Every sitcom has a flirtatious male, a primary couple and characters in messy situations with fantastic apartments. Writers rarely get around these staples, and for good reason. But “The Mindy Project” and “New Girl,” which run back to back on Fox, take the same tropes in entirely different directions.
In both shows, the main character is a professional single woman between the ages of 27 and 35, with a college education and a penchant for awkward situations. She has three male friends: the weird but funny one, the angry but sexy one and the neurotic but well-groomed one. Her love interests are a series of gorgeous, white men with great smiles, and she is unlucky with almost all of them because she has insane amounts of sexual tension with the angry but sexy guy friend.
“New Girl” highlights the actors’ talents with slapstick comedy and jokes about relationships. The characters are stereotyped. The writers built satires, not people.
Jess is positive. Nick is gruff. Schmidt is, well, Schmidt.
Characters on “New Girl” rarely act outside of their defined character boundaries. Schmidt can have a serious girlfriend, but he still needs to be Don Quixote. Nick can be suave, but only for a scene. The show is built on these characters staying in character. If one of them grew or changed, the magic pixie dream life would be lost.
The downside is that the writer’s depend on Zooey Deschanel remaining quirky. The most notable example is season two’s “Parents,” in which Jess tries to “Parent Trap” her divorced mom and dad back together. This woman is 30 years old. No amount of adorability should make this an acceptable plot line.
“The Mindy Project” treats its characters like people. Mindy Kaling writes better than any writer or actor on TV today and she knows what women want in a lead character. The viewer sees Mindy for her wants, her desires and her hopeful cynicism. She is, in many ways, the viewer. But “The Mindy Project” isn’t perfect. Just like “Parks and Recreation” did after the first season, Kaling needs to listen to her critics and tweak the parts that are failing.
The secondary characters on Kaling’s show are not nearly as memorable as the ones in “New Girl,” despite the terrific actors who play them. Viewers don’t know Morgan, Jeremy and Betsy outside of Mindy. There are too many fascinating minor characters, typically played by celebrities, to allow for character development to happen. The viewer doesn’t need to care about Seth Rogen or James Franco. They need to care about the regulars, and often they don’t because they are rarely given their own story lines. They exist solely to live around Mindy and say witty things.
It’s easy to love the four roommates on “New Girl.” It’s easy to laugh at their mistakes and feel like their friends. In “The Mindy Project,” it’s easy to love the titular character but not care about anyone else.
It is unlikely that “New Girl” will change its formula, because it has too many devoted viewers. Luckily, it’s not too late for “The Mindy Project” to reach perfection. Get rid of the guest star clutter, focus on the friendships and make it an ensemble piece. “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” need to learn from each other, or combine into one supercharged lady sitcom.