This week on Dear Television:
Last week on Dear Television:
"What If You Guys Had A Baby?"
IS THIS YOUR FIRST wholehearted thumbs up for a Mindy Project episode? I think so? While flipping through some reviews yesterday, it seemed like people considered New Girl the stronger episode but, like you, I didn’t see it that way at all. Sure, New Girl was classic New Girl – heartfelt, a little zany, and full of Weird Schmidt moments – but Mindy Project was both innovative and cohesive. Before I turn to the latter, let’s just set some things straight about the former.
First: Robbie’s back! In fact, contrary to what I surmised from his absence in the previous Thanksgiving episode, Robbie was neverrrr away. Things don’t look too good for him now, though, what with Robbie wanting kids in 10 years and Cece needing to start working on her future progeny now. Will there be much narrative continuity from this “Eggs” episode? Does it mean they have ten more seasons before Jess and Nick need to make any attempts at raising a family together? Does it mean Cece and Schmidt-who-just-realized-he-was-in-love-with-Cece are just a ticking marriage plot waiting to happen?
Then again, Nick’s unmoored premises week after week, are getting increasingly unsustainable and, dare I say, increasingly unsubstantial? Maybe he needs something like a baby to ground him. These days, Nick is featured in almost every B-plot and, if he’s lucky, Winston is sometimes a sort of shoddy B-Plot to Nick’s B-Plot (as in this episode). If New Girl were to milk the Jess and Nick romance, there wouldn’t need much more priming to realize Nick as a literal dad. One moment, he bonding with Jess’s dad, and the next he’s ready to be one himself. Flashbacks also basically frame Nick as a grandpa from birth.
But Phil – Winston isn’t even allowed to engage in the essential behaviors that constitute a natural life. First he can’t eat his dinner, and now he’s not even allowed to have a night (or day, in his “adjusted schedule” case) of uninterrupted sleep? The writers really do use Winston at their whim – he’ll just be sleeping, until you want to force him awake for someone else’s B-plot. This “adjusted schedule,” where Winston works at night and sleeps during the day, could essentially obliterate him from the show. This week, Nick woke Winston up for a drunken Hemingway adventure at the zoo. Nick is writing his zombie book, and he needs inspiration by surrounding himself with tamed and caged animals. But, really, who should be writing the zombie book here? Uhhh, maybe the dude who’s currently functioning on 13 minutes of sleep per night.
By the end of “Eggs,” Nick did finally finish his novel and Schmidt realized “at the end of the day it’s all about love.” I don’t know if this means Schmidt and Cece will be reunited by next week exactly, but I do know it means Nick needs to find a new hobby. As for Winston, it’s been a fun thought experiment to watch New Girl as the Winston Project. Who are these clowns yelling around the guy who just wants to sleep?
Now Mindy Project: there are some real clowns. Phil has spoken before about the lack of physical comedy in New Girl, and that’s certainly one distinct difference between our two sitcoms. Morgan alone perpetrates enough body humor each week to set one off. This week, he “broke the intern.” Was this a metaphor? There are many ways to break an intern, and throwing him against the wall is just one. Then there was Mindy and her minute-long escapade with the beanbag chair. Those things are so difficult to sit on.
But now, to answer the questions Phil proposed about Mindy Project:
- “Mindy Lahiri is at her funniest and most compelling with a negative or serious affect.” It’s interesting that, as much as Kaling wants her character to be freely obnoxious – the obnoxiousness has just about pushed every reputable TV critic away from the show. Perhaps absurd darkness and sarcasm is what Kaling should lean on, then? I like it when Mindy is flippant (“I hate it when people say girl-crush.”), because it reminds you how sharp her character can be. At the same time, I want her to be able to get ridiculous. Back to last week again, when she was tussling her hair in her seduction of Ed Helms’s character – that was delightful! While still entirely earnest and sloppy. The show could to do bring these qualities out more too.
- “The show needs to either keep her out of the office or let her do actual work in it. [...] In other words, more birth control lectures.” Remember the pilot when Mindy delivered a baby to the soundtrack of M.I.A.? It prompted me to expect more of that – and less fondue displays – from the show. Mindy being an ob-gyn is a wonderful premise: she gets to lay it down about sex, show her command of the female body, while still expressing her culturally fraught relationship with her own female desires. But I agree, Phil – can Mindy please actually do work at work once in awhile?
- “Mindy’s struggles with age are both the sharpest and most heartfelt elements of the show, and there has been no better way of showcasing this than through having Mindy interact with children.” Agree. I especially loved this week when Mindy didn’t create a binary between Teens and Adults, but rather called herself a “Teen-Plus.” Her talk with the volleyball class was (for the most part) not condescending. Judging which girls would need condoms based on how nerdy they looked was still a cringe-moment, though. The relationship with adolescence is refreshing here, but the show continues to make cheap shots with gender stereotypes. Still, the emphasis on youth also draws a nice through-line between what we pick up as children (true love is forever-ever) and what we carry over into our adult lives. More often than not, what is learned as children makes adulthood difficult and messy – but it doesn’t mean we need unlearn all the stories we loved when young. Growing up means the negotiation of old tales with new characters, and that Mindy doesn’t disregard children as empty of interiority is important.
