This week 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
Last time on Dear Television:
- "Dance, Monkey, Dance," from Phil Maciak
- "Soul Cakes," from Jane Hu
- "Go Back to Start, Do Not Pass Go," from Lili Loofbourow
I'M AFRAID I MIGHT have to be the Grinch this Halloween. In this week’s battle of the Thirtysomething Lady Sitcoms, I am willing to concede that Mindy Project is the winner, but it’s the winner by an improbable knockout — the aforementioned jaw-droppingly well-written and well-performed phone call between Mindy and a first-grader. Scoring these episodes on points earned, I’d say it’s a little more of a draw. As we spoke about last week, New Girl is floundering a bit structurally, dropping plotlines inexplicably, and refusing to fully commit to a seriality that would make it more like Arrested Development than the Big Bang Theory-meets-performance art it kind of currently is. That said, a lot of chickens — plot threads — came home to roost this episode, and it felt a bit like a clearing house. The episode was all about servicing relationships: Winston/Shelby, Schmidt/Cece/Robbie, Jess/Dr. Sam, plus all those make-out fake-outs between Nick and Jess. (Specifically, I’m thinking about the tentative gazes post high-five in the hallway and post-punch on the couch.) So, despite the overload, and the fact that the writers seem to have a grudge against Lamorne Morris (why can’t Winston have a good Woody Allen impersonation?), this episode was heavy on what New Girl does best: character work. Schmidt’s irresistible douchebaggery, Nick’s charming cowardliness, Jess’s inability to be casual, etc. What’s more, it’s building up Robbie as a swell guy we’ll all be sad to see leave when Cece starts splitting rails again with Young Abe Lincoln.
If New Girl is strong on character and weak on plot, though, I often find Mindy to have the opposite problem. Lili, I completely agree that the extended Peanuts allusion brilliantly structures the episode, which, not coincidentally, was written by Chris McKenna, the screenwriter of last year’s most notable piece of pop pastiche, Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory.” That said, how on earth is it possible that a 30-year-old woman, growing up in America with an encyclopedic knowledge of romantic comedies and a television addiction — Mindy Kaling, in other words, who just executive produced an episode of television based around the message of It's a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — has never heard of Peanuts? Who is Mindy Lahiri? Who are any of these people?
It’s a miniscule point, and exactly the kind of thing that could leave our blog vulnerable to charges of obsessive over-analysis of trivial television programs, but I think it’s also a really emblematic flub. If Mindy Kapoor had ever heard of Peanuts, the phone-call would not have had the same resonance, and the episode’s structure would have faltered. Her ignorance of that text enables the episode to function the way it does, and, as Lili points out, it provides a neat “meta statement” about the show, but it’s also way out of character. The construction of Mindy Kapoor as a character was subordinated to the construction of an effective narrative. I’ve criticized Mindy in the past for portraying unlikable characters that the show didn’t seem to realize were unlikable. But I think maybe Mindy is just still working out the details. There are basic outlines for each character — Mindy is a self-obsessed romantic, Danny is a surprisingly deep douche, Jeremy is an emotionally unavailable lothario, Morgan is a quirkily warm-hearted doofus — but the detail work on these characters has been superficial, and, occasionally, incongruous. Did Jeremy really need to so fully and self-consciously articulate his character’s shallowness to Danny? Moreover, would he have?
Another way of phrasing that question is this: is Jeremy a character or the idea of a character? This is a question Mindy is very interested in pursuing at a meta level, but strangely less so in practice, and it’s something that came up on both shows this week. Mindy Project is conceptually a show about the difference between rom-com life and real life, about the Quixotic travails of a woman modeling her existence on a fictional construct. Too often, though, the players in the real world have conformed to the archetypes Mindy Kapoor has assigned them. While Mindy’s mercenary pursuit of the rom-com ideal has done a lot to fill out her own character, it often feels to me like she’s romping through one of those shooting ranges where cardboard cut-outs of people keep popping up from behind bushes to surprise you. Look out, it’s Hugh Grant! Dermot Mulroney behind you! One o’clock, it’s Bonnie Hunt! Even Mindy’s conversation with the little girl — which was so original and poignant — took shape as a conversation between Mindy and a collection of little kid conventions (the baby-talk, the Princess costume, the innocent optimism). Despite the fact that she occasioned some insight into Mindy Kapoor for us, that little girl is literally not a character on The Mindy Project and she has as much characterization as many of the featured cast members.
