OCTOBER 4, 2012
image: Mindy and Danny
Last week, on Dear Television:
- Post 1: “Groove is in the Heart,” from Phil Maciak
- Post 2: “A Serial Takeover,” from Jane Hu
- Post 3: “Party Girl vs. Rom-Com Girl,” from Lili Loofbourow
“Romney-Dad: Conservatives in Comedy”
THE THING ABOUT NEW GIRL is that I keep backsliding and thinking it’s just an updated version of Friends. For you, Jane, Seinfeld is the first relevant starting point, and so I’m going to collide our worlds and say that the show is an amalgam of both: the roommatehood of the one combines with the three guys to one girl ratio of the other. At my grouchiest, though, I feel that the actors are too glossy for Seinfeld — a point the show itself made last week when CeCe was dating a “Normal” — and nobody is actually weird. There are no Kramers or Costanzas. New Girl is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves where the dwarves have been attenuated: Nick is Slightly Grumpy, Schmidt is Slightly Dopey, and Winston is Kinda Doc.
I keep wanting to write the show off, is what I’m saying. Last week, when Jess left Schmidt’s party and Nick knew that she went to the school and went and found her, I was sitting on my couch going THERE IS NO SCENARIO IN WHICH THOSE TWO CHARACTERS SITTING ON THE HOOD OF THE CAR DO NOT MAKE OUT. NONE. Jane, you’re right to worry about Jess and Nick dating — no show survives that unless it’s willing to pull the Sam and Diane, and New Girl won’t go that bleak — but my feeling about that scene was that they did go there and then pulled out, so to speak, for the simple reason that they know the makeout’s a bad strategy. They’ve stopped writing the characters realistically, I thought. They’re too afraid of collapsing into convention. Instead of a makeout, a fakeout. TIMID STORYTELLING.
But then the show does something pretty smart: it labels its own strategy as Emotional Fluffing. I’m not sold on the concept, and the show doesn’t do much with it (yet?), but at least it calls out the fact that last week a line was crossed. (Thanks for saying that, Winston.) I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to understand Nick’s speech at the end — in which he says he’ll build a dresser if he damn well wants to, roles be damned — as a rejection of Fluffing or as a denial of his True Feelings. I’m hoping for the former.
More interesting, to me, is New Girl’s imaginative investment in the worlds it leaves outside — specifically, family, and even more specifically, the possibility that being a Romney would be awesome. Schmidt turns Winston and Nick’s line that he looks like a Romney into a cynical strategy that he accidentally invests with his sincere feelings about being abandoned by his father. (Boy, the line about being the weirdo with his mom explains so much about Schmidt.) Of course he wants to be Kanye’s best friend and Romney’s son. Of course. Jane, you talked about the worlds that are allowed into sitcom-land. It occurred to me that the world that offers the most context and which is most routinely excluded in the modern sitcom is family. Do we know anything about Jess’s family? I don’t think we do (though it seems we may soon).
New Girl’s peculiarity is that its B story is almost always more interesting than its A story. Here, in the middle of an ugly electoral season, the show pauses to dwell on Romney’s possibilities as the ideal father, and it’s brilliant. Romney would be a perfect sitcom dad — if sitcoms still had dads. He’s a weirdo in ways that I would find completely charming if he weren’t a presidential candidate. The trees are just the right height? Look at those beautiful clouds? These are quintessentially dadly pronouncements.
This vision of Romney constitutes a kind of time travel in its own right, both in terms of the sitcom’s history and our own very recent past: “Fluffer” was written and produced at a different point in the campaign season. Just as Nick has conversations with his past self about Carol and with his future self about Jess, so too is this moment in New Girl a snapshot of the possible storylines Mitt Romney the character (because we’re really admitting Romney the Candidate is as scripted as any sitcom dad — this is precisely his trouble) once had. Lots of those potential storylines are gone, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t once appealing (and for many, they probably still are). Schmidt defends his fantasy Romney: “When I think of a dad like that, I’m proud not only of the Romney name but of this country,” he says. “God bless Mitt Romney. God bless America.”
That the conservative women aren’t having it — that they’re intelligent enough to detect the fraud and nail him on it — testifies to the show’s commitment both to the sitcom formula and to complicating that formula beyond our expectation. The show could have scored some cheap political points by making the Romney fans stupid, but it opted to do something more interesting instead. “Those are just facts you got off the internet,” they say to Schmidt. This line really encapsulates New Girl’s generosity. This is a sentiment we’ve heard many a TV conservative voice, in just this tone of irate dismissal. But in New Girl, they’re right! It’s one of a very few contexts where that sentence makes sense, and where the gotcha! tone is warranted.
What I’m getting at is this: one strength New Girl and The Mindy Project share is that conservatives are allowed back into the sitcom as more than simple caricatures. This is even more true in The Mindy Project than in New Girl; Kaling’s politics are apparently right of center, and this is all to the good. Stories, comedic or otherwise, benefit from a broad spectrum.
That brings me back to your point about Colliding Worlds, Jane, because we learn in “Hiring and Firing” that Danny considers Mindy an intrusion on his and Dr. Shulman’s White Man Office World and resents it. He sulks over Mindy calling a meeting, he sulks when she offers to replace Beverly, and when Dr. Shulman finds him grumpily “working on [his] chords” on his keyboard, Danny makes it clear that he resents, not just that Mindy was hired, and not just that he and Dr. Shulman aren’t alone anymore, but that she now has power. It’s an astonishing display of male privilege, and it’s an amazing thing to see on television.
“Danny, you know it’s not just you and me anymore. We decided to expand. You need to accept that,” says Dr. Shulman.
“Remember when Mindy’s office was used for storage?”
“Yes, and you adapted, and now you’re fine.”
“Fine for now, but, now she’s in charge of the hiring. Before long, Mindy hires another Mindy, that Mindy hires two more Mindys, and yap, yap, yap yap yap, and where do I put my bike?”
This scene is huge. It stages the real resentment men must have felt, and still feel, when women come into the workplace and then get power to bring more women in. Naked privilege onstage!
Even more grave, though it’s played for laughs, is the fact that Danny wants to hire people based on his “gut feeling” without looking at their resumes or qualifications. “Gut” is just another word for “prejudice,” and it’s exactly what leads to things like the now-infamous study showing serious gender bias in scientists, who rated the identical CV much more highly when a male name was attached to it. Kaling stages the fact that women are seen as intrinsically unserious, even and especially when they’re the ones firing the bad employees and hiring the new ones. In Danny’s view, it’s acceptable to play the keyboard in your office and wish you had an office to store your bike in and hire based on nothing, but “yapping” is unforgivable frivolity. He’s sexism incarnate, and yet the show obviously wants us to consider him a potential romantic lead. And it wants us to think of Mindy as a potential romantic lead despite her dislike of nonwhite, uninsured patients. And it’s not excusing any of it — it’s actually taking the trouble to spell all this unpleasantness out in agonizing detail. That’s interesting. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s interesting.
Yap, yap, yadda yadda yap,