image: New Girl, FOX
Dear Television is Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. We will be writing epistolary criticism about TV. If Clarissa Harlowe were writing about Girls — and she kind of is, isn’t she? — this is what that would be like. Abridged. This season, we'll be corresponding about FOX's New Girl and The Mindy Project from our new home at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Join us in the comments section!
FIRST OFF, I'M SO GLAD to be writing about these shows with you on the LARB. If there’s one thing that’s been missing from the review so far, it’s adorkability. So, done and done. Second, I want to begin with a disclaimer: when New Girl debuted last year, I was not a fan. For the first couple of episodes, the show felt to me like a half-hour long amateur improv skit performed by the emotionally disturbed. It was a twee Marat/Sade, costumed by Anthropologie. Worse, however, was that, in the midst of the much-ballyhooed “Year of Women in Comedy,” here was a show about a 30-year-old woman who literally can’t say the word “penis” for an entire episode.
That episode, “Naked,” was a low point, I thought, but as the actors grew more comfortable with their roles and, apparently, the writers grew more comfortable with their actors, New Girl began to feel less precious and more lived-in. The whiffed sex comedy of “Naked” was revisited and vastly improved upon five episodes later with “Bad in Bed,” and, a few episodes after that, with the spectacular “Jess and Julia,” New Girl even managed to offer a super-convincing meta-argument for its ethnography of Dork-Americans. By the time Nick (Jake Johnson) had his cancer scare at mid-season, New Girl had not only outgrown its jumpers, it was one of the most humane, funny, and legitimately emotional shows on TV.
All of this is to say that, last night, I think we saw a show that long ago found its footing deliver two really solid episodes — the second of which, “Katie,” should be considered Part Three of New Girl’s Zooey D sex farce trilogy. What we also saw last night was the debut of Mindy Kaling’s long-awaited The Mindy Project. If New Girl is a show with a lot of heart that’s gotten into a groove, Mindy Project is a show still looking for its place. My friend Monika and I were talking about the show earlier today, and we decided that the pilot felt a lot like a good college admissions essay: super-tight, clear voice, well-defined thesis and themes, plenty of poignant self-analysis, copy-edited and structured to within an inch of its life. Last night’s episode was very funny and compelling, but it felt like Kaling in applicant mode, charmingly narrating her journey to The Person You See Before You Today. For now, the show is all about Kaling’s qualifications and the show’s perfectly-executed concept. We’ll see what happens to The Mindy Project after a few weeks of dorm life on the FOX network.
But, aside from these judgments, we should talk about why we should be talking about these two shows together at all. First, there’s the fact that FOX has explicitly paired the two as a kind of kooky-ladies-looking-for-love block on Tuesday nights. Then, there’s the idea that these are two shows about strong single women who love their jobs written by two strong women who love their jobs. There’s the idea that Mindy Kaling might could be a younger, Indian-American Tina Fey for FOX. Then, there’s the question of how major networks are trying to distill and re-bottle the success of HBO’s Girls in prime time. And there’s race, and there’s the auteur theory, and there’s the ascendance of the FOX network as Quirk Central, but I want to focus our attention this week on something more generic that both these shows share.
Both New Girl and The Mindy Project are generational comedies. Specifically, they are generational comedies about single, early thirtysomethings living in coastal cities. Last night, we had on-the-fly references to crypto-Christian hard rock band Creed, Spike Lee’s He Got Game soundtrack, Shawshank, food blogging, ironic(?) hipster racism, OKCupid, slap bracelets, AutoCorrect sexting SNAFU’s, compulsive brunching, artisanal Old-Fashioneds, Occupy fatigue, fake vegetarianism, Springsteen v. Mellencamp, Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks as the archetypal couple, not one but two a cappella performances of Deee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart,” and this conversation between Nick and Jess:
Jess: When I was a kid, watching MTV, I thought that if I played my cards right, I could grow up to be Jenny McCarthy.
Nick: Jenny McCarthy? You?
Jess: Don’t make that face. She was so beautiful, with all that swearing. But you know what, I’m not Jenny McCarthy. I know that now. I’m back on the grid, Nick.
Nick: You know, I always wanted to be Kurt Loder.
Jess: Kurt Loder? He never even went to the Spring Break house. He was always stuck in New York, talking to Pearl Jam.
Nick: He is the elder statesman of our generation.
If the viewer does not have the mental archive of Liz Meriwether, or rather, the mental archive of a TV-addicted, post Generation X, pre millennial suburbanite, this exchange might read as total nonsense. If, however, you are possessed of that mental archive, this is a hilarious and really deeply revelatory moment. For people of a certain age, Singled Out-era Jenny McCarthy likely means something very specific. So would Kurt Loder, and so would snap bracelets. Like Portlandia, Happy Endings, and, for a slightly younger cohort, Girls, these shows are as much about the lived experiences of a particular generation as they are about the pop cultural and media history of that generation. They’re not only situation comedies in terms of the kooky scrapes Mindy and Jess find themselves in; they’re situated comedies in the sense that they’re about these characters’ situatedness in their cultures.
So how did these episodes last night play for you as examples of either situation or situated comedy? Does the Jenny McCarthy codex put up a wall to viewers outside a particular demographic, or does it create a more richly-sedimented foundation for that character? And what about all the drunkenness in all three episodes? Comic drunks are as old as comedy itself, but was there anything generationally-specific about the way that Jess, Mindy, and Winston got tanked this week? Finally, is it possible for Parker Posey to accumulate enough scene-stealing cameos this year that she receives all six nominations for the 2013 Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy? Let’s do this, Posey!
Your succotash wish,