Much of the conversation about Fox’s Tuesday night comedy lineup focused on two shows by and starring men, the execrable sitcom Dads, which
appears to have imported its jokes from Archie Bunker’s subconscious while forgetting that Archie himself was meant to be the butt of the joke, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police comedy from the creators of Parks and Recreation that’s one of the better–and more progressive–new
comedies of the season. But while I’m relieved that Brooklyn Nine-Nine beat Dads in the ratings, I’m actually more interested in the
creative fate of the two shows by and about women that air in the second hour of that comedy block, New Girl and The Mindy Project.
If Jess (Zooey Deschanel), the elementary school teacher protagonist of New Girl, a creation of young showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, is pure
spun sugar, Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), the OB/GYN character Kaling created for herself to play, in part in homage to her late mother’s profession, is the
sour half of their candy equation. But while New Girl, in its third season, has developed enough of its ideas about what it means to be a modern
woman to parody its own missteps, The Mindy Project still feels like it doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be, and more importantly, what
kind of person Mindy Lahiri is.
moved from unbearably grating to wonderful when it figured out that Jess’s wackiness wasn’t just an accessory that she’d decided to make the centerpiece of
her personality. It had two purposes. Jess’s ability to be cute and silly was one of the reasons she was a terrific elementary school teacher. And it could
also be a mask for her anxieties about various aspects of adult life, whether she was trying to figure out how to have sex again for the first time after
the breakup of a relationship she thought would end in marriage, determining how to comport herself when dating a successful older man, or freaking out
about her fertility. Wearing false teeth to a wedding wasn’t the essence of Jess’s personality. Acts like that were a ploy she used to get out ahead of
anyone who might criticize her for making a real mistake or stepping wrong in a social situation, and the show got much better as soon as it made clear
that there were things going on in Jess’s brain other than cotton candy and bird figurines from Etsy.
The beginning of the third season of New Girl feels like a reflection on the show’s early mis-calibration. This time, instead of Jess retreating
into age-inappropriate silliness when the going gets tough, the person who’s gone goofy, and done so in a particularly Jess-like way is her bartender
roommate and love interest Nick. Last season, the two spent the night together and decided to give their relationship a shot. But at the beginning of this
one, the pair panicked when they realized that being roommates meant their relationship didn’t have any space to develop casually (or out from under the
watchful eyes of the neurotic Schmidt and the mournful Winston). Their response? A panicked flight to Mexico.
It was a whimsical attempt to escape reality that in the past Jess might have held onto until someone pried it from her butterfly-appliqued fingernails.
But while there’s undeniable charm in pulling over to the side of the road to check out a pinata shaped like a monkey, it’s something else entirely to
pretend that you’re happy living out of the back of a beat-up station wagon. Old Jess might have pointed to the flags flapping from the trunk as proof they
were fine. New Jess could see the truth. “This is a badly built shelter,” she told Nick. And even though they made an interim attempt to blend in at an
all-inclusive resort rather than heading straight back to Los Angeles, it was ultimately Jess, rather than anyone else, who decided to embrace reality
without a goofy safety net to catch her. “It’s gonna be really, really hard, but so what, Nick?” Jess told Nick. “I believe in us. I’m all in. I really
want to go home.”
This sign that Jess is growing up doesn’t mean that New Girl, despite its strong second season, is fully cured of its worst impulses. The
third-season premiere has some weird notes reminiscent of its rocky first year, like giving Winston and obsession with puzzles and newly-diagnosed
color-blindness, the kinds of traits that acted as placeholders for Jess’s actual personality before New Girl figured out who she is as a person.
Three years in, you’d think they’ve have done the same work for all of her supporting characters. And Schmidt seems to have lost some of his specific
anxiousness and returned to his bro-y origins as he tries to delay choosing between Elizabeth, his not-thin college girlfriend, with whom he’d recently
reunited, and Cece, his newly-single model ex-girlfriend. But at least New Girl has figured out some ideas that it wants to get across to its
viewers, and found ways to communicate them with relative consistency.
I’d hoped that The Mindy Project would make a similar course correction in its second season, but judging by the early evidence, Mindy Kaling and
her writing staff still haven’t figured out a purpose to her character, Mindy Lahiri’s, unlikability.
There’s no question that the question of whether or not a woman is “likeable” is fraught, complicated by expectations that women be pleasant, pliable, and
make men comfortable. When Barack Obama called Hillary Rodham Clinton “likable enough” during their 2008 contest for the presidency, it was a remark he
could get away with in part because of the dominant perception that Clinton is a nag, a lady Macbeth, someone who’s generally failed to comply with the
expectation that she, like other women in public life, be patient, deferential, and hold only a certain number of opinions. Interrogating what it means for
men and women to be likable is a way of getting at the different ways people are rewarded or punished for their behavior, attitudes, and self-presentation
based on their gender. It’s a conversation that goes hand-in-hand with discussions of why anti-hero shows are taken more seriously than soap operas even
when they have similar tones or story structures, or why it’s substantive to care about sports but fluffy to be interested in fashion.
These could be conversations that The Mindy Project dominates, and intermittently, the show’s addressed the fact that Mindy can be both
pop-culture obsessed and good at her job, or that men can be just as susceptible to the draw of romantic comedies as women. But much of the time, the
specific ways in which she’s unlikable don’t have anything to say about gender norms or social conventions. More often, Mindy Lahiri’s just a jerk.
At The Atlantic, Jake Flanagin
“Why do we need more funny, nuanced women on TV? There’s a simple answer, and a complex one. The simple answer: to rectify a double standard. Jerry
Seinfeld was allowed to be an obnoxious hero, but Mindy Lahiri is apparently not.”
But the reason we can embrace Jerry Seinfeld is that his obnoxiousness speaks to truths we’ve all felt about social conventions. When Jerry doesn’t want to
go and see his neighbors’ ugly baby, he speaks for the part of ourselves that’s happy for our friends, but recognizes that newborns are red and scrunchy,
and you won’t be able to do much with them until they learn to hold their own heads up. By contrast, when Mindy drags a date back into a frozen yogurt
place to buy new flavors over and over again, you’ve got to wonder why she doesn’t just ask for a taste, already, instead of wasting the poor guy’s money
when she discards yet another order after a single bite?
In the season two premiere, Mindy’s boyfriend, Pastor Casey, proposes to her during a mission trip to Haiti, specifically after waking her up for a sunrise
she has no interest in seeing, the show could have made a point either about how Mindy’s obsession with romantic comedies is leading her into a
disastrously mis-matched marriage, or how a refusal might have come across as the mean thing to do, but is ultimately the right thing for her to do.
Instead, Mindy insists “I want to Vine this!” making her sound like nothing so much like the female equivalent of Tom Haverford, the social media-obsessed
wannabe business mogul from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. On The Office, Kaling’s character Kelly Kapoor wasn’t burdened with the
responsibility of being the hero of her show, and she was free to be a toxic example of where pop culture worship could lead. The Mindy Project‘s
occasionally been willing to suggest that Mindy’s romantic comedy obsession’s lead to heartache, but it seems to lack the commitment to embrace any one
direction for Mindy’s character, any animating idea behind her selfishness, and competence, and friendships with her male co-workers.
If The Mindy Project wants to be a revolutionary statement of female unlikability, Mindy needs to be more of a jerk, with more consistent reasons
to be unpleasant, resistant to norms and other people’s feelings, and most importantly, a jerk to an end. Jess is anxious about the world, but
tentatively ready to embrace it. Maybe it’s time for Mindy to get furious, and to act out in ways more dramatic than getting arrested at the Empire State
building or getting a dramatic haircut.