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Jess and Mindy -- A Look at the Progression of Female Comedy Characters

by Alyssa Rosenberg
September 19, 2013 2:00 PM
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Jess and Mindy

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.

New Girl 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.

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  • Jessica Langlois | September 24, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    I enjoyed this article, as I've fostered love/hate relationships with both these shows & their heroines! It's true that Mindy's unmoored meanness/shallowness often undermines the fact that she is a strong minded, extremely sharp woman. I thought Mindy's best moments in past seasons were when she had to interact with kids. She was unabashed about not giving them special attention (like her best friend's daughter) in a way that was refreshing, but also was forced to look at herself and consider what messages she wanted to send them -- like the teen in her building who asks her for birth control.

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  • Carrie | September 19, 2013 7:48 PMReply

    Interesting angle, suggesting Mindy's character be more of a grouch. Why do her co-workers put up with her antics unless she's mega talented or the leader? I'm disappointed in how they write the other characters. Not enough time given to the doctors and support staff.

    New Girl blew my socks off because the other actors get plum lines. The douchebag thread of Schmidt in the beginning is what kept me watching. I love when Winston has strong storylines. Seinfeld was brilliant because Elaine, Kramer and George got screentime. Mad Men would have fizzled with Don Draper having the only character development. So many pilots seem lackluster when they angle to set up one person as the star of the show. The shows that have longevity wisely develop the secondary characters. Call the Midwife, the Big C, Nurse Jackie are great because they have strong secondary characters. Even BBC's Sherlock excels when focus is given to Watson, Molly, Mycroft, Moriarty

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