Tag Archives: sitcoms

TV Judo: The Shifting Physics of The Mindy Project

3 Apr

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Good TV can be tough to quantify. It can be serious or funny, glossy or gritty, HBO or Sesame Street, the product of collaboration or a single voice wearing every hat. It’s entertainment for millions of people that we let into our private homes, and our lives, sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes TV is good, but it doesn’t stick in our hearts; sometimes we know it’s shoddy, and we love it anyway. Which brings us to the question that comes up every Tuesday night on Fox: Is The Mindy Project good TV?

In a lot of ways, it isn’t. It’s messy and inconsistent and nonsensical. It has a promising romantic-comedy concept, but haphazard execution. We’re supposed to root for Mindy to find love, but she’s often a terrible person. In a little over a season, four supporting characters have been written out and seven have been written in; the ensemble isn’t really supporting anybody. All told, if thoughtful storylines and polished comedy are your thing, go watch reruns of Modern Family.

But in so many other ways, like joy, delight, hilarity, random hip-hop dancing, and attractive goofballs falling in love, it’s gotten so, so great—from Mindy Kaling loyalty viewing to appointment TV, really, in about six episodes flat. The weird thing is, the bones of the show haven’t changed; a lot of its flaws are written into the premise of the show. But there’s some kind of TV judo going on here, in that the physics have changed. It’s the same show, but in learning to play to its own silly strengths, it feels about a thousand times more magnetic.

For one thing, they’ve stopped the boyfriend carousel and given us something to pay attention to, for now. One difficulty of the romantic-comedy series is the endless stream of love interests, none of whom feel important—especially when there’s an obvious soulmate waiting in the wings. One way to solve this and gain a little momentum is to write in a few significant significant others along the way—your Aidans and your Treys, in Sex and the City parlance, to bring up a show that dealt with this issue pretty well. (Mindy gave this a shot, bringing in Anders Holm as Mindy’s cute minister/missionary fiance, Casey; still, even he never quite stuck.) Another is to cut out the middlemen and just go for it with the obvious soulmate. New Girl dove into this type of storyline last year with Jess and Nick, to excellent results at the time, but it’s turned into a cautionary tale: this post-Nick/Jess season has so little momentum, it’s practically moving backwards.

Regardless, that’s where Mindy seems to be headed: in the last moments before the winter hiatus, Mindy made out with handsome curmudgeon/soulmate Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), rather satisfyingly, in the back of an airplane. This week’s returning episodes ended with them snuggled up together, reading Bridget Jones’s Diary aloud—obvious boyfriend behavior. Whether it’s a good move long-term or not, it’s been a jolt of energy for the show; after the fact, everyone was talking about that airplane kiss. It also, incidentally, condenses all the best parts of the show into one storyline. Mindy and Danny are the most interesting characters in the Mindy universe, and Messina and Kaling are spot-on together, and this just gives them more time to put their flawless comic and romantic chemistry to work, and for Messina to do silly/sexy dances to 90s hip-hop songs. A victory, obviously.

They’ve also stopped the supporting-cast revolving door, which is one of those production-side things that ends up impacting the creative side. Mindy has struggled with its ensemble from the start: who should be in it, how much attention to give them, and who among them is actually funny. (With regards to Ike Barinholtz as Morgan, two words: SMALL DOSES.) But things are getting better! The final casting change took place earlier this season, when Adam Pally, freed up after the cancellation of Happy Endings, joined up as bro-y OB/GYN Peter Prentice—and immediately became the glue of the supporting cast. This character could so easily have been a) an unlovable disaster or b) maybe worse, another supporting doctor who doesn’t quiiiiite have enough to do (sorry Ed Weeks you’re so handsome), but Pally has turned out to be a much-needed source of grounding and focus for the non-Mindy/Danny portion of the cast. Maybe the writing staff just knows what to do with him; maybe Pally himself is just the right amount of cute/skeevy; maybe he plays extra well with his costars; whatever it is, it feels like he’s singlehandedly rescuing the supporting cast.

And, really, they’ve gone for it, and I think that’s the key. Even more than other sitcom casts, this crew is game for goofy, undignified physical comedy. Almost by definition, it doesn’t always work—there was this one time, with a disapproving Mindy and a frat-house stripper pole? But sometimes the payoff is big: Mindy and Danny’s horrifying attempt at airplane-bathroom sex, Danny’s terrible Bridget Jones accent, basically Morgan’s entire existence. Danny’s Aaliyah dance—and I’m sorry to have to say this; I love it, too—makes no sense and isn’t something Danny Castellano would really do, but it’s a tiny, .gif-able moment of joy, and that’s its entire purpose. In a way, it’s the emblematic scene from this season of the show: funny because it’s funny, sweet because it’s sweet, and not totally concerned with making sense. And that’s what makes it great. (That, and Messina’s shoulder-brush. Because, come on.)

