Category Archives: The New Sitcom

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The Good Bros of Fox

Dear Television,

HEY, REMEMBER WHEN Fox Tuesdays were the next best hope for a full-on televisual Ladies Night? An evening of television created by female showrunners and structured around Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling? Fox had harvested the fruit of a decade of Tina Fey pioneering and invited us all to sip upon the delicious, feminist Liz Lemon-ade! In fact, that was part of the reason why this very blog chose to write a weekly column about New Girl and The Mindy Project last fall (a column you may or may not recall that we dropped like a hotcake midseason in order to spend time with Lena Dunham in Patrick Wilson’s brownstone).

As it turned out, New Girl was maddeningly inconsistent, and The Mindy Project’s unembarrassed embrace of the lurid wealth that enables but goes unmentioned in most sitcoms began to feel unseemly. But, more than that, neither show was really paying off on that whole Ladies Night thing. In fact, the reason to watch each week was more often determined by Nick, Schmidt, or Morgan than it was by Jess or Mindy. Ladies Night had been infiltrated by wacky dudes, and Fox noticed. So, this year, Fox plugged Tuesdays with Dads — a comedy that reminds us how much more racist and misogynist things sound when human people say them instead of cartoons — and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a promising new show about a man-child police detective. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s widely assumed that Dads will likely be replaced midseason by the recently resurrected John Mulaney Show, which is about a dude named John Mulaney.)

Jane, you’re very right to point out the man-childishness of this block, and Lili, your treatise on the new — questionable — sincerity of these shows is really right on. There is an evolution going on here, and I think an intermediary step that we ought to talk about is The Bro. Last year I wrote a post about Schmidt and Mindy that attempted, with all the requisite rigor of a PhD in English, a theory of the douche-bag. Schmidt was a d-bag, so was Danny Castellano, and so too, I suggested, was Mindy — trying too hard for the wrong things. There was pathos in the struggle, but the shows were essentially ballads of the unrepentant tool.

At the root of the d-bag discussion was likability. Why was Schmidt a relatable heel while Mindy pushed her audience away? It’s obviously a gendered distinction, but it wasn’t until this week that I think I realized the fine grain of it. For women on TV, the archetypal d-bag is the Mean Girl. Shallow, catty, Machiavellian — you’re either a glamorous jerk like Olivia Pope or a low-rent, dastardly one like the kind Allison Janney now plays (perfectly) on Mom. Once a female character becomes a d-bag, there’s nowhere to land but Regina George. Either the mean girl repents and becomes human again, or she remains a villain. (Hopefully, we’ll be able to write a little later this season about The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, the primary example of a female character who’s been able to exist betwixt and between these poles, and, not incidentally, the protagonist of the best show on television. Come at me!)

For men, of course, there’s the archetypal Sleaze — a role with which Schmidt has always flirted and that was portrayed last week on Mindy by the evil Glenn Howerton. But men also have a second option that I’m not sure yet exists archetypally for women on television. It’s softer, it’s kinder, it’s d-baggy and cocky but also still somehow redemptive. I’m speaking, of course, of the Bro. And, in the absence of an idea of what to do with Jess or Mindy, Fox Tuesday night has become the Frat House of the television landscape.

What I’ll call, for these purposes, “The Good Bro,” is an archetype that is related to, maybe even evolved from, the man-child. (It should be understood that Dads, a topic we’ve avoided like the plague, is Fox’s repository of “Bad Bros” — a kind of release valve that allows all the virtuous bro-ing down that occurs throughout the rest of the schedule.) Where the man-child is insecure in his masculinity, the good bro is secure; where the man-child is stunted in his development, the good bro is confidently developed; where the man-child is immature to the point of disability, the good bro is functional, even successful; and where the man-child is searching, the good bro operates based on a strict ethical code. What they both share, however, is the sincerity of which Lili speaks. The good bro, as opposed to the sleaze, holds nothing back. Masculine, friendly, sensitive to women, only rhetorically misogynist, possessed of a Str8 Bro-style obsession with homosexual desire, and, above all, committed to a kind of unfiltered truth-telling, the Good Bro is now the dominant feature of Fox’s Tuesday night.

Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is the very model of a modern good bro. He’s almost psychotically confident, obsessed with asserting his masculinity by winning a date with a female detective, but even more obsessed with winning the best friendship of his tough-as-nails gay captain, played by Andre Braugher. Peralta is presented as a typical loose cannon, but, rather than be distracted by liquor and women like many sleazier loose cannons past, Peralta’s wildness is manifest in zany, fratty, ultimately inclusive antics. He tazes cantaloupes, he competes in fire extinguisher-propelled office chair races, and he wears a brightly colored Speedo to work as a prank on the captain. He is, in other words, confident enough in his competence to treat his job like a joke and secure enough in his sexuality to play around at its boundaries.

Schmidt is the primary bro on New Girl, but, especially in the light of his recent duplicity, he is emphatically a bad bro. Nick Miller, while disqualified from true good bro-ness, at the very least embraces the aesthetic of the good bro. And, to this extent, he provides a counter-weight to Schmidt’s sleaze. He’s a slob and a drinker, a Chicago Bears fan and a hacky-sacker. Until last week, he’s been emotionally unavailable in a particularly gendered way, and, earlier in the series, he fell in deep, platonic love with Jess’s boyfriend Fancyman. Again, even though Nick is atypical, he embodies the key good bro qualities of faithfulness, dudeliness, and a healthily flexible sexual imagination.

The Mindy Project is the third part of this Bro-ly Trinity, and it features one of the clearest conversations about the State of the American Bro yet going. In fact, in a recent episode, this conversation becomes explicit. Danny (Chris Messina) is threatened by the appearance of a new doctor, the charming, ex-frat boy Peter Prentiss (Adam Pally). Danny complains to Jeremy that Prentiss, “calls everyone boss or chief or little buddy,” to which Jeremy replies that he had assumed the two would get along, being both of them “American dudes.” Jeremy has rightly picked up the fact that Prentiss is the living ideal of fraternal intimacy. Danny then articulates what he believes to be a fundamental difference between the two men: “We’re nothing like each other, ok? He wears cargo shorts, I wear slacks. He surfs, I fear the ocean out of respect.” Danny identifies with a kind of stoic, conservative, working-class masculinity whereas Prentiss is a classic frat guy: scrubbily privileged and entitled. But, as their actions eventually reveal, the differences between Danny and Prentiss are really just internecine squabbles between Good Bros. As macho OB/GYNs, they are representatives of fraternity and maternity in equal measure, and, when Mindy needs them, they’ll be there to help.

Prentiss is the Good Bro par excellence. He speaks in the language of the frat (“I’ve been on the other side of this a lot — dumping chicks.”; “I would chop you down on sight.”) but he also demonstrates an almost preternatural sensitivity with the practice’s patients. He talks constantly about the “chicks” he’s dating, but he also keeps trying to touch Danny’s “junk.” His swaggering masculinity is not an act, but it occupies equal real estate with his ethical and professional goodness. Nowhere is this more clearly materialized than when he helps empower Mindy to get over her breakup, wiping her tears away with a g-string. Earlier in the episode, he tells a pregnant patient, “I’m kidding, but I’m also being really serious.” It’s the fundamental contradiction of the Good Bro. His lightness co-exists with, even enables, his substance.

But all of this is less about a particular assertion of masculinity than it is about a likability gap. New Girl and Mindy Project were initially faulted for having protagonists who were, respectively, too twee and too mean. In order to counteract this, the Good Bro emerged on these shows because if the Good Bro is anything, he’s likable. His contradictions exist because he’s a character pitched to what networks perceive to be the priorities of both male and female viewers simultaneously. The Good Bro is a good-time party guy, masculine/feminine subject, a figure viewers can have in common. He’s also the lynch-pin of the kind of hang-out style show to which all three series aspire (needless to say, Joey Tribiani is as Good a Bro as it is possible to be). He’s invited you into his fraternity. It only seems strange because it used to be a sorority.

On SIGHT,

Phil.

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mindy project 2

Are Sitcoms Sincere Again?

Dear TV,

I LOVE JANE’S take on the sitcom-as-Manchild and her point that the contemporary sitcom’s reliance on the manchild lets it get away with some pretty lazy comedic work. It’s all true: I love Schmidt but there’s a limit, and I’m glad he’s hitting some actual consequences this season. Still, I think there are some signs of growth in our Tuesday night lineup: Jess’s Nick is reveling in happiness and his untroubled (and distinctly un-Manchildish) liking of Jess. It’s weird and a little mawkish but it’s a kind of progress the show is really interested in highlighting, since there are several scenes whose sole function is to show them adorabling at each other. Nick may be impractical in a way that calls to mind the Manchild, but his crazy scheme to live in Mexico is the opposite of its Manchild-driven cousin — the kind Mindy’s Casey (and last season’s Nick) would come up with. It isn’t driven by that particular strain of ego, the kind that wants to be adventurous (or a DJ) or wallow in cereal damage and flit. Nick’s lunacy is driven not by the nomadic desire to Peter Pan but rather by fear that he and Jess will break up in the world he’s made a habit of Peter Panning in. That may be immature, but it’s a more adult form of immaturity.

