NOVEMBER 16, 2012
This week on Dear Television:
- “PMS, Probes, and Power Plays, Oh My,” from Lili Loofbourow
- “LaMourning Lamorne Morris,” from Phil Maciak
- “Leading Ladies?,” from Jane Hu
Last time on Dear Television:
- “Shiny Red Lame Special,” from Jane Hu
- “Peanuts and the Perils of the Perfect Costume,” from Lili Loofbourow
- “Good Grief,” from Phil Maciak
If we’re looking at the race between New Girl and Mindy Project this week, maybe we should just call it off — chalk it up to lady problems. (Or is it lady “issues”? Are lady problems something ladies can fix? Are ladies capable of fixing anything, least of all themselves?) As New Girl seemed to tell us: when the going gets tough, the tough get periods. Well. Color me red, because things certainly have taken a zany turn for our heroines. I wanted to punch someone, plus these pretzels were making me salty for television that was less casually racist.
Now I’m not going to linger on the orientalism that made the bulk of the New Girl episode this week, except just to put this line forward for consideration:
I can’t keep thinking of you as my magical best friend with no name. Joe. Tommy. Louis. Tran. Is it Tran?
But then I read Lili’s leveled and reflective review of these episodes, and specifically this line regarding New Girl: “Better menstruation than a nitwit.” Lili, I couldn’t agree more. Then Phil came in with possibly the biggest nitwit character in New Girl. Oh, Winston. How do you solve a problem like Winston?
Can we take a moment to remember Damon Wayans Jr., aka the original Winston (then referred to as Coach)? Or, as I like to think of him, the Winston that might have have been.
When Jess was getting to know her future roommates during the pilot, all three seemed equally primed to connect with this new addition to their bro set-up. Schmidt was not yet as quirky as we now know him, and Nick hadn’t yet become the main point of sexual tension vis a vis Jess. At one point in the pilot, Coach stands at the door of Jess’s bedroom while they talk through his, yup, anger issues. This is a Winston that has all but disappeared. Coach had an aggressive edge — even if below it all we sensed a sensitive soul who just wanted to learn how to Talk Good With Girls. Since then, Winston has become a joke of male weakness, of masculine effeminateness, and Nick has, in turn, become the one “irrationally angry 365 days a year.” I blame this on Jake Johnson, who was all “Oh cool, I’ll just deliver all my lines at that register just below a yell.” Better menstruation than a nitwit, indeed.
We’ve been with Jess for over a year now — hours upon hours of Jess. I thought I knew Jess. “Who’s that girl?” the intro would tease. “It’s Jess!” Jess. The Jess I knew had pictures of baby ducks on her checks, and you know what? I was into it. But this week took the logic of her character to a new level. Jessica Day + Fake Period = Instant Sobbing at Puppy Photos. You’re right, Lili. It was boring. As boring as having one’s period on a cycling monthly basis.
Now Mindy, we know less. This week we got to see Mindy’s apartment for the first time even though Mindy wasn’t even there. Typical. While audiences are generally familiar with Mindy Kaling’s prior comedic work (which also contributes to how her show continues to throw some viewers off), who is Mindy Lahari really? Did you know this week’s Mindy Project was one of the first episodes to be produced? (Hence how the fixation on Danny’s failed marriage, Mindy’s hopeless love life, as well as her Jeremy booty-call might have felt a tad regressive.) Knowing this still doesn’t make me feel too much better about the inconsistencies of Mindy’s character. If this were a drama, I’d be waiting for the big reveal that would finally explain it all away.
Which leads me to wonder whether I’m watching Mindy Project, and possibly now New Girl, in absolutely the wrong ways.
Because these sitcoms are framed as very much women-driven narratives, I want more from their female leads. I want nuances about female interiority and the current stakes in women’s social roles. I certainly don’t demand these female characters always be Strong, but I’d love for their shows — especially when speaking so directly about the female body — to explore women’s health and health care. This might sound like too much to ask, but I stand firm by the knowledge that it really shouldn’t.
