|Los Angeles Review of Books|
New Girl & The Mindy Project: Ep. 10 "Bathtub" / Ep. 8 "Two to One" by Jane Hu, Phillip Maciak and Dear Television
December 7th, 2012
This week on Dear Television:
Last week on Dear Television:
"The Business of Being Born"
Jane, I think that you’re on to something here, with your working theory of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. At the very least, you’ve pinpointed the fact that post-Fey (inclusive, at this time, of the fading Fey herself) sitcomradeship is as interested in carving out textured and occasionally progressive new female archetypes as it is in retro-fitting male archetypes to go along with them. Mindy can’t ultimately hook up with Kevin James, in other words, and Danny, JGL, Schmidt, even, and especially Girls’s Adam, are all very different dream boys custom built as foils for their ladies.
That said, as much as you’ve done to categorize and explain this figure, I think part of the problem of pinpointing it lies in how messily and inconsistently characterized these figures are when they appear onscreen. JGL is a baritone cipher, Danny vacillates wildly from sensitive Billy Joel loving man-child to puff-chested Tool Man Taylor, and Schmidt, well, I think somebody at New Girl lost all the Microsoft Word documents they use to keep consistent information on Schmidt. (Dropbox, guys, it’s easy.) This week’s episode saw a welcome return to form for the Schmidt-Cece dyad, and then an inexplicable foul-up based on Schmidt’s prioritization of work over Cece. There’s that old Schmidt the workaholic. Always climbing the corporate ladder, married to his job, a desk jockey, nothing is more important to Schmidt than… wait a second, this is a new character trait! New this week, and yet Cece greets drunken Schmidt at her door as though it’s the last straw. Honestly, if tomorrow there was a Hollywood Reporter story about how the New Girl writers’ room is controlled by the whims and petty jealousies of impetuous Greek gods, I would not be at all surprised. Then we could blame the travesty of this season on Hera being upset with Poseidon and using Elizabeth Meriwether to accomplish her vengeance or something.
[Before moving on, I just want to throw in a word for Ol’ Winston. First, his meager meth-head impression was cut to a tenth of a second so that we could get to hear Zooey D fully work out the Appalachian Emergency Room character she never got to play on SNL. And, what’s worse, in the absence of any kind of character development, they seem to just be running with this effeminacy angle, as Jane says. It’s a befuddling and troubling turn. Add this to the gay panic Winston gets to indulge in once a week now, and, well, I don’t know what to say anymore. Blame Mount Olympus.]
But let’s talk about Mindy. This was an episode that by no means reached the accomplishment of last week, but, at the very least, returned to the second-tier realm of Bold Idea/So-so Execution that the show has been paddling around in for the past month. I’ve talked before about the conceited grubbiness of many of the characters on The Mindy Project — their obsession with status and money and their seemingly clueless privilege — and the difficulty in coming to terms with an ensemble of essentially unlikable people. The charitable understanding is that, like Girls, Mindy is a critique of its own characters, yadda yadda yadda. The less charitable understanding is that this is just a sympathetic show about douchebags. This past episode has made me rethink this for a minute. Just a minute, though.
Mindy Kaling may be romantic comedy’s great moderate. Since its premiere we have had a hard time locating Mindy Project’s dominant ideology. First, it’s a dreamy bedazzled optimistic ball of hope undercut by cartoonish cruelty and the protagonist’s own worst angels. Or maybe it’s secretly a mean, cynical show whose characters play the role of hopeless romantics in a strategic or mercenary way. But, what Jane’s theory of the MPDB is making me think is that The Mindy Project is not interested in either of these positions. It’s obvious that any comedy series or film that portrays two bitterly opposed sides will end in either capitulation or synthesis (or synthesis that looks like capitulation or capitulation that looks like synthesis). And Mindy certainly seems like it’s heading down that road. But what’s unique is that the show seems actively interested in mercilessly going after both orientations in the service of a compromised, but rhetorically healthy, middle way.
Mindy the character vacillates so wildly between starry-eye and stink-eye because Mindy Kaling the writer is something of an arch-pragmatist. Let’s think about Josh, the man she parades in front of her teenage neighbor as the mature choice of a boyfriend. In order to hook up with Josh, Mindy neither had to convert grumpy grumperson Danny (as she might in a Pride and Prejudice style scenario) nor did she have to even out her own personality tics, as she would have to for the (allegedly) dreamy Ed Helms character. Mindy falls for the “yeah, okay” man rather than falling for the perfect man or the wrong man. Josh is a bit of a douche, but he’s palatable for the money, genuine interest, and status he brings to the table. The path of least resistance, the compromise candidate. Perhaps the problem we have in pinning down which side Mindy occupies lies in the idea that she is studiously avoiding them both.
