Let’s Give This Thing A Chance: New Girl S02 E21

5 April 2013

new girl S02 E21

This post is long overdue by quite a few months. It’s loosely about last night’s episode of New Girl, but more about the entire second season.

I didn’t like the first six or so episodes of New Girl. I thought the storylines were contrived and the characters felt flat. My biggest concern was the overwhelming quirkiness of Jess: each male roommate acted as a straight man to her goofy, adorkable (gag me) protagonist.

Last October, I was planning my schedule for the following semester, my last at USC. I decided to dangle my toes in the shark-infested waters of writing comedy for television and sign up for a comedy spec class. In anticipation of this class, I tried to acquaint myself with more of the current, non-Two and a Half Men-type comedies on the air (what can I say? 2.5 Assholes will always have a special place in my heart as my litmus test for true television mediocrity.). In this spirit of open-mindedness, and on the recommendation of several writer friends, I gave New Girl a second chance. I caught up with the remainder of the first season, and started paying attention to the second.

And you know what? I was really delighted to discover the ways in which this show has changed. As Season 1 progresses, all the male roommates develop their own idiosyncrasies, quickly becoming as quirky as Jess. Meanwhile, Jess’s particular brand of crazy is toned down significantly. The characters become fully-realized, and when they do engage in oddball pursuits, we can see how their behavior is motivated by who they are as people. I do think Winston continues to take on the role of straight man for most of the Season 1 episodes, but that’s been changing quite a bit in Season 2, and to great comedic effect.

So let’s talk about Season 2 and what New Girl is doing right. The humor on this show has become quite surreal. It’s not exactly 30 Rock, but New Girl has found a way to extract humor from bizarre scenarios, while maintaining genuine relationships between characters. On a recent episode, the roommates attend the funeral of Nick’s father. At the end, there is an emotionally-charged scene between Nick and Jess, but our route to that brief moment is circuitous: at one point, Jess replaces a local drunk as the Elvis impersonator at the funeral since naturally Nick’s dad was a huge fan of The King. This episode exemplifies how a comedy can depict authentic, meaningful connections between its characters. Nothing is more fulfilling than when the humorous parts of a sitcom episode culminate in an display of honest emotion. Sure, the characters say and do funny things, but only so that they, and we, can arrive at some deeper understanding of our relationships with other people, and sometimes with ourselves.

Speaking of relationships, how about Nick and Jess? Or as I’ve been informed in my spec class, the “Sam and Diane” of our time. (I have a funny Hollywood story about that–ask me in meatspace.) I can’t say that New Girl is my favorite sitcom while I’m writing a Parks & Recreation spec, but I LOVE how the writers are building romantic tension between Nick and Jess. So far, in a moment that has been widely GIF’ed by rabid teenage girls everywhere, Nick and Jess have shared a passionate kiss and makeout sesh. Then, in last night’s episode, Nick awkwardly groped Jess’s chest, claiming to be an “upper boob” man. In reality, he was pretty far from her tits, but viewers got the message. (Holy shit, confidential to the writers: way to get it past Standards. Seriously. Good job, guys.).

So why am I into dimly-lit hallway kisses and fumbling upper boob grasps? There’s something about Nick and Jess’s relationship that feels very much in line with my generation’s approach to relationships (and, in all fairness, probably every generation ever, but since we’re young and hot, we’re the ones you see on TV. I give us another ten years.). I hesitate to call it the couple of a generation since I think Hannah and Adam have that weird shit covered, but Nick and Jess feels right. Not in a destined-to-be-together sense, but in a wider zeitgeist-y sense.

We know Nick and Jess are gonna end up together. There are absolutely no surprises coming there. But the way in which we’re watching them deal with this early stage of their relationship feels very true to the young adult experience. The way they talk around their desires and try to avoid getting overly invested in each other is often hilariously real. Then when we do have moments of emotional pay-off, usually at the end of the episode, we can see how these flickers of honesty have emerged out of the awkwardness and natural humor of navigating a new romantic relationship. The longer New Girl holds off on the boyfriend-girlfriend labels that will surely arise in Season 3, the closer it captures the tenderness and confusion of an evolving relationship that has not yet been categorized.

I also have lots to say about New Girl‘s explicit use of Los Angeles as the world of its story, especially in relation to Modern Family‘s bland suburban denial of its clear Los Angeles location, but that’s another post. Stay tuned!


Cultural Expectations on How I Met Your Mother S06 E17

22 February 2011

"I'm Barney Stinson. I don't get smitten; I smite."

I’ve already rationalized my viewing relationship with Barney Stinson by discussing Neil Patrick Harris’ tongue-in-cheek performance, but now I’d like to pose a different question about Barney’s encounters with women. Last night’s episode featured several competing plotlines, but the Barney-Robin narrative dealt with Robin’s desire for Barney to pursue one of her friends. Barney feigns disinterest, but Robin maintains that he’s smitten and devises a series of inane tests to prove her point. Despite his innumerable protests that he’s not the relationship type, at the end of the episode, Barney acknowledges his feelings for the friend and asks Robin for her number.

