OCTOBER 5, 2012
image: Whale belt
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
- Post 1: “When Worlds Collide,” from Jane Hu
- Post 2: “Romney-Dad: Conservatives in Comedy,” from Lili Loofbourow
“Moby-Nick, or The Whale Belt”
FIRST OF ALL, I’m glad that our little column here has become a hotbed of political argument in these, the last few weeks of the election. Are we the October Surprise?
If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal.
Jess and Nick. 47% of me feels that this relationship must never be consummated. Another 47% of me feels that these two are meant to be together. But it’s not my job to worry about that. It’s my job to worry about the part of me that’s undecided, especially because I think it reflects the particularly sticky wicket that Elizabeth Meriwether, Brett Baer, and Dave Finkel find themselves in as the showrunners of New Girl. I don’t think that we can underestimate the degree to which Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, and Lamorne Morris have collaboratively built this show with their writers. What began as a fairly low-functioning conceit grew a staggering amount of soul over the course of the first season, in large part because these four inventive actors created characters worth caring about and established a group dynamic that could maintain integrity despite prolonged contact with Justin Long.
The flipside of this boon is that Zooey D and Jake Johnson have kind of performed the showrunners into a corner with the Jess/Nick relationship. I agree with Jane about how formulaic the show is at its heart, but, at the same time, I’m not totally convinced that Jess/Nick were originally meant as an inevitable thing. Or, if they were, that their friendship wouldn’t ultimately prove to be the stronger connection — a la Jerry and Elaine, much of whose romantic relationship happened offscreen. However, Deschanel and Johnson have the craziest chemistry on TV right now — contrast this to the bloodless arranged marriage of Kaling and Messina — and, rather than working through this issue Seinfeld-style, these two are now at serious risk of Ross-and-Racheling. Lili, you’re right, it’s impossible for Jess and Nick to have sat on that car hood and not hooked up. That said, it also seems impossible that they could just hook up. The problem is that Jess and Nick are not just inevitable, they play as soulmates, and it frankly makes me hurt a little inside that they’re not together in real life.
Obviously, that’s a little hyperbolic, but the detente they reached on the show through the acknowledgment of “emotional fluffing” felt a lot like bargaining with the audience. “Buy in to this vague, implausible stalling tactic for a season, and we’ll get them in the sack eventually.” “Fluffer,” as a kind of summit meeting about the state of this relationship, was a canny piece of writing, but I’m not sure it plugged the holes it sought out to plug. This is at least partly due to the fact that these writers cannot, and should not, stop writing to their actors’ strengths. Some of the best scenes on New Girl this season and last, for instance, have been the epic shouting matches that go down between Jess and Nick. Deschanel and Johnson play these scenes with spectacular ease and real emotion — it would be stupid not to write more interactions like this. But the more times Jess and Nick scream at each other about the status of their relationship, the more that viewers like Mindy Kaling are going to think about Billy Crystal yelling at Meg Ryan or Cher yelling at Nicolas Cage, and the more we are all going to expect them to kiss at the end and feel awkwardly disappointed when they don’t.
It’s an interesting structural problem for a show that seems chastely and sincerely to wish that it were a show that’s just about friendship. But the googly eyes Deschanel and Johnson can’t help but make at each other over half a bowl of soup and a thermos of white wine beg the slightly more prickly question that’s at the center of When Harry Met Sally … Can men and women be friends? Or, rather, can New Girl avoid becoming Friends?
Who’ll be my role model, now that my role model is gone?
One of the ways New Girl dealt with this in the past was through Nick’s infatuation with Fancy Man (Dermot Mulroney). But that plotline was as much about displacing the inevitability of Jess and Nick through a — very funny — exploration of Nick’s homoerotic desire as it was about one of the show’s other favorite topics: money! From Nick’s debts, to Winston, to the bills in the Douchebag Jar, to Schmidt’s pledge to throw “fiddies and hunneds” at a plumber if Nick ever moves out of the loft, money has always been something New Girl does well. But, starting with Fancy Man and culminating in The Adventures of Tugg (b) Romney, the show has also been interested in the mythology and culture of money. In other words, New Girl is as interested in money as it is in class.
And so is The Mindy Project, though in a different way. Todd Vanderwerff and Alyssa Rosenberg have started great conversations at The AV Club and ThinkProgress just this week about the lack of real “blue-collar” shows on TV, but, despite this fact, there are also very few sitcoms that are specifically about the wealthy. It’s a convention of many sitcoms like Friends, for instance, that a certain standard of living, regardless of whether or not it is diegetically explained, be provided for the characters. Unless the show is conceptually wedded to a certain class — like Roseanne — an appropriately-sized loft will undoubtedly appear for any new sitcom set in any new urban area whose characters have jobs or no jobs in literally any field. Friends can do an episode about tensions surrounding income disparity, but, at the end, everybody goes home to their fabulous apartments.
One of the upshots of Mindy Kaling’s alleged conservatism is that it allows her show to take money for granted without asking the audience to suspend their economic disbelief or buy in to the magical properties of rent control. The Mindy Project is a show that takes place within the bounds of a particular, privileged class. Mindy Lahiri lives in a fabulous apartment because she makes bank. She comically disavows racial profiling before, quietly, asking her receptionists to racially profile for patients with insurance. Danny self-identifies repeatedly as “wealthy,” and when he refers to himself as a “handsome doctor,” doctor is just another word for wealthy person. Mindy prays that her date has, among other things, “the wealth of Mayor Bloomberg,” and, despite her complaints about how much books cost, that sure was a Commes de Garçons cardigan she was wearing through most of this past episode. The Mindy Project is very explicitly a sympathetic show about people who have a lot of money and for whom wealth is both an important goal and commendable achievement.
On Mindy, wealth is normalized, but on New Girl, it is a foreign country. Those clowns are by no means blue-collar, but they are set within the bounds of a post-post-collegiate class that’s both aspirational and comfortably bohemian. What’s so strange and occasionally bracing about New Girl is the way that wealth melts boundaries that otherwise hold in the rest of the show’s racial or sexual orders. To venture outside of one’s class is to venture into a surreal world that is by turns psychedelic and terrifying. Nick can fall head over heels in love with Fancy Man. Schmidt can become Tagg Romney because he’s trying to become Kanye West. And, as Kanye warns us, no one man should have all that power.
But Schmidt’s whale belt is very powerful indeed, though only Winston knows how to use it. Made by the whitest of white companies (J. Crew likely), it triangulates Kanye “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people” West and Mitt “It’s not my job to care about those people” Romney. Schmidt puts the belt on, brings his “black friend” Winston to the club, and intends to ingratiate himself to Kanye to the extent that they become bosom buddies. The high upper limit of this imaginary friendship involves the two men watching Fallon over the phone and Schmidt saying, in an accent that Tucker Carlson might have a problem with, “that brother is crazy.” As it happens, Winston re-brands Schmidt as a Romney rather than a member of the G.O.O.D. Music crew, and the rest of the episode coheres around the Mormon minstrel show Schmidt gladly performs. So what kind of magic belt is this? Is it a kind of hipster-post-racial utility belt? Not quite. The simple answer is that the belt fits at the center of the Kanye West/Mitt Romney Venn diagram, and the thing these two men have in common is the thing they also have in common with Mindy Lahiri and Danny Castellano: they are rich. Rockefeller and Roc-a-fella. I can call you Betty, and Betty, when you call me,
you can call me Al,