A kind of history was made on the night of October 7, 2014. Beginning at the nine o’clock hour, the Fox Broadcasting Company aired a half-hour comedy about a man with a micropenis. At 9:30, another comedy was shown, this one devoted to the ins and outs (but mostly the unplanned ins) of anal sex. Together, the episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project represented the penetration of a bold new frontier for network television, one in which nothing was taboo. Unlike racier shows of the past, these two episodes never beat around the bush. (Though I suppose you could argue that’s exactly what The Mindy Project did.) Almost two decades since Seinfeld mastered its domain, the Fox comedies gleefully sodomized theirs. Yes, it bears mentioning that both New Girl and The Mindy Project were extremely clever and very, very funny that night. (Winston’s “It looks an anteater being born” and Mindy’s delivery of “fifth base” were particular keepers.) But for me, the larger takeaway was this: For one blue evening in October, the humble network sitcom was once again moving the medium forward. (Or downward. Depending.)
A few weeks ago I wrote about a different sort of network comedic drift: the fall straight down to the bottom. Thanks to an impossible development cycle, the network comedy, once the moneymaking foundation of opulent programming empires, appeared to be settling into a period of irreversible decline. This naysaying was inspired by the weakest fall sitcom slate in years — with only the rising Black-ish there to reverse the slide.1 For the hardy veterans that, through a combination of guile and buzz, have managed to escape the guillotine and gain renewal, the picture is only slightly less bleak.2 Ratings are down everywhere these days, but the normal season-to-season hemorrhaging becomes a Peckinpah-esque geyser where sitcoms are concerned.3 For proof, I’d urge you to check out The Millers, which lost 50 percent of its audience in just over a year, but I can’t. The Millers was canceled last Friday.
How bad has it been? There have been four cancellations thus far this season. All four victims were sitcoms.
I’m talking year-to-year survivors here, which is basically every returning network sitcom save for The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family.
There are three notable exceptions to this: ABC’s The Goldbergs, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and CBS’s Mom are up in their second seasons.
In the face of this slaughter, contemporary comedies are faced with a treacherous choice: to speed up the serialization in order to tap into the electricity of newness — new couples! New jobs! New Hamm! — that fuels TV buzz, if not necessarily ratings, in the Twitter age? Or to settle into the sort of comfortable, joke-forward stasis that has preserved network sitcoms and led to huge syndication paydays from time immemorial? (Or at least since the Korean War reached its 11th year.) The constantly moving Parks and Recreation has turned hope and change into a savvy business strategy, though its ratings have always been a fraction of those garnered by The Big Bang Theory, a show as set in its ways as the periodic table. On October 7, both New Girl and Mindy were moving. But at very different speeds.
For the first three years of its existence, New Girl just wouldn’t slow down. Thanks to the presence of 30 Rock veterans Dave Finkel and Brett Baer, the show arrived in 2011 fully fluent in the wordy, semiautomatic style of hilarity preferred by the highly desirable demographic of 18-to-49-year-old Harvard graduates. But series creator Liz Meriwether brought a sensibility that was entirely new: a fratty conviviality that was actually rooted in the sorority house. (New Girl’s original title? Chicks and Dicks.) At a time when bong-ripping man-children were rampaging across the movie screens, Meriwether provided a defiantly gender-neutral take on maturity — or the screaming lack of it. Her bratty boys, played brilliantly by Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, and Lamorne Morris, could get messy with the best of them, but her heroine, Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel), could mess things up even worse. Still, there was always a surprising degree of dignity to New Girl, even amid the gags about quick-hardening caulk, a sense that these four pushing-thirtysomethings weren’t content to wallow. They wanted things like love, health care, and viable eggs. But they also wanted to drink beer and pretend to be a Romney. Not a dramatic choice, maybe, but to many, a familiar one. Even when Meriwether aimed for the crotch, she wound up bruising hearts.