What New Girl and Mindy Project certainly aren’t, however, is Girls. That is, these sitcoms aren’t striving for realism. They’re vamping on, as Phil says, quick minute-long jokes and improv sessions. As much as the camera in Mindy Project puts the viewer right beside its protagonist, I nonetheless find her constantly changing on me. If Jess and Mindy are supposedly leading these shows, then I don’t know if I know how to follow them anymore. These female leads come off frantic and disjointed — set in episodes that are written first, and reshuffled after — leading to a cacophony of expectations and jumbled narratives. These riffs might take me on a high one week, and drop me in a confused plot in the next. I guess the question is if there’s enough there to keep one watching despite such fluctuating outcomes.
POINT: Mindy — because, for what it’s worth, that gynecological examination, in a lot of ways, was refreshing and brave.
Just nod at everything,
AS THIS WEEK’S EPISODES grimly unfolded, I did a lot of thinking about what we talk about when we talk about Fox’s Tuesday night line up. Are we fans, tracking the fortunes and misadventures of a loveable gang of thirty-somethings with inconsistent character traits and a dizzying spectrum of onscreen chemistry? Or are we vultures, descending upon flailing sitcoms like elitist New York Times food critics slurping the General Tso’s-flavored gristle from the bones of Guy Fieri? I hope we’re neither. Rather, I think what’s interesting about this experiment has been the opportunity to watch two series — one in its awkward adolescence, the other in its stumbling, newborn foal phase — evolve, fall backward, and course-correct. The thing that made New Girl so likeable and invigorating for viewers last year was its reckless, try-anything approach to its structure. New Girl kept throwing ideas at the wall, trying out guest-stars, reconfiguring relationships, even incorporating critical backlash, until things started to gel. This was very up-and-down television, but it was also extremely fun to watch. The Mindy Project, as Lili articulates so beautifully this week, seems to have entered into that period of its development, with a crazily long, wildly uncomfortable, occasionally funny, and genuinely daring set-piece between Mindy and Danny this past week. Like Tony and Meadow on a college trip in The Sopranos, or Don and Peggy pulling an all-nighter, Mindy settled down and tried to do some real work on its central relationship. The fact that it was couched in the intimate space of an exam-room, and that it was contextualized by alternately bold and back-pedaling gender dynamics made it both a missed opportunity and a healthy sign for a show that might be righting itself the way New Girl did around this time last year. Noble failures, etc.
But, as Lili has so strikingly diagnosed the make-up of that scene, I thought I’d take a stab at diagnosing the opposite momentum that seems to be afflicting New Girl. Say what you will about the Whitney Cummingsian Asian joke vibe this week, the Nick Miller odyssey was an attempt to bring New Girl back to form. In the early days of New Girl, one of the first things that signaled, to me, a stable, emerging comic tone was the ability of Jake Johnson to improvise a scene to transcendence. Recall Nick making imaginary phone calls at Fancy Man’s desk, cursing the heavens while vomiting in a field, even the butt-dance-off from late in the season — Nick Miller’s flights of ecstatic or enraged fancy were both reliable bright spots in occasionally dragging episodes and microcosms of the show’s successful experimental aesthetic. Let’s give Jake Johnson a scene and let him generate enough jokes to fill it. The character of Nick Miller was born in such scenes, and it’s the Nick Miller we’ve grown to love.
This season, however, these same routines have been skidding wildly on and off the rails. And this week’s set-up with the sage, magical Other is a perfect example. Having Nick locked into a dynamic with a silent interlocutor creates a scenario in which Jake Johnson is essentially free to spin his wheels for the length of an episode. This is both a correct analysis of the show’s strengths and a major misunderstanding of why that formula works. Even the best Nick Miller scenes in this register last only a minute or two at most. They are concentrated bursts, emblematic of, but not constitutive of the show itself. The writers of New Girl can approach their series like Nick Miller — they can’t simply apply him like a patch.