Mindy’s boyfriend Casey, in contrast, has been walking the tightrope between Manic Pixie Dream Boy and Manchild in The Mindy Project until he fully morphed this season into sandwich-DJ-boy. I like what he’s done for Mindy — stretching the limits of her self-image till she realized she didn’t like them hyperextended — and I like that he was charming to the bitter end. It’s a better show for refusing to escort its exes offstage, a la Seinfeld, never to be seen again.

In fact, The Mindy Project is plagued with old exes. It’s a funny strength of the show: it rarely condescends to or cheapens the stories of ex-partners, and it dedicates some serious screentime to the largely unexplored problem of having exes who are not terrible people or (for the most part) sources of drama, but whose existence remains a problem. Both New Girl and The Mindy Project are kind; they take a generous view of the ex. They spend time on heartbreak and the painful duty afterwards to think about the other party’s third dimension and wish them well. I have to say, given how much energy the show has spent on this question — even Bill Hader’s Tom McDougall is back! — writing Mindy and Jeremy Reed as ex-lovers seems like a mistake. They’re not awkward enough.

Still, I think Kaling’s show is evolving past the Manchild too: Casey’s gone. Morgan, for all his flaws, is an adult with a remarkable emotional attention span. And Jeremy Reed, who threatened to become Mindy’s Daniel Cleaver, matured so suddenly and completely that he takes charge of the whole practice when everyone takes off in “Music Festival.” (He’s gained weight. This is an amazingly literal show — “Yeah, I’m okay. I mean, I’m shrunken into, like a miniature version of myself,” Casey says when he talks to Mindy from the photobooth picture, and maybe gaining weight means gaining substance.)”

This brings me to Brooklyn Nine-nine. I’m not charmed by Andy Samberg’s Peralta. I have to admit I don’t think the show has been very entertaining. (Yet, anyway.) A lot of it seems conventional and silly and expected. (There are exceptions — Fred Armisen’s cameo was gold, and there have been several jokes that really surprised me — so I’m holding out hope.)

I recognize, too, that part of my sense of having seen this before comes from its flavor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has that overlit fake-workplace mood that characterizes some shows from the late 80s and early 90s. I’m thinking of Night Court and Wings, though not (for example) Cheers. I think its closest analogue might be Thin Blue Line, a Rowan Atkinson vehicle from the mid-nineties, about a police station, of which I’m stupid-fond. But the difference is interesting: Thin Blue Line is built around a main character only a few years older than Samberg/Peralta whose problem isn’t Manchildhood but premature middle age. And it’s kind of wonderful that his “antagonist” — a middle-aged detective who keeps trying to be a cowboy — is closer to the Samberg persona. The show dwells on the virtues and problems of policework as paperwork. Another way of putting it, I guess, is that Peralta’s problem (see “The Slump”) is often one of inspiration, which runs the risk of taking his work too seriously. (At these points, Jane, your McNulty comparison is totally apt.) The show operates on the fiction of a meritocracy: he’s brilliant! The captain hasn’t “earned” his place on the wall! Gina’s claim that the police are “the worst” doesn’t quite fit with the show’s worldview. What makes Thin Blue Line the better show, to my mind, is its portrayal of policework as pedantry and minutiae, repetition and reports, all powered by (in the detective’s case) the glorious myth of case-cracking and (in Atkinson’s) the fulfillment that comes from service to the Queen. That’s an interesting tension. If Thin Blue Line opens with Atkinson pompously instructing us on the work of the police and then undoing the lecture, Brooklyn Nine Nine operates like a sketch comedy that just happens to be set in a police station. But police stations aren’t blank spaces, especially now, and a precinct doesn’t work for me as the neutral ground for light comedy.