This is the last of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Hop on over to New Girl here and Brooklyn Nine-Nine here!

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Does Not Live by Jokes Alone: Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the Warm Sitcom

28 Mar

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine creator Mike Schur isn’t the only one doing the warm sitcom—Modern Family does it; New Girl occasionally does it; I hear The Middle does it—but he might be the best and most consistent. He comes from The Office and he created Parks and Recreation, both of which have decidedly uplifting tendencies and had flaily first seasons before gaining traction later on. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he’s gotten it right out of the gate, and then gone further: from jokes to characters to compelling relationships in one season flat.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was that rare TV unicorn, a sitcom that people liked right away, and rightly so: it was funny and self-assured from the start. It got good reviews and reasonable ratings, and it won two Golden Globes (Best Television – Comedy or Musical and a Best Actor – Television Comedy or Musical nod for Andy Samberg) before it had aired a full season—which everybody thought was a little dumb, but may have given the show a little extra time and confidence.

The task of any freshman sitcom is to hang on long enough to let its characters find their voices, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done that, largely by being funny enough and well-liked enough at an early enough date to sidestep worries about cancellation. (The writers also had the brains to develop the entire ensemble and avoid becoming The Andy Samberg Show—a smart move, since a lot of people find Full Samberg off-putting. Here, he’s allowed to play to his obvious strengths and show off a few less obvious ones.) That said, the growth spurt took awhile. As late as Thanksgiving, it was hard to remember exactly who was who (now which brunette was the kiss-up, and which one was that girl from Twitter?) and why we cared, exactly, aside from all the jokes. But it did eventually come: with time and careful writing, the archetypes of the Nine-Nine have become fictional people, identifiable and with full-sized personalities. Most importantly—and this is maybe Schur’s greatest gift as a showrunner—every single character on this show has an identifiable heart. From the deadpan Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) down the line to his weirdo assistant Gina (Chelsea Peretti) to the show’s protagonist, professional goofball/detective Jake Peralta (Samberg), everybody wants things, and fears things, and tries to keep secrets—and when those things collide, as they always do on a sitcom, we get unexpected moments of grace. It’s very, very funny, but it’s generous funny, and it’s those vulnerable spots that make us care.

Early on, a lot of people pointed out that the characters on Brooklyn Nine-Nine bear certain resemblances to the characters on Parks and Rec: intense goody-goodies Amy Santiago and Leslie Knope; ultra-stoics Ron Swanson and Captain Holt; golden-hearted angry ladies Rosa Diaz and April Ludgate; perpetual bumblers Gary/Jerry/Larry and Hitchcock & Scully. And it’s true that Schur has his types, and the two series have similar rhythms—but it isn’t a problem. Amy and Leslie may be different sides of the same coin, but they express themselves differently. Rosa isn’t April. And we all know Gary/Jerry/Larry would just think Hitchcock & Scully are the coolest guys ever. And when it comes down to it, is a family resemblance to Parks and Rec really the worst thing?

So, all this character-building is great—but for what Schur is doing with the warm sitcom, it isn’t enough. Lots of shows have good characterization; not as many play good characterization into nuanced interactions that stand the test of many seasons. Around the beginning of the year, carefully established relationships began to emerge across the character matrix, from the big names all the way down to recurring small-dose characters like  Hitchcock and Scully (see: Gina and the secret bathroom). The expected combinations are there, for sure: loose cannon Peralta and ultra-stoic Captain Holt, Peralta and teacher’s pet Santiago (Melissa Fumero, who’s great on this show), and the like. But a lot of the interesting stuff lies, as it so often does, on the periphery. The series started off with a potentially tough-to-pull-off unrequited-love story between the awkward foodie Boyle (Joe Lo Truglia) and the generally terrifying Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). Would they overcome their complete incompatibility and fall in love? Mercifully, no. But Schur and Co. worked with the concept and came up with something compelling but not insane: they would overcome a little of their incompatibility and become friends. In his hour of being dumped by his fiancee, it was Rosa who talks him through with sincerity and grace—and because of the slow creep of their relationship over the course of the season, it didn’t feel strange. This is the kind of groundwork that allows for long story arcs and keeps viewers coming back week after week.