But the problems we have with Nick Miller are problems of execution. Johnson is a fine enough performer, and the show will, if the last season is any precedent, find a way to use him well again. But New Girl is now facing a far different and more vexing precedent: it is coming right up against Winston. This problem has been brought up on our blog before, but it has really reached a point of exasperation. Since day one, New Girl has struggled to find a place for Winston as a character and to find a good way to showcase the apparently nimble comic skills of Lamorne Morris. First, he’s a straight man, a voice of reason. Then, he’s a frustrated transplant, out of touch with the world. Then, he’s a lovesick bore. Now, who knows. And, what’s more, he has cycled through a variety of plotlines, nearly all of which are hand-me-downs from the arcs of other characters. He can’t figure out what his skills are. He’s in a disgustingly happy relationship that makes everyone sick. He’s got an abusive, erratic boss. He’s unemployed. And now he’s going through a bad break-up. Did any of these seem familiar to you when they were happening to Winston? That’s because they’d already happened to other characters earlier in the series. Winston has gone from occupying C storylines to playing Junior Varsity New Girl.
From the first days of New Girl, when Morris replaced Damon Wayans Jr., and the writers narrowly avoided a big, messy discussion of tokenism by having Morris play a different character rather than simply fill in for Wayans, the show has had a hard time figuring out this fourth piece of the puzzle. More often than not, Winston is used as an occasion for jokes — the earring! — or as the receptacle of outlandish, non-specific character traits the writers seem to think might be funny to work out for an episode. He doesn’t know anything about American popular culture. He’s afraid of the dark. And now, he has male PMS. In general this is the move that has worked for New Girl. Just keep shouting ideas until one of them lands, and then build a character around that. And for a while, last season, it seemed like Winston’s relationship with a precocious little boy he babysat, and the attendant suggestion of Winston as a kind of emo-type, could work, but then the show swapped that out for a dismally unfunny plotline about a crazy sports radio DJ. Why do television writers think characters who host call-in shows are funny? It’s gotten to the point where, this episode, Winston didn’t even appear in his own flashback.
It’s not unreasonable to imagine that New Girl ‘s creative process just hasn’t hit paydirt yet with Winston. Morris doesn’t seem to be as insane an improviser as Johnson — though his strange, reportedly improvised Negro Spiritual routine was an interesting, if abandoned, glimpse into the performer — and he hasn’t done as much valuably detailed character-building work as Greenfield or Deschanel. But simply having him recycle plotlines — as seems to be the plan this week—is no solution. At the moment, the character of Winston is not simply a character that isn’t working, it’s a character that is reminding the viewer of the show’s failings. And, though Schmidt and Nick/Jess may be in dormant periods, the fact that one of New Girl’s leads is still subject to “Where is this character going” conversations is a problem with the show’s very foundation. And, to be frank, it’s troubling that, in such a white-washed sitcom landscape, writers as inventive as these can’t produce a compelling black character week by week. As much as Lena Dunham was criticized for the racial make-up of her show, it’s almost more unnerving and counterproductive for New Girl’s only African-American character to be the subject of recaps with titles like, “Is it time for Winston to move out?” well into the show’s run.
It’s often said that the best way to start up a show would be to make 20 episodes and throw the first 10 out (or something like that), and that was certainly proven with New Girl and is hopefully being proven now with Mindy. But that concept only works under the assumption that all of the growing pains of a show will be thrown overboard with those first ten episodes. That all of the questions about character identity, setting, and even central relationships, will be jettisoned, and we’ll be left with a coherent, confident show or a bloody pulp. Of all the ways that I imagined we’d be able to compare Mindy and New Girl, I did not expect to find that they were both still in the figuring-it-out phase. For Mindy, there is optimism and energy in that kind of flailing, the possibility of a show that might grow into a beautiful butterfly. For New Girl, it’s just getting old.
POINT: Mindy, for effort
THIS WEEK, our contestants decided to impress upon us that their respective protagonists have female parts. New Girl’s Jess was rendered emotionally incontinent by her period while The Mindy Project’s Mindy deployed her possession of breasts, weight, and a vagina as … weapons, or something, in an escalating series of gynecological dares with Danny Castellano. Both shows featured women being coached bullied by male friends, but only one decided the paternalistic vibe was kicky enough to celebrate all the way through the episode’s resolution. When did Schmidt become Romney-dad? Did I miss a step?