In New Girl, Nick tells Amelia that, “I didn’t even know you, it was just this idea of you,” to which Amelia responds, “Hey, I’m not an idea of a person, I’m an actual person.” This conversation made me think of John Cusack’s last monologue in High Fidelity, another respectable rom-com.
Having decided to seriously commit to his girlfriend after a flirtation with a pointedly Deschanellian alt-mag reporter, Cusack’s character says, “I’m tired of the fantasy, because it doesn’t really exist. And there are never really any surprises, and it never really delivers. And I’m tired of it.” When it comes down to it, as much as we’ve decided these shows are generational comedies or anything else corresponding to a lived reality, New Girl and Mindy are filled with fantasies. The hot doctor. The spinster with no prospects. The man who goes where he wants, when he wants. The cool witty girl who kind of kills it in bed. The douche. The psycho. The dork. In their least interesting moments, the characters on these shows exist as either embodiments or comical inverses of these types. At their best, these characters mama-bird their types — ingesting them and regurgitating them in new forms. (Sorry.) Mindy, despite the weird false ring of her Charlie Brown obliviousness and the lack of depth on her bench, did a good job of that this week. New Girl which mama-birded long ago, stagnated a bit this week, spinning its wheels, showing us a whole lot of things we’ve seen before. And so, reluctantly, I say,
POINT: MINDY (by a nose)
Don’t look at me like you’re teaching me something,
GUYS, I’M FICKLE as the wind, but for now? I’m into Mindy’s Project. I love this show. I said back when we started this here New Girl /The Mindy Project Overview of Thirty-Something Comedy that one of the pleasures of the rom-com that Kaling seemed interested in exploiting was the way thirty-something women raised on this impoverished movie diet “have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them.” Romantic comedies are like ice-skating (or, you know, any other sport): you know what you’re going to get, but the pleasure lives in the virtuosic disruptions of the format. QUADRUPLE-LUTZ! NO-HITTER!
Kaling’s pulling this off, delivering solid formula along with some genuinely impressive moves. The show’s pleasure is as much in its grace notes as in the overfamiliar melody (“the brown Bridget Jones,” as Subashini Navaratnam put it). Scenes that should be throwaways do a little extra work. Take Mindy’s conversation with Riley, her best friend’s daughter. Functionally, it’s just an expedient way to jump-start the montage of Mindy inventing a costume that lets her be both sexy and witty (“because women can be both”). You can practically see the plot engineer’s note: Re-reference Peanuts; transition to “hope.” Network television is perennially henpecked by and into formula. How do you dress up that formula so the viewer sees the costume instead of the gears, Scotch tape, and face-paint? (Or a guy wearing a urinal?)
There are always ways. You might, for instance, filter your transparent plot device through some rather unnecessary intimacy. Then (because we’re all post-modern and meta) add a layer of cognitive dissonance. Arrested Development did this with elan: its sappy theme, which tended to play over moments that were less moving than weird, schmaltzed its way onto the stair-car at the jail, where Michael was assuring George Michael that his grandfather Pop-pop was guilty and deserved to be imprisoned. The conclusion is unworthy of the emotion spent getting there. The Mindy Project does something similar — in order to rescue an unpromising date with an unlikeable guy, it stages a genuinely interesting discussion of a children’s special. And it starts with a grown-up doing an incredibly unlikeable thing: telling a cute kid to drop the cute and grow up!
Mindy scolding the kid for talking cutesy startled me out of my smug X-ray-plot vision. My scripts were scrambled. Take a minute, really, and think about the last time you saw a remotely interesting interaction between an adult and a little kid. Little kids are never interesting on network TV. They’re barely visible; they’re flaw-camouflage made of bottled cute. When we see a “kid,” we know TV well enough to understand that we’re really seeing a Goodness Scoreboard. It’s sort of like when a guy sees a woman in any normal Hollywood movie — she’s not a person, she’s a human growth chart. How the guy reacts to her will show how much he has developed and how far he has to go.
