various embarrassing qualities would be the episode’s strongest callback moment—if Winston didn’t later add to that list by bring “Shame, shame, I know your name” back into the mix.
  • Jess points out a crucial flaw of the “The Man [Upward Arrow] The Legend [Downward Arrow]” T-shirt: “Doesn’t that mean that he has no penis at all?”
  • Nod to “Walk Of Shame” muse/past New Girl guest Taylor Swift: Coach knew Nick and Winston were trouble when they walked into the art gallery: “They’re drinking at a normal pace, nothing’s stuck to them? What are they up to?”
  • Coach pumps gas while sitting on the hood of his car, but he has a pretty good reason for doing so: “I saw Isiah Thomas do it on a poster once and it was cool.”

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