One note of potential awkwardness: toward the end of the season, Peralta began nursing a crush on Santiago. This is pleasant: Samberg sells it, and Fumero has a great semi-awareness that she somehow gets across, and the whole thing allows for a certain number of goofy and touching romantic hijinks. It also makes a sort of strategic sense; people love having a couple to root for, and that extra emotional hook might ensure that they don’t forget to tune in come September. It’s enjoyable—but it feels like it was introduced too late and moved forward too early. This is the kind of storyline that does especially well when it’s introduced immediately (a la Jim and Pam on The Office) or worked in slowly during a longer run (Leslie and Ben on Parks and Rec, indicating that Schur knows exactly how to do this), but something about bringing it up a month or six weeks before the season finale feels just a hair forced. In the finale, just before breaking contact and going undercover long-term, Peralta confessed that he’d like something to happen between them. It was a nice scene, but it didn’t need to happen yet. Endless delayed gratification in TV love can make things awkward and ridiculous, but making a move too soon cuts out the thrill of waiting awhile—and we’re still well within the bounds of a little healthy pining. The show wasn’t in danger of cancellation (I’m looking at you, The Mindy Project). It could have waited.

Anyway. As the first season ends, we’re left with a fun concept for next year: Peralta goes undercover to root out the mafia. It’s unclear how that will work logistically, assuming he’ll have to cut off all contact with the rest of the Nine-Nine, but that’s a concern for another day—and I think we can assume it’ll be good. They’ve got their act together.

This is the second of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Hop on over to New Girl here; stay tuned for The Mindy Project!

 

What Happened to New Girl?

10 Mar

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There was a time when Tuesday night was New Girl night. After the ramping-up period, back when The Mindy Project was an infant and Brooklyn Nine-Nine was just someone’s pitch for Andre Braugher holding puppies, New Girl got good. It grew nuance and originality along with silliness, and cultivated a gift for amazing throwaway lines. It developed characters so weird that you had to love them. It had something going. And now, in its third season, it’s lost its way.

The last season of New Girl was incredibly exciting. Among other plot points, the writers leaned hard on the developing romantic relationship between Jess and her roommate Nick, with thrilling results. The story was exciting; Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s crackly, grown-up chemistry was exciting; and the writing was really exciting. The writers approached Nick and Jess’s story with the kind of abandon—one might say recklessness—not often seen on network sitcoms. Instead of drawing out the will-they-won’t-they, they went for it, all at once, and it was a glorious thing to watch.

In comparison, this season is dead in the water. Nearly everybody’s flailing, looking for an arc and not finding anything of substance. Schmidt moved out, and then back in again, for reasons I don’t really remember. Winston, never a character of great purpose in the first place, continues to have harebrained schemes that never go anywhere (though I hope he becomes a cop, and stays one; there’s lots of material there). And Coach, the roommate who was replaced by Winston after the pilot, has resurfaced for reasons nobody seems to get, other than the cancellation of Happy Endings and the availability of Damon Wayans, Jr. Cece is working at the bar with Nick—potentially a fun move—and fostering a mostly platonic soft spot for Schmidt, but she isn’t going anywhere. None of them are.

The thing is, though, that there are two characters who aren’t really flailing, and they are Nick and Jess. They’ve lost the urgency of last season, but their relationship remains the best part of the show—they’re funny, they’re sexy (except when they’re deliberately not, a la Nick’s nightgown), and their storylines stem primarily from the drama and humor inherent in two weird humans trying to establish a life together. This is huge: by far, the biggest killer of television couples (and, sometimes, television shows) is the temptation to manufacture drama externally, as if human relationships were somehow not interesting enough. It’s this impulse that brought us Luke’s long-lost daughter April, Luke’s inexplicable desire to keep her a secret, and a totally unnecessary breakup on Gilmore Girls; it’s this impulse that replaced Lois Lane with a frog-eating clone a million years ago on Lois and Clark; it’s this impulse that made a serial killer force Booth to refuse to marry Brennan, and not tell her why, on Bones. It’s an infuriating instinct—and on New Girl, the writers have mostly avoided it, apparently getting that these two characters have enough neuroses and conflicting pressure points to keep an enterprising sitcom writer busy until the next winter Olympics, at least. It’s a slowed-down version of what they started last year, and that’s understandable; what they were doing last year wasn’t sustainable. I suspect not everybody is enjoying the monogamous setting-up stage of Nick and Jess’s relationship—but it’s keeping them focused, and in motion, which is more than anybody else on the show can say.

Maybe The Nick and Jess Show in its barn-burning heyday sucked all the energy from everybody else’s storylines, and we were all so busy watching them that nobody noticed. Now, when everything has normalized, we notice, and adjustments need to be made. At its best, this show invests in all four roommates, and regardless of what Fox tries to tell us, Jess can’t carry the show alone. This week may have been a step in the right direction, with Schmidt moving back into the apartment, forcing Nick and Jess to continue sharing a room despite realizing they’d rather not. This reshuffling is a chance to refocus the action in new ways and go back to some established routines, and maybe find new arcs with new setups and new payoffs. Let’s hope a little proximity and a little reset button can breathe some life back into apartment 4D.

This is the first of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Coming soon, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project