The flirtation between Johnson’s Nick and Deschanel’s Jess was baked into the show from the very beginning. Still, New Girl surprised nearly everyone by steering into that oncoming skid so quickly: The two locked lips with episodes still remaining in the second season. By the time the show returned, the roommates had become a couple. This made an enormous amount of sense from a storytelling perspective (with the future less guaranteed than ever for network shows, why leave viable plot on the table?), and it did wonders for the Tumblr-industrial complex. A few years before, The Office had proven that it was possible to address will-they-or-won’t-they questions with a definitive, non-stress-inducing “yes.” But adopting that tack steered the once fleet-footed New Girl directly into a brick wall. As its writers and fans quickly learned, New Girl isn’t The Office and never will be. A workplace sitcom about a larger community can withstand the occasional, permanent pairing-off no matter the damage done to the couple.4 A comedy about jittery singles simply can’t afford the stability.
In case you forgot: It was significant.
As a result, much of the third season was a disaster. Nick and Jess never appeared to be a plausible couple because so much of the show’s humor derived from their utter implausibility as functioning adults. If Meriwether, Finkel, and Baer couldn’t look at the two of them without giggling, how could we? With the two leads sinking like a stone, everyone else on the show had to kick harder to stay afloat. This led to Schmidt temporarily becoming a villain, Winston temporarily becoming a crazy cat lady, and the newly returned Coach temporarily becoming a sixth wheel. I admired New Girl’s commitment to progress. But all indications suggested that the show had simply run out of viable road.
To their credit, the showrunners agreed. The fourth season began with an unambiguous reboot: Everyone was once again single and desperate to mingle. I remained highly skeptical of such a blatant mulligan. What was New Girl without the frisson of flirtation that made it so attractive in the first place? Even with five people sharing a bathroom, it’s awfully hard to put toothpaste back in the tube. Historically, few shows have been able to rebound from a mistake like this, but even fewer shows have been willing to admit the mistake in the first place.
As it turned out, starting over was a plan so crazy that it actually worked. Through seven episodes (the eighth aired last night), New Girl is once again skydiving through rarefied comic air. The last three episodes in particular have been outrageously, balletically funny. “Landline” beat millennial myopia like a drum (Schmidt, upon seeing the titular telephone: “Why is there a rope?”); “Background Check” began with a run of Schmidt business so precise and so bizarre that it outshone entire seasons of other, lesser comedies (“Paul? How do you even pronounce that?”); and “Goldmine” took the creepy collaborator vibe that had run through Nick and Jess’s romance like a tapeworm and unleashed it on an unsuspecting visitor (“I’m terrible at lying, but I’m terrific at make-believe!”). Over on Hitfix, Alan Sepinwall has noted that the fourth season has seemed primarily concerned with treating hoary sitcom plots — the parental visit, the awkward ex — as dares and twisting them into unexpected, amusing shapes. I’d try to gin up an argument about the lack of inspiration in this but, quite honestly, I’ve been too busy laughing to care.
What has been lost in this looking backward, though, is any sense of momentum. New Girl is no longer a show with much interest in the outside world. Larger concerns, about family and the future, have been tossed aside in favor of short-term boning and heart-to-hearts with breasts. Episodes shine only when they focus on these six people acting like drunk, lawless lunatics together. The loft has become a sanctuary and a sort of prison. It’s True American: The Series.
Of course, freezing a sitcom’s story at peak chemistry, like peas in late spring, used to be the goal. It creates an air of predictability and safety within a series, knowing that the jokes are likely to fall in a certain way and that all will be reset to zero to do it again next week. The historical outcome for shows like this wasn’t apathy and cancellation, it was millions and millions of dollars in syndication fees. Reliable laughter is the engine that fuels the money-printing Chuck Lorre Machine and what caused Netflix to shell out its hard-earned Orange Is the New Black greenbacks on a sitcom that went off the air a decade ago. (Over the summer, it single-handedly resuscitated an entire network.) It remains to be seen whether stepping off of the treadmill will be able to increase New Girl’s life span or reach. (It’d be difficult to imagine the ratings falling much further, from an average of 6 million viewers in Season 1 to barely 3 million today.) But there’s no question that it has nimbly sidestepped the into-it/over-it whipsaw that is the unavoidable byproduct of TV’s serialization binge. It’s impossible to lose a race that you refuse to run.
