|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Dear TV: 'New Girl' and 'The Mindy Project'; Week 3, Post 1 by Lili Loofbourow and Dear Television
October 11th, 2012
Last Week on Dear Television:
"Of In-Groups and Out-Groups"
SCHMIDT BELLOWED WHEN JESS started her Frasier Crane imitation. A line had been crossed. I knew then that we were about to get some amazing material for our discussion of generational comedy. Is Schmidt a modern-day Frasier? Not quite, I think, but his outburst hints at some slightly foppish commonality between the two. Jane, Phil, I can’t wait to hear what you guys thought. Me, I was so disturbed by Deschanel’s pitch-perfect Urkel impression (and by how grotesque Stephanie Tanner’s “How rude!” looked on a grown woman) that I kind of blacked out on nuance. The Urkel imitation is doing worrying but potentially interesting things with race and comedy (as is The Mindy Project, with Mindy’s uncomfortable theory about black men). It’s telling that both shows step back from the risks they take: Deschanel acknowledges her comedic debt to Urkel when she introduces the hula-hooping polyamorists to an “adorable African-American” character, thereby sort of apologizing for whatever appropriation. And Mindy’s theory of race is completely wrong — it’s the white guy who’s into her.
This week, I ended up fixating on how The Mindy Project and New Girl dealt with in-groups and out-groups. In both cases the protagonist made it in — Jess bonded with Brory et al and Mindy made it to the VIP — while other characters who consider themselves high-status winners looked on forlornly. Another way of putting it is that both episodes were about locking out the smooth operators who work the system by “crushing it” (Schmidt) or by cultivating Carlo (Shauna), and showering our protagonists in accidental social success. (Okay, Schmidt isn’t a smooth operator, but he is relentless, and his relentlessness pays off sometimes. The point is that both he and Shauna are, in their way, very hard workers.)
In both cases, the protagonists end up choosing their original in-group over the more desirable out-group, but both episodes stage the seduction of wanting badly to belong, even as you understand that your winning has nothing to do with your own merit. Mindy’s theory about black men and Indian girls doesn’t apply, even though she gets to hang out with a bunch of gorgeous mega-talented black men and quiz them on romantic comedies. Jess’s imitations of eighties sitcoms are only working because the young ‘uns have never seen them. Both women are being read in a way they didn’t quite expect, both start accepting the social capital that accrues as a result, but neither is ultimately in it for the long haul.
Did you guys buy Brory and Fife’s obliviousness, by the way? I thought New Girl was uncharacteristically ungenerous to the neighbors. The polyamory joke felt descriptive and right, but the dishwasher joke? The laundry joke? Those felt like Winston-league pranks, clobbering millennials in the face with a ski.
Still, that brings me to New Girl’s thesis of the pranking “sweet spot,” which I loved (and which I lack). This B story was, as usual, my favorite part of the episode, delving as it does into the question of effort. What do you care about, what do you work towards, and why? Nick’s intense work ethic when it comes to pranking Schmidt matches Schmidt’s mega-effortful personality (which is sort of beautifully symbolized by the “brightly-colored sweater” he wants to see Jess wearing). It’s heartbreaking to see Nick putting all that work into a system only Schmidt buys into, just as it’s heartbreaking to watch Schmidt compete in a social scene that runs on lack of effort. It’s heartbreaking to see Jess succeed with the quinoa crowd, since she’s also about sincere enthusiasm and effort, and it’s heartbreaking to watch Winston actually try.
But Winston, you guys. Winston is getting left behind. Whatever breakthrough-plus-parody-of-a-breakthrough his speech was supposed to be fell flat. As, of course, did his speech, which won him a three-hour talk show in the middle of the night. If that isn’t an unfortunate metaphor for Winston’s role in New Girl, I don’t know what is. It’s a little weird to conjure up one underused African-American actor when you’re underusing the one in your cast. Then again, maybe that’s the point: if Schmidt is our generation’s Frasier, maybe Winston is our Urkel? Frasier’s urbanity was repackaged as whale-belted and be-muscled, whereas Urkel’s overbroad, well-intentioned awkwardness got rebranded as a quiet but slightly insane lack of common sense?
I hope the show finds its sweet spot with Winston, because I feel like he’s fading into a joke accessory — he’s the guy whose weirdness only lasts one episode: he likes fruity drinks! He doesn’t get pranks! He wears a peacock earring!
While we’re on the subject of zany, can we talk about Morgan in The Mindy Project? I worried about Morgan in this episode when he showed up at the club with the duffel bag full of supplies, because he was sailing awfully close to Schrute Farms. But it’s fine: Morgan’s handsy goodheartedness distinguishes him from Dwight the Rampant Randian. I love him. That said, I appreciate that his warmth is only intermittently competent. In particular, I loved that the triumphant moment when he shoved his earnings into the waitress’ hands didn’t come off, and that he doesn’t see it fail. That shot of the waitress waving his tips yelling “this is thirty-seven dollars!” would have been the payoff in a typical sitcom, and we could all laugh at Ransom/Morgan’s faux-success and at the hapless waitress. Instead, we see Mindy bankroll that little social victory without calling any attention to it — she’s alert to the needs of people around her, even when she chooses to ignore them. Mindy’s redeeming features live there, I think — in the moments of quiet do-goodery that underwrite her loud and sometimes selfish demands. It’s skillfully done.
I poured a little dust outside your car,