What these shows share, I think, is an impulse to grab, a little wildly, at innocence. They’re trying to restore the sitcom to its former place as straightforward, not winking. They resist going meta. They slip, of course, but the nannycam moment Jane mentions, the one that confirms Peralta as Manchild, is working so hard to be believable that its meta goes flat. We are in an electronics store and this is a television show! is the substance of its comment. (Not that we are constantly surveilled, not that a militarized police can abuse that surveillance, and not that the women are watching the man do the cool stuff onscreen, but rather that surveillance helps the police get their man. Look! They got him! He got him! And now we got them getting him!) They’re going for laughs and heart, not irony or a mock-doc frame that lets us pretend our way out of sentiment or sincerity.

I’m all for that nostalgic experiment. (Though, as I’ve said, I’m skeptical of its success across the board.) Here are my deeply subjective impressions: I think Mindy’s trying to bring the rom-com to television in an earnest way, and it’s working. I think New Girl is going for the warmth of Friends 2.0 and succeeding, especially now that it stopped fighting Jess and Nick together, though it feels like a plastic world to me in a way The Mindy Project doesn’t. I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is trying to offer a workplace comedy unencumbered by the politics and ethics of Parks and Recreation, the cameras of The Office and the darkness of Cheers. I’m unconvinced by it, but what’s compelling about all three — and this is the reason I’ll keep watching — is that they’re going for the thing itself rather than commenting on the thing. I think we’re all a little bruised by meta-commentary, so I’m all for a night of TV that plays with returning to story as story, laugh as laugh.

Sincerely yours,

Lili

Samberg

Can the Sitcom Grow Up?

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE — one of Fox’s new sitcoms — begins with a classic expository trick: the viewer’s first introduction into this world coincides with that of new characters’. (As if they weren’t all new to us.) The pilot presents commanding chief Ray Holt (played by an almost virtuosically stoic Andrew Braugher) to his police precinct, which features a solid group of personalities from the unexpectedly-good-at-his-job detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) to charm-monster administrative assistant Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti). It might be an old move, getting viewers acclimatized to a sitcom’s cast and environment via one of its own characters, but it works. It might even contribute to why multiple critics have described Brooklyn Nine-Nine as having one of the only solid pilots of this current season. (Which, to be fair, is a feat in any season.).

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a show about the police that doesn’t fall into the habitual category of dramatic police procedural — yet it’s not without its moments of action or suspense either. The show is, however, predominantly a comedy (couched in Fox’s Thursday night sitcom block between Dads and New Girl) that capitalizes on the presumed discrepancy (at least in television’s ambitious imagination) between police work and humor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine continuously comes up against its own subject matter when, say, Peralta cracks jokes at an elderly woman during the scene of a hold-up. In another scene, Peretti’s character flat-out tells two detectives the obvious fact that “Police are the worst.”

This move of emphasizing what’s absurd or oxymoronic in the banal isn’t exactly a new move for comedians (and this particular cast is filled with them), but I do think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is doing something slightly different in directly pointing to the absurdity, while simultaneously embracing its implications. Police are the worst, but what about these police? There isn’t a single character in the show so far that viewers are against. The show’s attitude is winking and earnest, skeptical and optimistic. In this way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine mirrors its creators’ (Michael Schur and Dan Goor) prior project, Parks and Recreation. And character types are transported across the two shows as well (Holt and Swanson; Rosa and April; Peralta and Knope; Scully and Jerry). With only four episodes under its belt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found its pace faster than the unsteady first season of Parks and Rec, but that just goes to show how much might potentially change. Though I do think the show’s gesture — of stating the obvious while also undermining it — gives it a kind of earnestness that, like Parks and Rec returns an infectious hope upon its viewers.

Such hope perhaps means more when you look at the shows that air directly after Brooklyn Nine-Nine (New Girl and Mindy Project), as well as the particular network in which they all currently reside. As Andy Greenwald recently wrote, Fox has, if one disregards Dads, “emerged as the smartest, funniest, and all-around best night of comedy on television.”

The glory days of NBC’s Thursday nights — and I’m including all three decades of greatness here, the Cheers-anchored ’80s, the Friends/Seinfeld ’90s, and the Office/30 Rock aughts — crackled with wit and infectious, rom-comedic possibility. Viewers could park themselves on a single channel, secure in the knowledge that they’d be smartly entertained for at least 90 minutes. It was network TV at its best: both dependable and transporting, an intimate, unmissable party to which the entire country was invited.

In 2013, Fox has firmly supplanted NBC as the host of this party. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and Mindy Project, we get a series of sitcoms that feel not just inviting or comfortable, but at times even surprising. It’s a tough calculus to achieve, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems aware that the contemporary television sitcom needs to be as much a comfortable throwback as it does a novel entity in order to thrive.