So when Mindy puts a jabbering kid on the phone, we all know what the next move is and what this scene is meant to tell us. Mindy will be good or bad with kids and that will show us A) how selfish she is and B) how much she wants kids (and therefore a man). That’s the point of kids in sitcoms about thirty-something women. That is the only way we’ve ever seen these chess pieces move with respect to each other.
But no — Mindy actually sees this kid, Riley, knows that she’s faking her baby-talk, and calls her out on it. Grow up, she says, and while at first that seems harsh, we realize that it’s also an explicit invitation to equality. The conversation proceeds as if Mindy was talking to just another girlfriend. She asks Riley to explain The Great Pumpkin, and doesn’t indulge her or nod or say “that’s cute” and leave the kid to her illusions in that tone of cloying condescension I sometimes get when talking to kids. Instead, she argues with her and is eventually kind of convinced by her point of view. Not that she gives the kid the satisfaction of knowing she changed her mind! Stubborn to the end, Mindy says they’ll just have to agree to disagree. Mindy’s childishness, her selfishness, her self-centeredness, all have the interesting side effect of letting her be a better friend because she’s not performing goodness. She’s refusing the Goodness Scoreboard. That’s an interesting brand of unlikeability.
The crowning achievement of that scene is how it ends: neither Riley nor Mindy expect that the phone will be handed back to mom. This was not a cute “talk to the kid” interlude: this WAS the talk, and both women hang up the phone, satisfied with their exchange. Mindy takes Riley’s point of view so much to heart that she calls Josh and un-cancels her date.
Compare that, if you would, to how New Girl used kids in this episode. Sam turns out to be a pediatrician and is good with kids, so now Jess likes him. Goodness Scoreboard: check.
That’s pretty much all I have to say about New Girl, except to agree with you, Jane: Robbie is awesome, Schmidt sucks, and if the point of the show’s return to serial story-telling this week is to get us excited about Schmidt and Cece, yikes. The writers know they’re humanizing Robbie, and they’re doing it to avoid shallow story-telling, but they overshot the mark: Robbie is the most likeable character onscreen right now. Other than two decent one-liners — the one about Abe Lincoln and the one about the haunted house — this was a totally forgettable episode.
One last point re: The Mindy Project: I love that this episode revolved around characters who hadn’t seen the shows that led to their major decisions. It’s a nice meta statement about the show’s characters not knowing the plots we see coming a mile away. As you pointed out, Jane, Josh hadn’t seen The Princess Bride, but he dressed up as Inigo Montoya because that was Mindy’s favorite character — not knowing, as we do, that he isn’t and will never be the romantic lead. Mindy never saw “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” but she hunts for the perfect costume, one that shows a woman can be both sexy and witty and will also blow everyone’s minds (and bring with it love and happiness and an end to loneliness — this is what everyone wants from the perfect costume, right?). Turns out she didn’t have to go anywhere at all to find a costume for a witty, sexy woman; she had all the ingredients for Diane Chambers at home. Touching! Neat!
(‘Course, Diane Chambers isn’t what you’d call lucky in love… what does this tell us about Danny and Mindy’s future prospects? Maybe it’s the perfect costume indeed… *cue spooky music*)
WHILE NEW GIRL WAITED an entire season before taking on the Halloween special, Mindy Project aired their first last night, with only three episodes preceding it. The fact that it worked — that it was, at least for me, the best episode yet — speaks to Mindy Project’s success in setting out (and setting up) its characters so that they still speak to us even when dressed up as other characters. That each episode of Mindy Project has so far been a little different than the last also works in this endeavor. The Halloween special is, like the Christmas special, a Special Event. Based around an annual holiday, these episodes, by logic, occur once a season. Given how well television has timed itself to our lives (weather in the morning, news at six, drama at night, soaps during the day), it now seems natural that shows would try to have Holiday specials proximate to their actual calendar date. That this happens is, however habitual it may seem now, a testament to television’s continued ability to invite itself into the viewer’s home. In many homes, television might just be the most festive thing there.