I also want to recognize Josh’s development into an unexpectedly endearing character. Not only is he getting the best lines, but his delivery is spot on. This week: “Usually I go for super skinny white girls, but something about this one screamed ‘Yeah. Okay.’” See? You have to hear it for yourself.
This highschool is swanky,
THE LAST FEW WEEKS, it’s been all doom and gloom here at Dear Television. What has happened to those cuddly malcontents? Why can’t Lamorne Morris catch a break/be allowed to eat Thanksgiving dinner in peace? When will The Mindy Project finally get its shit together? Well, while this week was by no means a renaissance for these shows, and many of the same problems still persist, last night we saw a New Girl with at least one functioning and funny plotline, and we saw, for perhaps the first time, a thoroughly complete episode of The Mindy Project.
Since I have spilled a lot of blood in my dealings with New Girl recently, I’ll start by saying that the fertility plot — like Jess’s class anxiety with Fancy Man and Nick’s brush with thyroid cancer last season — was a classic New Girl story arc, and it was played as masterfully as they’ve ever done. At the risk of verging into mansplanation, it seemed to me that the gendered anxieties rang true, Jess and Cece’s bond felt organic and earned (unlike their fight on Cece’s birthday), and the jokes were actually very funny. Schmidt’s gyno visit contained the highest quotient of laugh lines — visiting the troll and answering his riddles three — but also the highest quotient of questionable queer politics. Really, New Girl? I’m gay, but my hormones aren’t? Are we borrowing lesbian characters from the Chuck Lorre writers’ room now?
That said, Nick’s ascendance as a character last season is growing in retrospect to seem more and more like it may have been a happy accident. These writers are giving the wild card heart of the show nothing to work with. At the beginning of the season, I wrote that the Nick and Jess relationship is tantalizingly close but can never be. Now, I think they need to just make it happen so that Jake Johnson has a real character arc to work through. Ultimately, and I may be very very wrong, I think a pregnant Jess Day in a dysfunctional relationship with Nick Miller may be exactly the kind of paddle to the heart that this show needs.
But let’s get to the real story here. The Mindy Project, after several weeks anchored by strong individual scenes or bold but flawed conceits, finally turned in a solid half-hour of comedy. Everything was working like clockwork and in pleasing proportion. Mindy’s trip to high school was both a wink to her presumably beloved high school comedies as well as to Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed, and it was an occasion for some of Kaling’s best performances; slime was a 30 Rock quality running joke; Josh (who has become likable perhaps because the writing staff seems to save their best one-liners for him) became, for the first time, a credible romantic foil for Mindy; Danny and Morgan did their things and left the stage quickly; and we even got in a good phone call from Mindy’s gal pal.
The fact that this episode was both the series’ strongest and a largely off-model excursion should tell us something about what works and what doesn’t. Here are a few maxims I’ve extracted from this conundrum (feel free to agree or disagree):
- Mindy Lahiri is at her funniest and most compelling with a negative or serious affect. Lecturing, getting angry, getting frustrated, feeling slighted, looking skeptical, condescending, being passive aggressive. These are not all great traits, but they have been the characteristics that have reliably made Mindy come alive. And far from making her character seem shrill, the way Kaling plays negative humanizes her in a way that her occasionally school-play line readings don’t. This was true on The Office as well. Kaling is a virtuoso at going dark (“Yeah, I have a lot of questions. Number one: How dare you?”), and the show should let her waffle back and forth a lot more dynamically.
- Following from that, the show needs to either keep her out of the office or let her do actual work in it. Mindy has her wildest flights of romantic fantasy in the office, and these have not worked that well for me except in moments when they’ve been undercut to comic effect. So she needs to either get out on the town, or they need to let her be a working gynecologist. Mindy in professional authoritative mode is a winner. In other words, more birth control lectures.
- Mindy’s struggles with age are both the sharpest and most heartfelt elements of the show, and there has been no better way of showcasing this than through having Mindy interact with children: her wheeling and dealing with the immigrant boy in the pilot, her jaw-dropping conversation with her friend’s kid on Halloween. Basically, this entire episode allowed the writers to articulate Mindy’s anxieties and dualisms (she has a child’s optimistic view of courtly love, but she’s an extraordinarily pragmatic professional woman) without being too on the nose. Plus, as an actress, Kaling is phenomenal with child actors. Being brusque and talking up to a kid is a gag that The Mindy Project should not be afraid of repeating too much.
Point: Mindy, at long last.
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