Not exactly riveting television, I know, but I suppose I watch this show to gain a sense of what American viewers of other demographics are watching. Since I can’t tune in to Two and a Half Men without undergoing some form of cardiac arrest, I’ll shed my liberal elite East Coast values once a week and see what la mère Palin is allowing Willow and Piper to watch. How I Met Your Mother seems like a safe bet. The jokes are innocuous, visual depictions of sex are minimal, and even according to Palin’s strange brand of pseudo-feminism, Barney is the character to be laughed at, but never taken seriously.

The main reason that I identify this as a Palin-friendly show is through the depiction of Barney. In this episode, we see Robin’s consistent efforts to place Barney in a traditional monogamous heterosexual relationship (If I were really a Cultural Studies nut job, this is where I’d offer one of two arguments: 1. How I Met Your Mother is trying to repress Barney’s queerness [which is obviously there, since he’s played by Harris] by forcing him to take a traditional approach to relationships; 2. Harris’ portrayal of Barney is actually subversive, and he’s queering up network TV by playing the typical guy who needs to sow his wild oats before settling down).

But since I’m not a Cultural Studies nut job, my question is this: If the character of Barney has been established as an unrepentant womanizer, why does he need to “settle down”? Why can’t Barney continue to live as he’s always lived, instead of being told by both female and male characters that he needs a conventional relationship? And with this new episode, is Barney beginning to convince himself that this is the sort of relationship he needs?

I feel like there’s a cultural trope at work in this episode in which youthful debauchery is acceptable until a certain age, but then one is expected to find a so-called adult relationship. In many way, Barney is still the child-like Peter Pan figure. His friends have tolerated his behavior for a long time, so why are they telling him to grow-up now?

As I watch this show, I keep trying to figure out how life experience correlates to familial classification. Lily and Marshall are clearly the parent figures since they’re trying to have a child of their own, and they’re the only members of the group in a secure, monogamous marriage. Ted and Robin are like rebellious teenagers: they know what they want (adult relationships!), but they’re not sure how to get there. So does that mean Barney is a child because, at least until this episode, he doesn’t want a traditional monogamous relationship? This means that our cultural definition of maturity is in part defined by one’s ability to realize a certain type of relationship with another person.

Think about the stereotypical guy in his late-twenties with the good job, the fancy car, the luxury apartment, and bottle service at clubs. Think Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, except with money. When I hear people talk about this type (I use the word “type” because nearly everyone on television is presented as being a particular “type”), one of the first comments I hear is, “Good for him. Now when’s he going to grow-up and get married?” In common scenarios like this one, an arbitrary correlation is made between adulthood and marriage. We see the mechanics of this connection in Barney, especially through his behavior as a single guy on the town and his behavior in the few supposedly adult relationships he’s had. Remember what a gentleman he was when he was seeing Robin?

I know there are probably more questions and observations in this post than categorical assessments of specific characters, but here’s what I was thinking about when watching this TV. Stay tuned!

Modern Family and the Two-Parent Household S02 E14

10 February 2011

"You look hot enough to cook a pizza on...in?"

I like Modern Family alright, but the comparisons to the classic dysfunctional family show Arrested Development need to end. The characters of Modern Family are not nearly as idiosyncratic and erratic as the characters of Arrested Development, not to mention that the show itself isn’t remotely as hilarious. Modern Family depicts slightly-off balance people doing slightly-off balance, but somewhat familiar familial activities (yeah, you like that one?), but it lacks the pure insanity of the Bluth family.

In fact, whereas Arrested Development was firmly focused on depicting the family as a malfunctioning unit, Modern Family seems to operate through the activities of three distinct couples. This latest episode, a Valentine’s Day-themed confection, really highlights this specific sitcom formula. Episodes tend to revolve around the misadventures of the middle-aged hetero couple, the May-December (and America-Columbia) couple, and the yuppie gay couple, but their respective kids are never as prominently featured. Often when the children are involved in an episode, it’s because their issues have given their parents something to talk about. Haley’s romance with bad boy Dylan isn’t about Haley; it’s about Claire hearing Dylan serenade Haley on the front lawn and  pausing mid-make-out with Phil to ask, “Am I a bad enough parent to ignore that?”

Well, yes and no. Claire’s not a terrible mother, but the show’s tendency to focus on the parents at the expense of depicting the lives of the children can occasionally portray the grown-ups as self-absorbed and the kids as neglected. Maybe if the title suffered a quick re-write to Modern Relationships, I’d be less concerned about the Dunphy kids’ screen time. As it stands, Modern Family might benefit from an increased focus on the “family” component of the show

Characters orbit each other, but rarely goad each other. Where is the familial strife and conflict that made Arrested Development so funny? I don’t want to see my family, only slightly weirder; I want to see my family a million times weirder.  I want to be so alienated and confused by the problems of a true modern family that my family seems positively meek in comparison. Perhaps Modern Family‘s real problem is that its self-interested parents and unremarkable children are too close to the real thing? Stay tuned!