What remains true about the holiday special, in any case, is that it must always anticipate the holiday. A holiday special is nothing after the holiday proper is over. Appropriately, both Mindy Project and New Girl this week were about the buildup and anticipation. Mindy goes through a costume-changing montage in hopes of finding the perfect witty outfit for her date with Josh. In New Girl, disappointments after sustained investment abound. Nick finally nabs a long-time crush only to be let down; Jess finally discovers Sam to be someone she genuinely likes only to be shut down. As Nick tells Jess, relationships are a bit like haunted houses: “You walk in all confident, and then once you get in, it's not what you thought it was gonna be, and it's scary.” That is, relationships aren’t often like a Woody Allen movie.
Given television’s theatrical and metavisual qualities, Halloween seems more suited to the medium than Christmas. Halloween specials remind us that characters are always already remodeled after prior characters — that they are always already in costume. Last week, Leslie Knope dressed up Rosie the Riveter in Parks and Recreation.
If one missed the reference, the costume and its attendant allusions would fall flat. Given that Parks & Rec jokes frequently rely on cultural references, however, one would suspect that its dedicated viewers would have easily recognized Rosie. (This might all sound very obvious, but I do think it’s helpful to remind ourselves how television speaks to its many audiences.) New Girl and Mindy Project did the same. Jokes about Woody Allen! Jokes about Woody Allen’s tribute to the Marx Brothers! Diane from Cheers! Josh dresses up as Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, since it’s Mindy’s favorite film. But when Mindy quotes from the film, Josh doesn’t recognize it — and Josh is, like, really white.
Schmidt dresses up as a young Abraham Lincoln because “statistically speaking, every American thinks about Abraham Lincoln at least once a day, and Cece’s American.” The effort — the very mathematical thought put into this costume — is typical Schmidt. He’s trying so hard to be on Cece’s radar, but everyone thinks he’s dressed as a generic groom nonetheless. Cece is, by the way, still dating Robbie, an act which Schmidt compares to charity. New Girl’s aim to convince viewers of Robbie’s homeliness is just a milder version of how it frames Jess’s modeling career as a ludicrous impossibility. As much as I adore Schmidt, I find it gruesome that his jiving around as Dallas from Magic Mike is that much more winning than Robbie’s incredible laugh. You’re right, Phil, the “weird dancing” is a definite signal from Doucheland. Regardless, the way Cece brightens at Schmidt’s butt movements tells us that their reunion is just another box waiting to be checked off.
The fact is, though, that I laughed when Schmidt stripped down in front of Cece and Robbie — to reveal that even his costume transition was in character. Schmidt’s thunderous thighs are set off by red lame underwear, and to laugh at the accompanying weird dancing was in a way liberating because it was just so well executed, so in character. Same goes for Josh’s douchebaggery in Mindy Project. He’s so offensive — so pointedly and recognizably a certain type of jerk — that it tips into being genuinely funny. The amount of insecurity it must take to tell a girl to look hot because you’ve brought models to this event in the past, while scrolling down the endless “Kaitlins” on your phone, is also sad if you think about it for more than a second. Who is Josh trying to impress: Mindy, or his athlete friends?
The Mindy Project characters are coming into alignment — for viewers, and among themselves as well — but my favorite voice on that show is definitely Morgan. He’s quickly becoming the highlight of Mindy Project for me, and the fact that Ike Barinholtz (who plays Morgan) is also a writer for the show might be part of why he consistently scores the best lines. He says some strange things, but they almost always turn out to be hilarious and weirdly resonant: “Number one sexiest female organ: the butt. Number two sexiest female organ: the brain. The badonkadonk and the bathinkathink.” Following this, the obvious costume choice Morgan offers Mindy is the urinal, which he describes as “witty” and “topical.” I laughed.
There’s more to be excavated in both shows, and I’m especially interested in what you thought about the Mindy Project B-plot. I really adored seeing Danny and Jeremy off together on their own adventure, which in this case was to get driver’s licenses. It lets some insight into both characters (Danny wept when his favorite sub sandwich shop closed, and Jeremy eavesdropped on him!) even if we don’t know whether the show will explore these any further than this special episode.