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!
TO ECHO PHIL, I am so very chuffed to be talking television with you on the LARB. While I’ve adored our prior discussions on Girls and Louie, it does seem more than appropriate to begin this season with adorkability — for what else marks the early years of television but exactly that? Phil, I loved reading your first impressions of New Girl, especially since nearly every fan of the show I’ve met also began as a skeptic. Once New Girl “found its voice,” “picking up speed” around mid-season, it started delivering the emotional goods. Such phrases have been used to describe the arc of shows now deemed inarguably solid (The Office and Parks and Recreation, for instance, were both seen as having slow starts), which is why I caution those irritated by The Mindy Project pilot to give it another month, at least. No one should judge serial television by one episode.
For New Girl, the start of season one might have felt like a cloying embrace of the cotton-loving, banjo-playing, tights-wearing ingénue everybody loved to deride. Sure, Zooey Deschanel might have been darling in Elf, but by 500 Days of Summer, she was most categorically a tired rehash of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Only after continued viewing did most viewers begin to see New Girl as not a continuation — but as an expansion, complication, and sometimes even a mocking — of Deschanel’s doe-eyed persona. From this perspective, Jess’s inability to say the word “penis” could even be a knowing nod to Summer and Tom’s penis-shouting antics from Webb’s film. What’s more, while New Girl toys with MPDG expectations, it nonetheless displays Jess as ever evolving. This is adorkability, post-Lucy. Jess couldn’t even utter “penis” in season one, episode four, but by season two, she can relieve the itch in Schmidt’s shower diaper without batting an eyelid.
New Girl grew over time in the most delightful and rewarding ways, and I have faith that The Mindy Project can too. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the pilot; it’s just that I’ve already seen an unfounded amount of criticism against it, and want to ask viewers to be as generous with Mindy as they have been with Jess, even if retroactively.
A feature of television that plays with pre-established tropes is how play opens space for surprise. As Kaling writes in a piece for The New Yorker: “I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world.” New Girl toys with quirky dream girls, while Mindy Project announces from its first scene its debt to romantic comedies. Quite literally: the opening shot zooms away from an initial frame that exactly borders a television screen playing When Harry Met Sally, which then pans away to young Mindy’s face. For that first moment, we might even be seeing the film as screened in a theatre — but no, it’s playing on TV. And therein lies the difference. If one premise of Mindy Project is what happens to the rom-com movie when transferred to the medium of television — with all its attendant sit-com formulas — then I am more than game.
Phil’s discussion of generational comedies is an enormously productive way of viewing New Girl and The Mindy Project, and not just because of the pop culture references. What strikes me now as television criticism really comes into its own (online and off), is how television’s ubiquity and portability marks this wealth of intelligent criticism as of a particular technological generation. How many times do you visit a theatre to rewatch a film? How many times can you rewatch a film on your television? For little Mindy to have all the lines of When Harry Met Sally lovingly nestled into her brain? More than a few. So, the opening sequence shows Mindy watching various rom-com films — all of them on televisions.
Television’s creeping takeover is nowhere more pronounced than in Mindy’s toast at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, where she makes the following quip:
Like how Tom will always cover his ears and go “aaaah” if you start talking about an episode of TV that he hasn’t seen yet. God forbid you give away the ending to Downton Abbey.
Whereupon Danny (Chris Messina) grumbles from the audience: “What the hell is this show and why does everybody keep talking about it?” Afterwards, in the same speech, Mindy queries: “Am I the only person here who saw Angelina Jolie’s movie?” The implication here is that spoiling Downton Abbey, a TV drama, is less consequential than ruining the ending of, say, When Harry Met Sally. (Which, by the way, happens at the end of the pilot.) At the same time, more people might be watching Downton Abbey than In the Land of Blood and Honey.
A generational comedy of 30-somethings in 2012 rarely fails to poke fun at the extended adolescence of 30-somethings in 2012. Mindy can no longer “have what she’s having,” since she’s arrived at that particular meal too late. Instead, she possesses only the blueprints of a marriage plot that no longer fits her life and times. Unlike Sally, Mindy can’t peek at the final pages of novels and expect to end there when reading them in earnest. “You have an idea of how your life is going to turn out,” goes the opening line of Mindy Project — and I suspect that both Mindy’s life, as well as her television show, will be forced to negotiate a few more turns before it ties any sort of knot at all. If it means sometimes finding a hole where you expected a shortcut, well, at least you’ll encounter a mean hot Barbie instead of just a hot one.
Jess, too, is being thrown off the grid at the start of season two. Sitting in the school hallway, newly unemployed, she gets told an expected formula of narrative development. “This is the moment before something amazing is going to happen for you,” says Cece, “I know it.” Before this happens, though, there will be moments where Jess won’t even be able to plot herself on the arch toward amazing. Like Mindy, Jess might wish for, but not always get, “things that really move myself forward.” Development is accruement, generated over time, or, over a series of episodes.
At the end of The Mindy Project pilot, our heroine sits in the hospital break room with Danny as they watch the end of When Harry Met Sally. Before they get there, however, Danny switches the channel to a reality television show, Deadliest Catch. Mindy is as exasperated as someone who has just had a novel snatched from her hands just when nearing its final chapter. She derides Danny’s clear enthusiasm: “there are different episodes of this?” Yes, and if you watch closely enough, they are all slightly different, and they all add up.