DECEMBER 7, 2012
This week on Dear Television:
- “The Straight Man,” from Jane Hu
- “The Business of Being Born,” from Phil Maciak
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)
“The Straight Man”
FOR TWO SHOWS ostensibly centered around the lives of their female leads, New Girl and Mindy Project sure focus a lot on their male characters. As heartening as it is to see show titles spotlight women, the greater interest of both New Girl and Mindy Project still seems to lie in their exploration of male sexuality. In light of Liz Lemon’s recent marriage in 30 Rock – an even more emphatically female-driven show – Molly Lambert didn’t consider what this meant for our new heroine-wife, so much as what was implied by the kind of husband she finally decided upon.
Since Liz’s husband isn’t singular in his hapless, loveable self, Lambert more generally refers to him as the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, among which include Ben Wyatt (fiancé to Leslie Knope in Parks & Recreation) and characters frequently portrayed by the likes of Ryan Gosling and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. These men now exemplify the ideal straight man. They’re sweethearts – shy, sensitive, and non-threatening. The kind of clean-cut white boy you can bring home to your mom.
Sure, the MPDB might be unreal – he might even be, once you actually get to know him, sort of a douchebag – but his rise and appeal is not to be ignored. The men on New Girl and Mindy Project are direct products of the cult of such dreamboys. Let’s not forget that the most MPDB-esque we’ve seen JGL is when he played a romantic lead opposite Zooey Deschanel; nor should we overlook that the MPDB comes not from sitcom television (where male buffoonery and stupidity rule), but from the rom-com film. Jess finds Nick most attractive when he’s a crying bartender, and there’s earnest Schmidt – flipping through a catalog of himself in suits, as he decides on an outfit. New Girl emphasizes Winston’s effeminacy so aggressively that this sensitivity threatens to overwhelm all other aspects of his personality, throwing him into a position where it becomes increasingly difficult to portray a straight MPDB man. On the Mindy Project, two gynecologists and one nurse make up its three regular male characters.
These men aren’t in it for the bromance and sex (except, of course, when they are [except, of course, this is just a front]). They’re in it for the reliable long-term. Schmidt is so hopelessly devoted to Cece that he’s ready to start making babies right away – this is also what made Schmidt’s decision to blow Cece off last night so hard to believe. Schmidt also bears some kind of fixation on getting offspring into good schools. First, Winston and Jess’s imagined beautiful mixed-raced baby “can get into any school he wants,” and now Schmidt tells Cece: “I can pay for our baby’s college now. UCLA. UMass. Literally anywhere they want to go. Any of the U schools.” Fatherhood isn’t simply a goal, it’s a responsibly well-planned goal.
In Mindy Project too, Jeremy is his least douchey at the family home of Betsey, reminding her that caring parents is a gift not to be depreciated. As for Danny – we’re just waiting until he can be no longer the sad divorcee. Morgan might have once been incarcerated, but he’s a completely proficient nurse, as well as a sweetheart in his own odd way. You might not want to date Morgan, the show seems to say, but you’d definitely trust him with your newborn. These men don’t perfectly plot onto the MPDB scale – especially the more career competitive ones in Mindy Project – but the kind of deep sensitivity we’re sure is lodged at the heart of Danny and Jeremy is part of the same line of New Masculinity.
Cinema gave us Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, and Woody Allen, and now television responds with Danny Castellano, Jeremy Reed, and Schmidt.
And why not? Isn’t it time television gave its majority female viewers men with visible hearts? The MPDB cares in a way that’s endearing. Women used to be cute when they got angry, and now men can be cute too! What’s more, he’s often dorky in a way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is ditzy. Super cute.
I don’t know if it’s cute that Danny and Jeremy think pictures of themselves on taxis is a good way to advertise for a gynecological clinic. It’s not very dreamy, though it does speak to their well-groomed vanity. I also don’t know if Mindy Project was attempting an entirely condescending view of midwifery as a cute – but ultimately insufficient – mode of care this week, but what does seem clear is that its two male midwives are a part of the new masculinity. The straight man that will bend and cater to your pregnant womanly ways. It’s something, as Ike Barinholtz said in the promo for last night’s episode, that hasn’t yet been seen on television.
Have Mark and Jay Duplass play the midwives and you’re basically in Dreamboy City. The representation of “midwhiffery,” as everyone calls it in Mindy Project, was shallow and unrealistic, but so was the portrayal of the midwives.
If one were to judge a show by its guest stars alone, then Mindy Project has won my heart this week with the inclusion of not one, but both of the Duplass brothers. The episode played on their mumblecore notoriety to great effect – the line about how they’ve “never been to the Coachella Valley Musical Festival” left me in stitches. Admittedly, to see the Duplass brothers (also brothers in the episode) as dreamboys requires referential knowledge from outside the text proper. This is also, though, how the MPDB works in both television and film – Ryan Gosling and Joseph Gordon-Levitt don’t just coincidentally play the MPDB over and over again; they’re continuously typecast into the role.
Speaking of outside texts, can we talk about Mark Duplass carries a striking resemblance to Booth Jonathan (of Lonely Island fame!) from Girls:
If Mark Duplass’s character, Brendan, is somewhere between his trademark indie personality and Booth’s straight-A doucheyness, then we might be getting somewhere close to MPDB territory. The Duplass midwives have enough edge to play the straight man – the romantic male lead – but these Duplass midwives are also pretty smooth. Brendan brushing an eyelash from Mindy’s cheek and asking her to make a wish was, as she put it, “kinda hot.” It was also kinda rom-com. What other kindas are next?
We put women first,