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‘The Mindy Project,’ ‘New Girl’ and TV’s Treatment of Mystifying Millennials

'The Mindy Project,' 'New Girl' and TV's Treatment of Mystifying Millennials

On this week’s episode of “The Mindy Project,” “Teen Patient,” Mindy (Mindy Kaling) is approached by her 15-year-old neighbor Sophia (Kara Crane) about securing a prescription for birth control. Sophia, it seems, has a steady boyfriend named Henry (Alec George), is in love and wants to take the next step, and Mindy, in characteristically well-meaning but self-important fashion, insists on coming with her to high school to meet the young man in a conflicted mix of wanting to be a cool friend and a caring guardian figure.

It ends, as most things do, in minor humiliation for our protagonist, but not before she has a bewildering experience in a high school in which the students study the history of dubstep and street art, wander in and out of a bean bag-filled student lounge and play with (or wear?) something called slime (“I don’t understand — is it considered bad or good?” Mindy says).

Mindy, who’s supposed to be in her early 30s, tries to place herself as closer to the kids than any authority figure, but despite describing herself as a “teen-plus,” she’s hopelessly out of step with these teenagers, who are half her age, certainly, but also representative of a generation gap widened by the radical changes in technology that have occurred in the last few decades. Trying to fit herself into the responsible adult role, she quizzes Henry about his plans for the future and what will happen to their relationship when they go to college. He tells her, to her shock and dismay, he doesn’t plan to go to college: “Why should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?”

The thing is, that’s actually not that outlandish an answer, given the crushing student loans recent grads tend to enter an unwelcoming workforce burdened by and presuming he has his shit together regarding starting his business, and Mindy doesn’t have a good retort to his point that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. Later, she tells Sophia’s flamboyantly gay friend Ben (Justin Castor) “It gets better,” only to have him respond “How could it?!” while fielding a wink from a guy in a letterman jacket with a “You wish, Steven!” All the guideless about how to behave have changed — sex and sexuality are no longer such a big deal, the essentialness of college might not be such a sure thing anymore and the only kind of advice Mindy’s really fit to give is that no one should fixate on forever.

Worrying about or flat out feeling old is a standard TV and film theme, but Millennials have been used to play a particularly entertaining role in exploring how a decade can amount to a serious cultural divide. It’s something that cropped up in the unexpectedly fun “21 Jump Street” big screen adaptation, in which Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s characters went undercover in high school only to find the culture bewilderingly different, for which Tatum’s character blamed “Glee.” “New Girl” investigated a similar panic of communication failure in the October episode “Neighbors,” in which Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Schmidt (Max Greenfield) try to befriend the group of early twentysomething who move down the hall, who always hang out together, are only semi-employed and whose ethnicities and sexual preferences are generally ambiguous.

While the underemployed and drifting Jess fits in with them easily thanks to her similar lack of a career and stolen catchphrases from ’80s sitcoms they’ve never heard of, Schmidt utterly fails to connect to the hilariously named Chaz, Fife, Sutton and Brorie. They’re not impressed by his corporate career, they have no idea that Goose dies in “Top Gun” until he accidentally spoils it for them; and he in turn doesn’t know what to do with the facts that they have no TV, that all their furniture is found and that three of them are in a relationship together. As Schmidt puts it, “They’re the future of humanity! A pan-ethnic, pansexual hive mind, and they want nothing to do with me!”

The idea that a few years is enough for an entirely new language for being young to have developed is an amusing one and an irresistable way to prompt a character to reconsider the way he or she self-identifies, even if Millennials tend to end up characterized as half alien in doing so (very soon, kids, you will be running network shows of your own). But it also provides an interesting way to reexamine characters who act and think of themselves as young, but who are, while not old, by any standard description adults. Mindy and Jess are two of the latest in a long line of TV’s single heroines trying to make it in the big city, and both are defined by a certain deliberate girlishness.

Whether in Mindy’s failure to fit in with them or Jess’ managing it a little too easily, these encounters with people born in the ’90s are reminders of the ways in which our ideas about youth are as much defined by lifestyle and behavior as actual age. Jess may still live with three roommates while Mindy leads a more sturdy professional life (albeit one marked with some serious immaturity), but both continue to struggle with the act of growing up as much as with finding love and career satisfaction. They are cast and cast themselves as kids until held up against actual teenagers and recent college grads, at which point they have to acknowledge that they’re no longer 23, as Jess puts it — and that’s actually a good thing.

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