This episode of New Girl was a mess at every level: from plot to character development to gender clichés to magical Asians. If you like your misogyny with a confusing side of pseudo-parodic orientalism, then this was the week for you. Jess is dumber than she’s ever been, Winston is dumber than he’s ever been (even his manufactured personality trait for this week was boring), Nick is a dullard, and Schmidt is unrecognizable. I don’t know what to say about Schmidt’s boss and the weird BDSM contract; does the show feel it needs some domination to balance out Schmidt’s new fatherly side? In any event, the Cece-Schmidt subplot died a quick, uncompelling death, though I suspect there’s a Zombie-Cece and Zombie-Schmidt reunion in our future. But the worst television crime New Girl committed this week—worse, even, than the hackneyed menstrual sobbing— was that it was BORING. New Girl, if your point, after building an episode around crazy women and PMS, is that it doesn’t really exist (Jess NEVER HAD IT AT ALL, Nick says, it was just fear that made her burst into tears at the sight of a puppy in the middle of a job interview), all I can say is that it wasn’t a point worth making. Better menstruation than a nitwit.
I will say this for this week’s The Mindy Project: it wasn’t boring. It grabbed our attention by showing Mindy writhe in discomfort as it was driven home, again and again, that she isn’t thin. But at least the show did something interesting with that anxious energy, and channeled it into the weird power relations a gynecologist’s office makes possible. That said, there’s no question the episode’s central dare was built on a flimsy premise; no gynecologist (one hopes) would have any such difficulty examining a colleague. There are dozens of reasons; for one thing, there should have been a nurse in there with them. For another, a gynecologist has had ample time to come to terms with the fact that ladies have parts, and is unlikely to be as completely alarmed by the prospect of looking at them as Danny appears to have been. But if we overlook the points where the show stretches the limits of credulity (and boy, are there lots), his break was interesting and (I thought) well-acted.
It seemed to me that the show used the intense vulnerability we usually associate with a gynecological exam to strange effect. That exam was brutal; that Mindy eventually channeled some really uncomfortable and freighted moments into an unlikely position of power sort of erases that, and I don’t know whether we can take Danny’s questions in the adversarial, sporting spirit in which they were intended. Then again, I guess the one place where you can reasonably explore bad and even actionable medical practice is in a scene with two doctors. The fact that they’re identically equipped actually authorized the Wild West character of the script.
Of course, they’re not actually identically equipped, and that tension between identity and difference is what the showdown is built around. It’s a weird duel: sort of a contest between equals, sort of a struggle between patient and doctor, and mostly a game of chicken between man and woman. With three really different sets of power relations all operating at once, things get confusing, fast.
Nor does the end come easy. That weight scene got really disturbing before Mindy got sassy (thanks to Morgan’s advice — the best friend was there just for exposition and set-dressing). There’s a certain cheapness to alleviating the psychic heft of the scene by making Mindy say, in effect, Bring it. On the other hand, it’s implied that Mindy is strong despite (or because of) her insecurities, and this isn’t so different, really, from boy-on-boy trash talk. I’m all for women who occasionally struggle with traditional lady-problems but aren’t defined by them, but I do wonder whether the show’s insistence on Mindy’s sunny demeanor lets everyone off the hook. The pilot showed her at an all-time emotional low, but since then, her bouts of sadness or depression have seemed more petty than deeply felt — they taste more like plot device than character depth.
In any event, Mindy’s leverage in the last stage of the dare interested me because I was having a genuinely hard time imagining where it would come from. (Again, I’m harping on realism here; did you notice that the camera never really showed her in stirrups? The visual would have been too disturbing.) Mindy’s victory didn’t come, as I feared it would, from the Comedy Protectorate Wherein Vaginas Are Scary and Men Flee Them. (I could be wrong, but I read Danny’s decision not to go the full nine yards as an admission of “personal feeling,” whatever that means, and not as a fear of vaginas, which, again, would be hard to buy in a gyno.) I guess what I’m really saying is this: I don’t buy the highly specific circumstances that led to a power play based on hiring someone to medically probe one’s genitals, but it’s an interesting premise, and I felt like it made for a compelling, if disturbing, piece of theater.
That B-story, however, was a snore.
Possibly feeling feelings for a lamp,