There must be something in the Craft Services at Fox: In the span of two weeks, both New Girl and The Mindy Project broke up their primary couples. Neither Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) nor Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and Danny (Chris Messina) made it to Easter as a couple, which is the true shame because we all know that the best part of a relationship is that first Easter-basket swap, right?
If we wanted to be cynical about it, we could point to the timing of these splits—near the end of the season, with May Sweeps approaching—as a way to drum up drama for the homestretch, and that's probably partially true. But despite their proximity on the same night on the same network, New Girl and The Mindy Project have presented us with two fairly different cases of coupling and uncoupling. And above all else, both examples serve as reminders that it's really, really hard to write a coherent and satisfying romantic comedy story on television. (As if the How I Met Your Mother finale hadn't already proved that earlier this month.)
But which show handled its romantic, um, happenings better? Are they both primed to avoid Ross and Rachel Disease? Before New Girl and Mindy's seasons come to an end, we thought it might be good to compare and contrast their respective approaches to heartbreak, in hopes of better understanding why OTPs are hard to write for, around, and, perhaps, out of.
New Girl's Nick and Jess
THE APPROACH: A mostly mature, mutual split after a long coupling.
Depending on the particulars of the show's timeline, Nick and Jess were closing in on a year together when they decided to call it quits in "Mars Landing." For the most part, New Girl had managed to keep both characters compelling after they got together at the end of Season 2. New Girl has been a mess since jump street in Season 3, but Nick and Jess have rarely been the problem because they're so clearly not a good match. That's how these things go—opposites attract and all that—and the show has consistently found believable, generally funny stories in how different the two characters are. Sure, they've both done a lot of lying (or at least withholding of the truth) to one another, but that's an unfortunate byproduct of the sitcom form. While it was always going to be nearly impossible to return to the SQUEEE apex of the big kiss in "Cooler," New Girl has worked hard to show that Nick and Jess at least tried to change in little ways to make the other person happier.
Weirdly, there were very few moments where it seemed like Nick and Jess would ever break up... until the exact moment that they did. There was and is no love triangle, or really much of an external threat (other than Prince, for like two minutes). The split in "Mars Landing" was like the sad version of the kiss in "Cooler," and I imagine that was the point. But as MaryAnn pointed out in her review of this week's "Big News," the show had reached something of a crossroads with Nick and Jess. While real-life relationships are often defined by stasis (oftentimes to their detriment), it's hard to treat a TV pairing like that. When you do, they end up like Jim and Pam on The Office—which isn't always bad, but probably isn't as compelling as it could be. So New Girl went through some of the key relationship markers—saying "I love you," trying to live together—but probably had to either escalate the relationship (engagement time!) or grind it to a halt.
Although fans of the relationship are probably still recovering from Nick and Jess's break-up, the good news is that "Big News" did about as good a job as it could have in managing the fallout. Nick and Jess's behavior felt true to the characters, both as individuals and as a couple: They put Winston first and hurt a little too much simply because they didn't talk to one another for 25 seconds. But once they did, near the end of the episode? Strong stuff. And I'm betting that New Girl has enough material to mine that we don't have to worry about the shadow of Nick and Jess overtaking everyone else (though it's everyone else that's been the problem this season).
Where I think New Girl might run into trouble is in Season 4. Once the messiness and the pain subsides, how does the show move forward with Nick and Jess, especially since the pairing has been so central to its DNA for at least half the run thus far? How does it not return to the relationship? And by that point, how does it not become a Ross-Rachel situation?
The thing is, while "Cooler" was amazing and New Girl did great things leading up to and throughout the Nick-Jess relationship, playing the card so early and keeping the (ever shrinking) audience invested makes it challenging to go anywhere else. The show has sort of already committed to Nick and Jess as the OTP, and now has to figure out how to make the show compelling without jerking its characters—and its viewers—around. All things considered, you want to be Jim and Pam, not Ross and Rachel. I'm betting that Liz Meriwether would love for her couple to fall somewhere in the very complicated middle ground, but man is that tough to pull off in the confines of a broadcast sitcom.
The Mindy Project's Danny and Mindy
THE APPROACH: A quick taste, but nothing more... yet.
Whereas New Girl played the long(ish) game with Nick and Jess, The Mindy Project decided that it was best—at least temporarily—to blow up Danny and Mindy's relationship before it really got started. Of course, it's important to note that New Girl has a full season on Mindy and thus has been able to explore its characters as individuals and romantic partners on a more in-depth basis. However, the BIG KISS happened at almost the exact same time on both shows (Season 2, Episode 15 for New Girl; Season 2, Episode 14 for Mindy). And even if we just compare Danny and Mindy to Nick and Jess from New Girl Season 2, we can see the differences. Nick and Jess slowly tried to figure out their feelings, while Danny and Mindy jumped into a secret relationship pretty quickly, and flamed out even quicker.
But like New Girl, Mindy did a really fine job of developing the relationship. Danny and Mindy are the same sort of mismatched Mars-and-Venus type pairing that pop culture loves, though Mindy and Danny were great friends before the airplane kiss. In some ways, Mindy actually did a better job of building up to the eventual moment by slowly but methodically layering in moments between Danny and Mindy throughout both seasons.
Surely I'm not the only one who was supremely disappointed that Danny pulled the rug out from underneath Mindy in last week's "Be Cool." I understood why Danny got cold feet, particularly because The Mindy Project has done good work in making us believe that Danny and Mindy really do get along as friends. But it's hard not to feel bummed out nonetheless.
Even more disappointing is how rapidly the show seemed to yearn for its previous status quo in the two episodes immediately following the break-up: Both characters in random relationships, generally acting like nothing happened (or at least in Danny's case, kinda-sorta pinning for Mindy in secret).
Of course, Mindy traded temporary frustration for additional longterm possibilities. Keeping Danny and Mindy apart for now means that the show can still put them back together, whether by the end of the current season (the finale is titled "Danny and Mindy," after all) or at some point in the next, without jerking the audience around too much. Their split was very hasty, and while their initial relationship was unfulfilling, it also kept us in an anticipatory mode, hoping that Danny and Mindy will actually get together for the same kind of longterm story that, amusingly, New Girl just did.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't—but which show's approach do you prefer?
So New Girl decided not to drastically mess with the standard will-they-or-won't-they formula, but now it has to figure out how to handle the won't portion. And Mindy hammered the yo-yo nature of TV relationships into our heads—to a frustrating degree—but still has some cards left to play.
Ultimately, both shows will be fine no matter what route they choose, because if there's one thing these two relationships have illustrated, it's that New Girl and The Mindy Project have noticeably different approaches to storytelling and tone. New Girl is, at least at this point, a much more character-based show that seems interested in the messiness of early 30-something life, and Nick and Jess's relationship and subsequent break-up reflect that completely. Meanwhile, Mindy is more overtly a "comedy": It's joke-ier, it's a little bit more hateful, the characterization isn't quite as strong yet, and it's just a more uneven (and often funnier, to be fair) show that still doesn't always know what it wants to be.
Let's hear from you folks. Which show's approach do you prefer? Is there another comedy out there that's handled its relationship "issues" better than the rest?