Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fall Slump: When Good Comedies Stumble

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 16, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, now airing its third season on Fox

Many television shows drag on far too long, but there is something especially unsettling about watching it happen to a sitcom. While no less upsetting when a favourite drama goes awry, (see: Battlestar Galactica, circa Season 3), the best of dramatic television often succeeds and fails in taking the story in new directions, which means a viewer can easily parse where and how it goes wrong. With ever-growing regularity, TV dramas have enthusiastically embraced television's rich storytelling potential, working in shifting themes, character growth and evolving situations into their long stories. To single out just one current series: FX's Justified has had four strong seasons even if one or two stand out more than the rest and it has done this by allowing its main characters to go in and out of new situations, interacting with different and often stand out amazing new actors who come on board for a single season's story alone, leading (for example) to Margo Martindale's Emmy-winning turn in Season 2. As a result, Justified can not only survive the death of main characters and the moral decline of others, it can thrive because of it. But mainstream situation comedy is, well, still largely dependent on its situation even the best and most accomplished among them are often by necessity static. Static doesn't mean stagnant however. (Bart and Lisa Simpson's perennial and perhaps even purgatorial childhood is still the exception and not the rule.) Having established its fundamental tone, central characters, and key relationships, there are innumerable and endlessly creative situations to work within. ABC's Modern Family, now its fifth season, is perhaps the best example of how strong writing and acting can do amazing stuff within clear and largely preset parameters. 

I tend to return weekly to many of my favourite network comedies as much for feelings of comfort and familiarity as anything else. But when you begin to suspect that the show itself isn't living up to its side of the contract, that trust can often only stretch so far. And this puts even their biggest fans in a particular bind a feeling not unlike when a close friend has overstayed their welcome on your couch. While some returning shows have been having exceptional fall seasons CBS's Elementary is simply rocking its sophomore season some returning comedies are making me eye the door for the first time: How I Met Your Mother, in its ninth (!) and final season; New Girl, in its third year; and most disappointingly, The Mindy Project, growing tired only in its second season.

The cast of How I Met Your Mother
It's long been a bit of an open secret to any fan of Carter Bays and Craig Thomas' groundbreaking How I Met Your Mother that the highly-rated CBS comedy has been on the decline for a few years. That I'm still watching after nine years is testimony to how much good will the show and its characters had built up. In all charity, in its later seasons, the series has been largely a victim of its own ambitions and creative successes. At the start of this season though, everything seemed rather promising, with an innovative framing conceit (the whole 24-episode season is taking place, essentially, over just three days) and the welcome introduction of the "mother" into the cast (played by Tony-nominated Cristin Milioti). But, with few exceptions, stranding our beloved characters in the unfamiliar Farhampton Inn, far from their Manhattan stomping grounds, hasn't proven particularly fruitful. With a third of the season under our belt, Milioti, despite getting top billing at the start of every episode, has only shown up a handful of times. The dragging out of the "how I met" part of the narrative has been a fairly agonizing issue for several seasons, but now that we are literally counting the hours until Ted finally meets his intended, every obstacle the show puts in their way feels all the more pointless. But in the end, the actual issues of this season aren't structural, but in the writing itself. The real risks in a long-running series outliving itself are the corrosive effects it can have retroactively on past far better seasons.

This is all the more pointed for How I Met Your Mother, a comedy that not only respects its own internal continuity but is often about that very continuity. With the notable exception of this past week's ninth episode, this season has produced some of the least funny episodes of the series to date. Introducing, among other things, a Marshall and Ted storyline about a misplaced wedding gift and unsent Thank You card that not only decidedly rang untrue for the characters themselves, but served no positive role in the ongoing story. It takes us back as far as the second season, but the new element doesn't explain anything or enrich the backward- or forward-looking continuity it simply throws a largely unfunny monkey wrench into the works. And since the power to undo and overturn what had been established is precisely what has long been so innovative about How I Met Your Mother, it is all the more unsettling when that same capacity only serves to muck things up. (The idea that we're supposed to believe that there has been a passive-aggressive war raging between Ted and Marshall for the past seven years not only beggar's belief, it actually risks undoing one of the most wonderful features of the series: the honesty and unquestioned depth of their friendship.) Clearly Carter and Bays are still able to wield that power responsibly as evidenced in this past week's episode set several months earlier and centring on a heretofore unknown interaction between Barney and the mother, which did precisely what the show used to do at its best: answer questions we didn't know needed answering (in this case, explaining Barney's turnaround last season that led to his sleight-of-hand proposal to Robin). And there is the conundrum: suddenly, I'm pulled back in and years-dormant expectations rise up again. How simply perfect would it be if Carter and Bays can weave the mother into the show's already established continuity, thus retroactively redeeming the years spent teasing us with the back of her shoes or misplaced umbrellas? Will they pull it off? Ask me again in six months, because one way or another, I know I'm in for the long haul.

Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone on New Girl
Fox's New Girl, which began its life as a Zooey Deschanel vehicle and quickly emerged as a delightful ensemble comedy, began its third season this September. After two charming seasons, this fall the show simply hasn't performed, though I'm having a hard time identifying precisely why this current season just feels so ... tired. When the series first premiered, I was convinced that the comedy would jump the shark if they ever brought Jess (Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) together, but that element of the new season hasn't been a particular problem. (For the most part, Jess has survived relatively unchanged, with the relationship putting particular pressure on Nick and his man-child attributes which are, to be honest, growing more and more cartoonish of late.) The real problem with this season is unfortunately Schmidt, still played with panache by Max Greenfield. Schmidt was the breakout character of the series for me, and easily the show's most lovable even when set against the Platonic ideal of lovable that Zooey Deschanel is apparently supposed to be. But the series left him in an untenable bind at the end of last season, one ironically the result of the substantial personal growth of his character up to that point. And so, in Season Three, for far too many episodes we were regaled with the Three's Company-esque plotline of Schmidt juggling two girlfriends. But the 70s are over and New Girl isn't a French farce, and so it didn't take long for any sympathy we may have for his character to completely dissipate – and for for this to take its toll on my feelings for the entire New Girl universe that tacitly tolerated his behaviour and empty rationalizations. Moreover, since it still remains inevitable that he and CeCe (Hannah Simone) will get back together, I'm doubtful I'll ever really be able to root for them. (And even more tragically, poor Cece has had precious little to do on-screen since the couple's explosive break-up, and last episode she was reduced, literally, to delivering Nick's Chinese food. The look of sheer bewilderment on Cece's face when she realized that was in fact the only reason she was in the room seemed to be as much the actor's as the character's.

But even accepting the fact that the show hasn't quite recovered from the energy-sucking early-season Schmidt plotline, it doesn't yet explain why the rest of the characters feel so lost on the screen. Objectively, with the return of Coach (Damon Wayans, Jr., freed up from the cancelled-too-soon Happy Endings), the show should be hitting a new stride. But after two episodes, Wayans' new energy only serves to highlight how largely wandering and misdirected the show has become.
 

Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project
But here is my most surprising and disappointing confession of the 2013 fall season: I'm growing rather tired of The Mindy Project. Though it took a few episodes to find itself last year, this Fox sitcom grew quickly to become my favourite new comedy of the season. Mindy Kaling was quickly revealed as a force to be reckoned with, in front of and behind the scenes. Kaling's on-screen persona, Mindy Lahiri, with her charming combination of professional competence and decidedly personal awkwardness, still feels as refreshing as she did last year, but the rest of the ensemble is falling way behind. Way behind. The show's sole delight remains the slow-burn romantic comedy relationship Lahiri has with her co-worker/friend Danny (Chris Messina). When the story returns to them, The Mindy Project is easy to love but when its focus is elsewhere, even on either character in isolation, it's difficult to give a damn at all.
 

The most frustrating aspect of The Mindy Project for me this season has been the introduction of the extraordinarily talented Adam Pally (another Happy Endings exile, whose character of Max Blum was the best thing about a great show) as Peter Prentice, the office's new gynecologist. Even several episodes in, his character seems basically undefined (the best I can make of him is that he's "a guy's guy"), and whenever he's on screen, I find myself cringing and not in a good way. It doesn't help that Pally has been regularly paired with Ed Weeks' Dr. Reed, who just seems lost this season and whose one storyline is simply that he's getting fat. Ironically, this past week's episode was perhaps of the series' best so far: a wonderfully constructed story with recurring guest star Glenn Howerton (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a clever sexting plotline and lengthy scenes with Mindy and Danny. For the first time this season, The Mindy Project finally seemed to remember that the show was about: Mindy and her impact on those around her. It was also the first time that Peter felt like a part of Mindy's universe, even though Pally didn't have a single scene with Kaling. And for all its craft, the episode still left me with a lingering feeling of distance, and indifference. Let's all hope the series will regain its footing, and we can look back on this as merely a sophomore slump!

Still, just because there have been some disappointing (and, yes, even bad) moments in these shows, I do hold out hope that they will bounce back. The most promising prodigal sitcom may be New Girl, if only because it is so obvious that the Schmitt storyline is what has undermined the show’s dynamic (and that may even be an honest reflection of what his behaviour did within the frame of their world). If they can get Schmitt back on track, it would fix a lot of things.


All three of these are shows that I deeply enjoy, for the talented actors and sharp writing that they boast. And if unfortunately these shows never do quite recover from this seasonal malaise, I know that I will make a point of watching (and enjoying) the work of these actors, writers and producers as soon as they come back with something new
.