Photo: Courtesy of FOX.
When it comes to sitcoms, there's a certain type of woman, of a certain sort of age, who tells a certain kind of story — the one where her professional life is near perfect, but her personal life is a hot, hot mess. Almost everywhere you look (especially if it's a 30-minute time slot during network prime time), you find her. Right now, The Mindy Project is owning the archetype, but if tonight's season finale ends like we think it will — with two main characters getting together, for real this time — the show could leave its sad-single schtick behind for good. But, of course, that is unlikely.
Mindy, the character — not Mindy, the Kaling — is the latest iteration of this long-standing trope. It was born out of the '70s and '80s, when being a successful single woman was still a novelty. But, as less and less of a premium gets put on marriage, there's less of a reason to portray her as a type.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the first sitcom to trade a house and family for an office and coworkers and have a successful single woman as its star. A decade after TMTMS went off the air, Murphy Brown upped the ante by making its lead a woman over 40 (unheard of in the '80s). Murphy was not only a recovering alcoholic with a high-power job, but midway through the series, she had a baby — without getting married first. (This famously managed to invoke the ire of then Vice President Dan Quayle who, we can only assume, tried single motherhood once and didn't like it.)
At the time, it was refreshing to see professional success and personal flaws coexisting, but Murphy Brown set a very high bar for women and really cemented the idea of "having it all" in our collective comedic consciousness. Her successors — Ally McBeal, Grace Adler (Will & Grace), Liz Lemon (30 Rock) — fumble in her footsteps, awkward and disheveled, disillusioned with the realization that Murphy Brown lied to them.
Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Mindy, like her immediate predecessor Liz Lemon, feels more like a satirical re-appropriation of the trope than an earnest, if funny, portrayal. And, while both make long work days and emotional night-eating captivating to watch, we want to believe there's a place for a leading female character to be single and happy about it. Or, in a secure relationship while on a show that's still all about her.
New Girl could've been that show. It's a little more ensemble cast, but there is no doubt Zooey Deschanel is its star, and her love life is a main plot point. Her character, Jess, possesses Deschanel's terminal adorableness, but the audience is constantly reminded that this chirpy brunette is a formerly chubby nerd whose dorkiness can be managed but not cured. This past season, she was paired up her roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) only to be greeted with backlash from the audience.
Now, the two are broken up, and New Girl's creator Liz Meriwether expressed what sounded like regret over the story line when she told Vulture, "I think this year we got a little heavy, we got a little into that emotional arc, and I think this show completely exists without all that heaviness...We’re having a chance to get back to basics and sort of reset the show, and kind of go back to the dynamics of the first season and the pilot, where it’s just this group of friends who are having fun."
But, even if Meriwether kept the two broken up for the rest of the series, it's hard to imagine the show where Jess' love life isn't the main story line — it's too much a part of the series at this point. The Mindy Project has also received flack for its protagonist's boyfriends — they're too numerous, too transient, too white. But, how would the audience react if, for the remainder of the series, she traded her rotating cast of boyfriends for one guy? Yeah, that's what we thought.
Photo: Courtesy of FOX.
Comedy loves complication. Otherwise, there'd be no action, no tension, and really no fun. Network sitcoms, in particular, face a unique challenge: They're expected to wrap up a situation in 22 or so minutes. This allows each episode to stand, mostly, on its own (the better to syndicate with), but it leaves little time to move a story forward in a meaningful or complex way. So, the premise of a sitcom is really like a promise. It tells the audience what to come back for every week — see X try to do Y and (let's face it) fail. And, if a show breaks its premise — like New Girl arguably did — its audience can be quick to retaliate.
While a show will never be able to please everyone — and there's nothing louder than a small group of scorned fans — the New Girl backlash had more to do with the show breaking its premise than the audience disapproving of the relationship. The limiting nature of sitcom structure has created a genre that can feel like a series of diversions that lead (if we're lucky) to some kind of point at the end of every 22-episode season. But, we are fortunate to be in a period of reinvention, when TV conventions are being broken down and reassembled into shows with more thought, more nuance, and more narrative.
If ever there was a show poised for a makeover, it's the sitcom. And, at the center of it, is the single woman drowning in her sad, sad singleness. What a reinvented version of her would look is not yet clear, but given the number of problems one can have on any given day (we can confirm they are infinite), we'd like to see a main character whose singleness was not treated like an emotional deformity that needs to be fixed by the series finale. Maybe it wouldn't even work? Maybe it would become a different genre entirely? But, one thing is clear: The stigma of being single is trudging toward the finish line, and sooner or later, we're going to have to find something else to laugh at.