And this leads me to what was the boldest and most possibly wrong-headed element of this week’s episode: the midwives. Jane, I agree, the Duplass brothers were a perfect choice to play these slimy holistic health nuts. Plus, there’s the contextual delight of seeing the standard-bearers of mumblecore facing down the standard-bearer of the rom-com. Funny Ha Ha vs. Funny Awwww. But, on the surface, this is not presented as a real contest. Mindy, Danny, Jeremy and all of our friends at Shulman and Associates are violently opposed to the “quackery” and fake doctorliness of the midwives. This is a real position to be had. Millions of people around the world feel that the concept of midwifery is New Age-y lunacy and that, in this day and age, it’s idiotic not to turn up the meds and type your Caesarian section into iCal. Now, it should be said, there are plenty of home-birth advocates who don’t feel that way. Ricki Lake (producer of The Business of Being Born) is one. Apparently Mark Duplass is another. Is it possible Mindy Kaling is one too?
I don’t mean here to pin down Mindy Kaling’s politics, but I do think that her show’s politics on this matter are a little more nuanced than they may appear. My evidence exists in one reference: Kelly Ripa. At least twice during the episode, Mindy deputizes Kelly Ripa as a supporter of Shulman and Associates’ Pre-Natal Care Center. The reference is played as a joke about Mindy’s celebrity crushing and about the silliness of citing a daytime talk show host as a supporter of a medical concept. But Kelly Ripa is not just a random celebrity name. Ripa is famously fit and petite, famously a mother of three, and, famously, a recipient of three c-sections. Also famously, she is one of the biggest names associated with what Time once cringingly called the “Too Posh to Push” movement in American birthing practice. In other words, fairly or unfairly, Kelly Ripa is associated with the trend of celebrity women scheduling c-sections in order to avoid the cosmetic consequences of a natural birth. And Mindy’s invocation of her as an advocate for Shulman and Associates, and any attendant implications of shady ethical behavior, cannot be accidental.
So, on paper, the show is slapping both sides. But does it feel that way? This is the continuing problem of The Mindy Project. The show builds in critique but doesn’t always activate it. (Though, to be fair, the Duplasses are scheduled for a few more appearances, so maybe Kelly Ripa is just a teaser of things to come.) And so, in this episode, we follow Mindy as she storms up to the midwives — like so many scenes of Josh or Sam righteously storming places in The West Wing — to stand up for the rights of the little guy in the face of the villainous fake doctors and their doulas. This dynamic is patently and intentionally absurd, but any irony here seems swallowed by the overwhelming request to empathize with and root for Dr. Mindy. The episode is on Mindy’s side, but I’m not sure the show is.
Jane, I feel like I often write to Dear TV advocating against subtlety, and I don’t want to do that. We are following the evolution of these shows, and of course also following their poor ratings, and it’s hard not to imagine that a little more auto-critique would go a long way. We have long had issues with Mindy’s ideology, but we watch the show closely enough to know that Kaling is building something far more ambivalent than it often seems. Not everyone is watching this series like a hawk, though. In fact, a lot of people who started watching at the premiere aren’t watching at all now. And, for better or worse, Kaling’s wink-based advocacy of the middle way often goes undetected. Witness the popular uproar against Girls’s sympathy for Hannah, a character that the show very very clearly critiques. How many people cited “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation” as a damning declaration of vanity? How easy is it for a demanding public to be so put-off by the trappings of a show as to miss its central jokes? I really do believe that Mindy has the same-level of self-consciousness, if not the same dramatic richness, that Girls has, but it has come nowhere near such a blatant statement, and it’s on network. If The Mindy Project is to survive, it will be on the strength of audiences that either like that she’s cynical or like that she’s romantic. It won’t, at this point, be because of a critical mass of people recognizing the show’s essential, or at least aspirational, humanism. To paraphrase Girls again, between Manic Pixie Dream Boys and douchebags, Mindy Lahiri is just trying to become who she is. The show is trying to do the same, and I don’t know how long audiences are going to wait.
Point: GUEST STAR-BASED TIE (Duplass and Munn)