New Girl’s plight makes for an especially interesting contrast with its time-slot partner, The Mindy Project. Unlike the former series, which launched more or less fully formed, Mindy arrived half-baked in the fall of 2012. It took the better part of two seasons for Mindy Kaling to fully customize a vehicle worthy of her highly specific, exceedingly retweetable aesthetic. Best friends and coworkers were tossed out of Schulman & Associates like used sharps. Talented free agents were snapped up the moment they became available. High-profile guest stars parachuted in like green berets. Mindy was nearly always funny during its rough gestation, but its wit seemed like an afterthought; it was a series of jokes in search of an actual series.
That Mindy, in its third season, is better than it’s ever been — better, in fact, than I ever expected it to be — is a testament to the hard work done in the writers’ room over the past several months. The best sitcom ensembles, from Cheers to, yes, New Girl, appear effortless. The Mindy Project has shown us every inch of the work. Kaling and her crack team — featuring savvy veterans of 30 Rock and The Onion — continually chipped away at an office full of caricatures until they uncovered the vibrant comic characters lurking underneath. Did it take too long for some? Most likely. But those who jumped off are encouraged to hop back on and take note of the improvements. Ed Weeks, initially miscast and ill used as a heavy-lidded British Lothario, has been smartly transformed into a priggish shell of a human, his love of etiquette and gossip barely covering the sinkhole of banjo-playing sadness at his core. (Jeremy’s flurry of texts in which he announced a patient was going “into labour” was one of the slyest visual gags of the year.) No bro alive is better than Adam Pally at projecting the softness of the committed hard lemonade drinker. His Dr. Peter Prentice has balanced out a cocktail that had often come on too salty (Xosha Roquemore’s dimissive Nurse Tamra) or too strong (Ike Barinholtz’s human Labrador, Morgan).
A sitcom finding its legs is no small thing, particularly so late into its run. But what’s been truly remarkable about The Mindy Project this season is that it’s not just using those legs to run in place. The third season has presented a surprisingly fruitful path for the show, one in which a boilerplate will-they-or-won’t-they couple actually becomes more interesting once they do. By transitioning Chris Messina’s Danny Castellano from stoic dreamboat into a sloppy plate of linguine drenched in spicy Oedipal sauce, Kaling cleverly flipped the script on what seemed at first to be a stale rom-com cliché. Contrary to expectations, it’s Mindy Lahiri — with her panic eating and nose-hair trimming and easily accessible Catwoman costume — who has emerged as the stable one in the relationship. She may not know what The Godfather is, but she knows what she needs in a relationship: a lot of sex, even more support, and the ability to call her boyfriend’s mother a thief when it’s 100 percent true.5 It’s been fascinating to watch a sitcom built around the idea of glamorous singledom prove so adept at navigating the bumpy contours of commitment. Mindy’s Carrie fever has broken. In its place is something infinitely richer and considerably more rewarding: a romantic comedy willing to consider what it looks like after the (meet) cuteness fades.
Rhea Perlman has been so, so great this season as Annette Castellano, with or without Rihanna straps.
The Mindy Project’s unabashed embrace of wholesale change has paid off. Last week, Fox ordered six additional episodes, raising the total of Season 3 from a bet-hedging 15 to a standard 21. This was an important demonstration of faith for a show that has long had more coverage than actual viewers.6 (Ratings this season have remained fairly lousy: an average audience of 3.1 million with a middling 1.6 in the key demo.) But with Fox in dire straits everywhere except Gotham City, Mindy’s sudden creative vibrancy has tangible value. A show that was always entertaining now feels charged with the unmistakable crackle of possibility. New Girl righted itself by becoming reliable. But The Mindy Project elevated itself by plunging into the unknown. In the end, the most shocking and encouraging thing about “I Slipped” isn’t what Danny did — it’s that I’m now invested in whatever it is he’ll do next.
Not to mention a show that lost its biggest booster when Fox boss Kevin Reilly was himself canceled over the summer.