The idea of the two friends who are actually perfect for one another as lovers but can’t seem to realize it is a cherished trope of romantic comedies. It’s the entire premise of “When Harry Met Sally…,” one of the most beloved romantic comedies of the past 50 years, and it’s a standard device in television shows that want to spin out some will-they-or-won’t-they tension over a season or three.
Both “The Mindy Project” and “New Girl” are informed by rom-coms. In the former, they provide the (frequently terrible) guiding force in its heroine’s ideas about relationships, while the latter uses them and other pop ephemera as common cultural ground and solace (“I’ll probably be watching ‘Dirty Dancing’ at least six or seven times… a day” Zooey Deschanel’s Jess explained to her new roommates in the show’s pilot). But last night, the two shows ended up approaching the friends-to-lovers idea from opposite sides, creating something together that was more interesting than the episodes as standalone quantities, even as “New Girl” took a step forward in its own take on that type of relationship.
Your traditional TV series that is not “The Wire” is centered around a stable group of core characters. Sometimes someone will leave or someone new will be introduced, but there’s generally a clear sense of who makes up the main cast and who’s just passing through in a guest arc. This is why, particularly for sitcoms, the friends/coworkers who are apparently oblivious to their romantic tension tend to be the “real” pairing from which every other passing attachment is a distraction. When Allison Williams turns up on “The Mindy Project” as Danny’s (Chris Messina) new girlfriend, we know it isn’t going to last because, firstly, she’s a regular elsewhere, on “Girls,” and secondly, because Danny’s involved in a permanent flirtatious bickering with Mindy Kaling’s protagonist that signals they’re destined to be antagonistic soulmates.
Mindy herself has already cycled through a series of entanglements with what feels like half of the hip men of comedy, from Bill Hader as her ex Tom to Ed Helms as blind date Dennis and Mark Duplass as midwife/most recent hookup Brendan. When Mindy had a meet cute with a Latin professor played by Kaling’s former “Office” co-star B. J. Novak in last night’s episode “Harry & Sally,” it provided an interesting look at the theoretical perspective of all of TV’s passing love interests, because Novak’s character Jamie came with his own too-close gal pal Lucy (Eva Amurri Martino), who Mindy first mistook for his girlfriend.
Out on a date with Mindy, Jamie insisted that he and Lucy were just friends, and that “if something was going to happen, it would have happened by now,” though he called Lucy at dinner and chatted with her while ignoring Mindy in a way she found troubling. No one wants to feel like they’re just one of the romantic dead ends on someone else’s path toward a happy ending with someone else. “He’s Billy Crystal and she’s Meg Ryan,” Danny observed to Mindy before Jeremy (Ed Weeks) suggested that, in this equation, Mindy is Bruno Kirby. (“I’m not even Carrie Fisher?!” she responded.)
Novak, who’s an executive producer on “The Mindy Project,” is unlikely to stick around onscreen long-term, but the show gets an added jolt from the writer/actor/comedian’s own friendship and former romance with Kaling. (Describing the arc of their relationship with Vulture, Kaling said they “kind of fell in love” when they were both working as writers, “dated on and off for a couple of years, and now we are just, like, best friends. Like, real best friends.” The episode, written by Kaling and Novak, suggests that regardless of whether or not there’s a romantic component, an extremely close relationship like that can push any new arrivals to what feel like cameo spots.
“New Girl” has always played with the chemistry between Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson), whose low-key will-they-or-won’t-theyness has allowed for the presence of plenty of other romances for the characters involving the likes of Dermot Mulroney, David Walton, Olivia Munn and Lizzy Caplan. Deschanel and Johnson have such noticeable but comfortable chemistry together that the show’s drawing out their potential romance hasn’t yet gotten old, though last night’s “Cooler,” directed by Max Winkler (“Ceremony”), brought it to the forefront by showing how Jess unknowingly stifles Nick’s attempts at picking up women. “It’s not you, it’s the way that you behave, the things that you say, the look on your face… it is you! You’re the cooler,” Nick explained. And Jess proved herself incapable of actually letting him and the guys go out for a night on their own as she freaked herself out while alone in the loft and summoned him home (“I need you!”).
In the episode, “New Girl” struggles to walk a line between having Jess be both oblivious to her connection with Nick but also not openly jealous or deliberate in her blocking of his attempts to meet new women (in this case, Brooklyn Decker, playing a girl who’s sexually intrigued by sadness). The show tends to lose itself when it makes Jess overly quirky, as she was in its less successful early episodes, and here her apartment panic was a little too much and potentially cruel given the context of Nick needing space to get laid.
But his distress when locked in a room with her as part of a drinking game and being asked to kiss her was a nice touch, even as he risked death to climb out the window and back into the living room in order to avoid locking lips with her as part of some boozy dare while all their friends chanted outside. “Not like this!” he insisted, later laying a real kiss on her to the pleasure of all shippers tuning in, leaving the future of their relationship a major question mark.
If “The Mindy Project” presented a moment of romantic comedy self-awareness in a character realizing that she might be “the rando that Gerard Butler wastes his time with before he realizes he’s really in love with Kate Beckinsale,” “New Girl” presented its own in a character trying to acknowledge that he’s Harry to Jess’ Sally, and that being stuck narratively at that holding point sucks. “We can’t like that, because that’s not, d’you know? Like, it’s very– like you don’t, that’s not what it…” Nick explained helpfully when telling Jess why he couldn’t kiss her at that moment. If being the “rando” sucks, then being the lead and not wanting to mess things up forever is just as hard. Hey, it took Harry and Sally 12 years.