When Fox’s offbeat, female-centered comedies “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” premiered in 2011 and 2012, respectively, both were hailed as the season’s best new comedy. But as the pair returns tonight, it’s clear that only one takes full advantage of its star’s distinctive persona — and it’s not the one you might expect.
As part of a television vanguard of “young women askew,” to use James Wolcott’s phrase, Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling once seemed poised to disrupt the pop cultural landscape. Neither is anywhere close to universally liked–the former has been called “twee” and the latter “smug,” criticisms that often smack of discomfort with successful women. In embracing eccentric leading ladies, Fox implicitly promised two fresh, funny sitcoms with distinct perspectives on modern womanhood.
Since then, while both series have weathered rough patches and witnessed moments of grand comic invention — the hilariously inscrutable drinking game True American on “New Girl,” or the playful homage to Meg Ryan/Nora Ephron romantic comedies that capped last season of “The Mindy Project” — neither has evinced much interest in the kind of social commentary that’s come to be associated with “Broad City” and “Girls.”
And that’s fine. Not every series need stake out clear ideological terrain. Yet “New Girl” has grown into its kooky, everyday sensibility, aided by the cast’s abundant chemistry; “The Mindy Project,” by contrast, still seems unsure whether it’s a run-of-the-mill sitcom with a dollop of mordant humor or an acerbic send-up of its heroine with a sprinkle of sugar. Both series have struggled to break from the network comedy formula, but whereas “New Girl” accepts this ordinariness and executes it beautifully, “The Mindy Project” veers almost shamefacedly between pat romantic comedy tropes and the satire thereof, as though it considers its ordinariness embarrassing.
After major romantic shakeups at the end of last season, now is an opportune time to check back in with the two series. “The Mindy Project” opens the new season with a montage of Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) and love interest Danny Castellano (Chris Messina, stellar throughout). Colleagues in an obstetrics practice where no one seems to do any work, their will they/won’t they attraction has propelled the series from the start, and it culminated in last season’s winsome, clever finale. Here, in an episode titled “We’re a Couple Now, Haters!” her interruption of his sentimental voiceover narration (“Shut up and do me!”) succinctly conveys the basic elements of their clashing personalities.
The remainder of the episode imagines one iteration of this conflict, as Mindy’s thoughtless gossiping comes up against Danny’s desire for privacy, but “The Mindy Project” derives more humor from precise details than broad strokes. After Mindy discovers a pink thong marked “Diamond” in Danny’s drawer, she Googles “manhattan stripper named diamond,” as we all would; in one goofily sexy moment between them, she’s wearing a dowdy cardigan and thick-framed glasses, as if to say, “Hell yeah, I’m a nerd! And I’m still going to take this hot guy to bed tonight, so fuck you!”
At its best, then, “The Mindy Project” skewers romantic comedy convention and tosses the haterade right back in our faces. The problem is that such moments are all too rare: mostly unwilling to invest Mindy with the utter lack of self-awareness that made Kelly Kapoor, of “The Office,” so bravely unlikeable, the series falls back on an uninteresting clutter of supporting characters and a vein of earnestness at cross-purposes with Kaling’s cutting sense of humor. The multitalented, whip-smart Kaling is more like Ephron than Ryan’s plucky, flaky heroines, and there are rich comic possibilities in playing with the distance between the two. Unfortunately, “The Mindy Project” tries to have it both ways, and ends up achieving neither.
If dulling the sharpest edges of Kaling’s persona leaves “The Mindy Project” in an uncomfortable middle ground between the fantasy of romantic comedy and the comic reality of romance, “New Girl” succeeds by tempering Deschanel’s “adorkability” with frat house antics. The season premiere finds the gang at the last of twelve summer weddings, trying to fulfill a pact that they’ll all get laid, and Jess’s infelicitous metaphor for the agreement illustrates the effect of directing Deschanel’s sweet-as-pie persona toward crude ends: the sudden cut to the cutesy theme song, as Jess realizes what she’s saying, is so hilarious I watched it twice.
With Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson) four months removed from dating, “New Girl” returns to something like equilibrium. Jess competes with guest star Jessica Biel for the attention of the best man (Reid Scott), goaded by Winston (Lamorne Morris) into following him around until he relents, a gambit also known as “Biden-ing”; Nick and Schmidt (Max Greenfield) reprise their bromance by debating the merits of a foursome with two hot bridesmaids. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about its depiction of wayward friends struggling to find a footing in adulthood, but in playing with the saccharine elements of Deschanel’s performance, “New Girl” deftly balances its absurdist humor with a genuine belief in the importance of Platonic affection. “Maybe some people are fridge people and other people are toilet people,” Jess laments to Nick, sitting in the men’s bathroom: it’s hard, in other words, to watch your generation grow up when you feel as though you’ve stalled.
The episode ends, tellingly, with the gang drinking beers and tearing the wedding invitations from the refrigerator door, one of those warm, lived-in moments that make the series so satisfying. “New Girl” eclipses “The Mindy Project” because it knows what it is, turning its most obvious weakness (sentimentality) into its greatest strength (sincerity). It’s the toilet person of network comedies, and all the better for it.
The new seasons of “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” premiere tonight on FOX at 9pm and 9:30pm ET.