The women at the centers of New Girl, Ben and Kate, and The Mindy Project are all intelligent, funny people who, in their various distinctive ways, use ditziness and “girly”-ness to their advantage, flummoxing the more dense specimens of manhood they encounter. Where Lena Dunham offers the nimble mumble-realism version of this sort of woman on her HBO show Girls, these network girls (and I include the female creators, show-runners, and writers also involved in that phrase) are working with a big mass audience, one that needs to be won over more broadly, if you don’t mind my saying so. The Halloween episodes of these three shows demonstrated what I’m talking about.
• New Girl: Jess spent most of the episode in the fright make-up necessary for her part-time seasonal job at a Land of Fright Haunted House. (By the way, have we all gotten out of our systems our strenuous overreaction to Jess and the showroom car product placement from last week? Good. TV-watchers fighting anti-commercial/”sell-out”/ authenticity issues that rock-music fans dealt with decades ago – to paraphrase George Harrison, it’s a drag, a well-known drag.) Anyway, Jess was still flirting – or as she put it, taking “trips to No-Pants City” with David Walton’s Doctor Sam. Nick, of course, was dismayed at their public displays of affection, even as he knew the couple isn’t serious about each other. Jess, of course, was dismayed to see Nick enthralled by an old flame, Amelia.
There are two increasingly interesting things about New Girl. One is the move the series has made to shift the obtuseness and the neediness to the male characters, freeing Jess to be her eccentric self. The other is the injection of an intriguing point fully integrated into a comic context. Thus when Nick made fun of Amelia’s kissing style, her actual and verbal slap –“I’m not an idea of a person; I’m an actual person!”– carried a bracing sting. Rarely has an objection to being objectified been as direct or as non-didactic.
Bonus points for every major character doing a Woody Allen impersonation. And Nick’s “Bee” Arthur costume.
• Ben and Kate: In discussing how much she wants to hook up with a guy during Halloween, Kate made dorky, not remotely recognizable sounds signifying sexual activity – not unlike the the dorky squeaks and wheezes New Girl’s Jess occasionally resorts to. But Kate is a more responsible character than Jess – the show never fails to depict her as a responsible mother. Thus she tried to be a good costume role model, donning the clever mash-up “Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg” outfit as an example to her daughter.
And once again, it was the guys who were the silliest: Ben and Tommy’s subplot about eating BJ’s mind-altering “candy from Amsterdam.” Ben and Kate has thus far been very uneven, with Ben the problematic character – sometimes he’s willfully dumb and anarchically robust; sometimes he’s just dumb and thick-headed. Thankfully, this evening he was the former. Kate, however, has simply become a more fully realized character with each episode.
Bonus point for the appearance of Geoff Stults as a guy Kate was attracted to. (Any Stults brother automatically wins a TV show a bonus point.)
• The Mindy Project: When this show premiered, some of the (fairly mild) criticism of it concerned the supposed contradiction of a successful doctor being such a man-hungry pop-culture trash-talker. By now, Mindy Kaling’s creation is… that, and more: This week, she saw through the superficiality of sports agent Josh, had a delightful, literal run-in with Bill Hader’s Tom, and uttered the fine line, “It’s so weird being my own role model.”
As with Ben and Kate, the subplot involved two guys being silly: Danny and Jeremy taking their driver’s license tests, with differing styles of success. And if, in the end, Mindy ended up going out with Josh after all, he was shown truly trying to impress her (acknowledging her worth) by dressing as Inigo Montoya, from one of her favorite movies, The Princess Bride.
Bonus points: Near-discussion of Breaking Bad, with Tom proving to be a dreadful spoiler-phobe.
These three shows aren’t pioneering a feminist critique of the sitcom; rather, they’re managing to be funny a lot of the time, while also insisting that their central characters be at least as level-headed as their male characters are air-headed. And vice versa. It’s, you know, equality. Equality with laughs.