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What’s Not Wrong With Network TV

Three critics find the bright spots in a medium in transition

This is the week of the television industry’s “upfronts,” during which the (now-ratings-challenged) major networks announce their lineups for next season. It’s also season finale time for Fox’s “New Girl,” one of the few recent network series to become a breakout hit. Not a bad occasion, then, to assess the state of the broadcast sitcom. Below, Noreen Malone, who profiled “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether in the latest issue of The New Republic, enlists a trio of TV critics—The New Republic’s Laura Bennett, Slate’s June Thomas, and Salon’s Willa Paskin, who profiled another network hitmaker, Shonda Rhimes, in The New York Times Magazine this weekend—to talk about why pleasurable television gets short shrift these days, whether male or female friendships provide more comedic potential, and what will matter more in ten years, “New Girl” or a certain similarly named HBO show.

NOREEN MALONE: Let’s just jump right in: Notwithstanding the notable exceptions, why are so many network series so bad these days?

WILLA PASKIN: I’m going to start by defending network TV: While cable has consistently been the source of almost all of TV’s great dramas, network TV has been the place for comedy. “Girls” and “Louie,” wonderful as they are, are not sitcoms— they are not overly concerned with punch lines. (There’s some cheeseball portmanteau waiting to be coined to describe them, these half hour series interested in but not beholden to jokes: Dramcoms, or something less terrible.) “New Girl,” “Happy Endings,” “Parks and Recreation,” “30 Rock,” “Community,” “The Office,” “Cougar Town,” “Don’t Trust the B,” and “Modern Family” have all been, at some point in their life cycle, great, funny series—and they are all network.

Kaley Cuoco as Penny, Mayim Bialik as Amy, and Jim Parsons as Sheldon.

That it’s nonetheless common wisdom that the networks can’t do anything right speaks to 1) the fact that the networks mostly can’t do anything right 2) that they keep making sitcoms like this 3) the huge gap between the shows people watch on TV and the shows that people write about on the internet. “Girls,” as Noreen pointed out in her piece, is watched by 600,000 people.  “Big Bang Theory,” which is generally considered to be a pretty decent show, is watched by 16 million people. It is hard to make a smart comedy on network TV—but what is maybe even harder is to get people to take that network comedy seriously.

JUNE THOMAS: I watch a lot of network sitcoms. They make me laugh. And with the exception of Fox’s animated series and “Two and a Half Men,” which I confess I’ve never made more than a pro forma effort to watch, they’re also pretty female-friendly.

Let’s make a list: “2 Broke Girls,” “The Mindy Project,” “New Girl,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Middle,” and “Suburgatory” are all centered on women. “Big Bang Theory,” “Mike and Molly,” “Raising Hope,” “Community,” “Modern Family,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Neighbors,” and “Last Man Standing” are more or less at gender-parity. (Yes, “Last Man Standing” is Tim Allen, but his character lives with his wife and three daughters.) That is, for every episode in which male characters take center stage, there’s another where the women dominate. "The Big Bang Theory," by the way, is a great example of a show that evolved and got a lot better—and funnier—as it added more female characters. Penny’s still the blonde next door, but she often gets the best lines and the biggest laughs, and not for being dumb. (And before you protest my inclusion of “2 Broke Girls” as an example of grrrl power—sure, there’s a sadistic tendency to inflict the leads with problems like incontinence and anal leakage, but it’s a show about two single women struggling to survive by their own wits in New York City. When they briefly ran a cupcake store, their startup capital came not from a guy but from another female entrepreneur, albeit their highly sexed upstairs neighbor Sophie. Also, while I realize this is hardly high praise, it’s far less racist than it used to be.)

NOREEN MALONE: One of the most interesting outtakes, to me, from my reporting of the Meriwether piece was an offhand remark from Jason Mittel, a professor at Middlebury, who noted how even shows by women showrunners still make sure not to take things too far and have mostly men in the main parts (i.e., “New Girl”), or at least the gender parity that June describes. But does it need to be that way?