About halfway into the pilot, Jeffords briefs the new commanding officer on the precinct, describing Peralta as “my best detective. He likes putting away bad guys, and he loves solving puzzles. The only puzzle he hasn’t solved…is how to grow up.” This seems coincidentally to be the fundamental puzzle of most male characters on television sitcoms — but might the same be said for the television sitcom itself? Is the television sitcom growing up, and it is, of all places, doing so under Fox?

To present male leads as exceptional at their jobs, yet adolescent-to-the-point-of-dysfunctional in their social lives is a familiar trope, and you find it in comedies and dramas alike (I wonder how much Peralta might be a play on The Wire’s McNulty). It’s almost a fantasy of the predominantly male-driven world of sitcoms to allow men to have it both ways. While a commentary on male privilege in general (oh, let us not bring up Dads), it affects the sitcom structure from narrative content down to its very form. In order to keep the repetitious plot of the sitcom world in motion, one must never let its men grow up too quickly, if at all. Perhaps a less dire way of looking at it: if men acted like adults, where would we find the comedy? But even this view is exhausting and potentially exhausted by now, for jokes about “the boy can’t help it!” are practically as old as the epic story.

Perhaps Molly Lambert’s category of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy (who “builds up the heroine’s self-confidence, providing comfort, inspiration, and nurturing vibes without demanding anything in return”) would be better suited not to describe male characters that are unbelievable, but are all too much so? The Manic Pixie Dream Boy isn’t a female fantasy in the same way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is for men. He is neither docile, comforting, nor inspiring for our heroines. But this doesn’t preclude him from acting, in a way, as a kind of female fantasy. Rather, he is, like his female counterpart, forever immature, coyly incompetent, and cutely fumbling in his efforts — and yet surprisingly capable in accomplishing his culturally prescribed roles (here, solving crimes or catching the “bad guys,” as Peralta puts it, rather than baking a pie). Unlike the Dream Girl, however, our Dream Boys are often presented with a knowing wink.

Indeed, to call attention to the meta-ness of its types, Brooklyn Nine-Nine begins with Andy Samberg’s Peralta talking into a recording device in a camera store that then rebroadcasts his grinning talking head in the many screens populating the store. TVs within our TVs! The emphatic media framing — and subsequent reframings — of this opening scene, though, forces viewers to question not just Peralta as a character, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a show. Where are we, what genre is this, and how much do we trust the talents of this obvious goofball? (Peralta solves the crime by finding a hidden camera in a teddy bear, and then proceeds to mime in a baby-voice as the teddy bear to what we later learn is his co-worker/crush. I mean.) It’s a clever establishing scene by the show, but it’s also vastly forgiving to its male lead.

The competent and endearing manchild, though, seems to be a trend across Fox’s Tuesday night comedy bracket, and I’m wondering how much we are expected (or should) forgive it. I mean, is it really all that cute? There were moments when Samberg’s Peralta could easily substitute for Max Greenfield’s Schmidt in New Girl (another character who is notably good at his job, interested in fonts, yet absurdly immature and maladroit in his social life). Both Peralta and New Girl’s Winston “loves solving puzzles,” and both sometimes do it with their pants off (though, to be fair, the latter only likes puzzles — he isn’t all that good at them). This season of the New Girl has Zooey Deschanel as the most grounded character of the entire cast — an almost complete reversal from how she was introduced to the show. Instead, we have her dating Nick Miller — failed lawyer but hacky-sack-cool-kid — who shows development this season because he’s able to express his feelings. This is, of course, played up for laughs, as Nick pours forth on his opinions about the weather and horses and magic, stream-of-consciousness-style. In Mindy Project, our eponymous protagonist moves between being engaged to Blake Anderson (of Workaholics fame), to going on a date with Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan Tookers, to flirting with Glenn Howerton (aka Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny). Manchildren all around! Are these really our only romantic options?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mindy Project especially feel new because they are playing on our knowledge of narrative tropes (police procedural and rom-com respectively), but I’m not sure how far this can be sustained. Perhaps the sitcom needs to grow up? Or maybe what I’m imagining is exactly what the sitcom doesn’t need — for if Greenwald is right in that Fox offers us a place of reassurance and comfort, then the network sitcom must never truly develop.

Sometimes firemen are women,

Jane

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