Perhaps we've reached a point with sitcoms where we're giving them too much credit. They are, at their core, just supposed to be funny. But as their quality has improved, our understanding of their significance and depth has maybe gotten blown a little out of proportion.
In an interesting piece for Indiewire's Women and Hollywood, Alyssa Rosenberg opines on the character growth of Jess and Mindy, the two female leads who make up Fox's primetime Tuesday night lineup of the shows New Girl and The Mindy Project, respectively. In the essay, Rosenberg argues that both shows have fallen victim to an excessive dependence on the least interesting parts of their characters. With Jess, it's her wackiness and with Mindy, it's her jerkiness.
Of New Girl, Rosenberg writes:
The third-season premiere has some weird notes reminiscent of its rocky first year, like giving Winston and obsession with puzzles and newly-diagnosed color-blindness, the kinds of traits that acted as placeholders for Jess's actual personality before New Girl figured out who she is as a person. Three years in, you'd think they've have done the same work for all of her supporting characters.
Of The Mindy Project, Rosenberg notes that "Mindy Kaling and her writing staff still haven't figured out a purpose to her character, Mindy Lahiri's, unlikability":
...the show's addressed the fact that Mindy can be both pop-culture obsessed and good at her job, or that men can be just as susceptible to the draw of romantic comedies as women. But much of the time, the specific ways in which she's unlikable don't have anything to say about gender norms or social conventions. More often, Mindy Lahiri's just a jerk.
I've long been a fan of Rosenberg's writing, about television and otherwise, but I'm not sure that we can say that Jess, Winston or any of the other characters on New Girl aren't fully-flushed out because the show has running gags. That's the purpose of a sitcom. That's essentially what kept New Girl's predecessor, Friends, on for ten seasons: the weird character quirks its six leads possessed, like Ross's ongoing obsession with his monkey Marcel or Phoebe's tendency to randomly drop secret tidbits about her strange experiences living on the street. Yes, there were the deeper things like friendship and love triangles but the jokes are the real point of the sitcom: we want to sit down for half an hour each week and laugh. If they weren't, they'd be dramas.
Rosenberg's argument about Mindy holds up more to me, maybe because I just like that show less. Even after a season, Mindy's jerkiness really doesn't seem to have a point, probably because nothing on the show ever seems to have a direction. The weird character quirks of the other characters on that show work less well too, as the overarching "purpose" of the show is unclear. New Girl has a purpose: it is essentially about the often dysfunctional love shared by this group of friends who are each so strange in such different ways that it seems sometimes impossible that they could all be friends. Jess's tendency to sing to herself could seem entirely at odds with Schmidt's obsession with hair care products, except that they are each so random as to almost fit together. Mindy is probably supposed to be about the same thing but instead is about...I dunno, Mindy Kaling getting her own show and doing whatever she wants because its 2013 and she's a free bitch baby?
The multi-platform nature of television watching has demanded a much higher base quality level for the product being pushed out, which is great for television watchers and reviewers. But I wonder if that means that we're trying to demand too much from our sitcoms, to the point where the stuff that's good about them is being criticized because it's not serious enough. I watch New Girl every week because it's funny, sometimes touching and its character dynamics and representations of gender are occasionally worth analyzing on a deeper level. I'm not sure that the humor part of it should be made much more complicated than that – or that it should be.