Courtesy of Fox
Chris Messina as Danny and Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri.

JUNE THOMAS: I’m guessing that’s a reflection of the logistical challenges of 24-episode shows—you don’t want your lead to drop dead from exhaustion.

The two Fox shows that were created by women are actually exceptions to the general pattern: “New Girl,” with Jess with her three male roommates and just one female friend; and “The Mindy Project,” which started more balanced, doing an anti-“Big Bang Theory” by emphasizing Danny, Jeremy, and Morgan and downplaying Mindy’s female friends and office staff. (It’s also gotten better, and funnier, during that process.)

At the same time, both of those shows feel empowering. My theory is that’s because they are actually about the second stage of growing up, when you’re establishing yourself but aren’t quite settled yet. They are about women in their early 30s—they’ve been independent for a while, but they’re still in a sort of holding pattern. This isn’t where they’ll be, or at least not where they want to be, in five years’ time.

For me, the kiss that defined this season of “New Girl,” and everything that has followed between Jess and Nick, was about confronting and getting over the awkwardness of doing something for the first time. When you’re no longer a kid, how do you make that shift from friend to girlfriend; how do you handle a budding relationship with a guy you share an apartment with; how do you introduce your kinda sorta boyfriend to your dad? Jess and her roommates started out horribly immature—I remember being infuriated by Jess’ behavior in the very early episodes when, despite being a grown-ass woman and a teacher, she didn’t seem to know how to do basic things like eat in a restaurant or say the word penis. She’s getting over that now, thank God. (I miss Douchey Schmidt, but he’s growing up, too, especially in the rekindling of his relationship with Elizabeth, who’s an awesome, mature adult.)

NOREEN: I’m glad you brought up the dudes on “The Mindy Project.” A question for which I might get reamed on the Internet: Are male friendships inherently richer (or easier) comedic terrain than female friendships in some way? The guys on “New Girl,” for instance, have a much funnier dynamic than the women. Same with “Happy Endings,” I think, and “Friends” back in the day. Or am I just a misogynist?

WILLA: I am going to write more on this in a second: BUT DO NOT DISS MONICA AND RACHEL, true BFFS.

NOREEN: But not THAT funny together!!

JUNE: Maybe so, but Bobby and Andy are more interesting than Jules and Ellie on “Cougar Town.”

LAURA BENNETT:  I think Noreen can be forgiven for her misogyny: I do feel like it can be tough to make female friendships funny when a lot of sitcoms resort to having their female characters talk almost exclusively about men. I find this to be a particularly irksome feature of “The Mindy Project”: one of the reasons why the amped-up focus on Danny, Jeremy, and Morgan has made the show more interesting is because Mindy and her girlfriends/female co-workers do pretty much nothing besides talk about the boyfriends they have, don't have, or want. I know Mindy's romantic mooniness is part of the shtick of the show, but her female friendships make for some pretty redundant, shallow comedy. 

Actually, when I think back to the sitcom duos I've enjoyed watching most over the years, a lot of them are male-female pairs, some fueled by sexual tension and some by nutty personality chemistry: Seinfeld and Benes, Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant, Jack and Karen on “Will and Grace” (mostly a sideshow rather than an emotional anchor for the series, but still!). And in the “Friends” universe, my favorite pair was probably Monica-Chandler (and Joey-Chandler, needless to say). But in the end, of course, everyone paired off neatly, the way platonic male-female friendships often don't in real life. So this is where “New Girl” seems to make some serious cultural headway: That Jess-Nick kiss was such a great moment, as June smartly pointed out, because of what it says about the baffling awkwardness of testing the boundary between friendship and romance in the years when your "urban tribe" is basically your family.

NOREEN MALONE: OK, let’s get reductive: which will matter more in 10 years, “Girls” or “New Girl”?

Courtesy of Fox
Jake Johnson as Nick and Zooey Deschanel as Jess.

JUNE THOMAS: I adore a lot of the cable shows that get stuffed into the comedy categories for the Emmys, but that’s as close as some of them come to actually being comedies. Other than “Veep,” the rest of the shows—“Girls,” “Nurse Jackie,” maybe even “Louie”—don’t even seem to be trying for laughs. They’re half-hour dramas; I can’t believe their writers rooms are trying to be the joke factories than the network sitcoms have to run. And, of course, since their ratings requirements are lower, they don’t have to target such a broad audience. In other words, comparing “New Girl” and “Girls” is like comparing boobs and testicles.

LAURA BENNETT: I'm a bit leery of the “Girls”/“New Girl” comparison, too, since I think the shows actually have remarkably little in common. The point Noreen makes in her piece about the way “New Girl” takes on sexual anxiety—that, in its own weird way, it “says as much about sexual anxiety as ‘Girls’ does”—is a good one. But man, those shows are so different. And the question of which show will matter more in 10 years doesn't really feel like a fair one; the answer is probably “Girls,” but that has little to do with the respective, vastly different styles of Meriwether and Dunham and a lot to do, of course, with the particular liberties afforded by HBO. 

This might be controversial, but I think it's tough to make the case for the singularity of “New Girl” as a sitcom. It's a really good show, and Noreen articulated exactly why it works so well in her piece. I'd be pretty curious to see Meriwether unleash her weird, edgy sensibility on a cable show. But reading about the writers' room necrophilia jokes, I couldn't help but think that pushing the boundaries of network TV Standards and Practices isn't the same thing as pushing the boundaries of the network sitcom as a form, or as a cultural statement. It's rare that I watch “New Girl” and think, I've never seen anything like this before.

WILLA PASKIN: Why is “New Girl” downgraded so drastically because you’ve seen something like it before? I get that originality counts, but I think this is part of the strain of Book Report-ism that has crept into TV-watching (in the corner of the universe that writes about "Girls" on the internet a ton, where I live). We watch TV for pleasure! There is no shame in that! If “New Girl” makes one laugh and smile, if it is super-super enjoyable and pleasant, that is awesome, period. If its version of self-asphyxiation sex did not launch a million blog posts and New York Times op-eds, that’s fine. It has a different set of intentions than "Girls," among them trying to make millions of people laugh. Which is crazy hard to do! Originality is important, but I think the fixation on it obscures the way that even the very best, most original things riff on what came before—the way that “The Wire” functioned as a genre cop show, where the gang got back together at the start of each season; the way that “Mad Men” works as a melodrama; the way that “30 Rock”’s workplace is structured almost exactly like “Mary Tyler Moore”—and backseats pleasure like it’s something lesser than, instead of being the whole point. TV is not homework, and that is one of the very best things about it.

Jessica Miglio/HBO
Adam Driver as Adam and Lena Dunham as Hannah.

This is part of why I hate the “New Girl” versus “Girls” comparison: TV is in such a strange moment right, it is serving both all of us ultra-attentive, super viewers who are on the hunt for challenging, original art at every turn, and people who just want to watch something they enjoy after a long day of work. One of those ways of watching TV is not, I don’t think, better than the other, especially because I suspect they overlap all the time (the art TV that really works, works because we love it too). Comparing “New Girl” to “Girls” makes the really impressive accomplishments of “New Girl”—a network sitcom that is hilarious and inviting and fun to watch without being dumb or broad that appeals to millions of people— pale before the glare of Lena Dunham and her lock on the zeitgeist.

I hope that in 10 years if "New Girl" and "Girls" are still being discussed in the same breath, it won’t be as an either/or but together, as the set of shows that finally established series about young women as a staple comedy format. (And, in that context, the fact that “New Girl” is a hit, and not just a hit on tumblr, may make it the more powerful influence.)  Forty years after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” it would be awesome if we could get to a point where casting a woman as the point of identification in a sitcom was unremarkable.