How Non-Traditional Platforms Are Supporting Female Comedic Voices

September 10, 2015 12:47 pm

When the American television network Fox announced that it would not renew The Mindy Project for a fourth season the internet seemed to sag with a collective gloom. There was an outpouring of sadness that the sitcom, which charts the romantic prevails of an OBGYN in New York, would be no more. The writing had been on the wall for a while – The Mindy Project was critically beloved but had consistently struggled for viewers, despite its perfect pairing with New Girl, high initial anticipation and publicity disproportionate to its viewership. Still, when the axe finally dropped people seemed to take it hard and there was a definite outrage from viewers. Fans were vocal, impassioned and quick to action; starting online campaigns, flooding message boards with support and suggesting other avenues through which the show could have some kind of afterlife.

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It was clear that Mindy Kaling’s show meant something to the people who watched it – it represented something to them, it was important to them, Kaling’s world view spoke to them on a level that other show’s didn’t, or didn’t care to. For those who do not know, Kaling started her career as the co-writer and co-lead of the strange, funny and hugely successful play Matt and Ben. Buoyed by this she landed a job as a writer/producer/director/actress on the Americanized The Office in which she played one of the standout supporting character Kelly Kapoor. Her scripts became some of the most loved of the show’s 9 season run and, partly, due to this reputation as a solid scribe she wrote the popular essay collection Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns). When NBC, the television network that produced The Office, decided not to ‘pick-up’ the pilot script for what became The Mindy Project, Fox swooped in and made it.

With this Mindy Kaling became one of the few women to write, produce and anchor a network television show. It also marked Kaling, who is of Tamils and Bengali descent, as one of the few minority voices in the sitcom sphere. The outrage that greeted the cancellation suggests that those who take to the show feel a kinship to the star and what she produces that goes beyond casual viewing. There is a genuine investment from the fans, a connection to the characters and an interest in what they have to say – which is rare and fascinating. The Mindy Project has been inconsistent but is never anything but smart, beautifully acted, engaging and, unusually for television, genuinely romantic. Sensing a way to expand its viewership Hulu, the online movie and television streaming service, picked the show up and ordered an addition 26 episodes – an unheard of number for a modern television season. Kaling’s non-traditional heroine has been saved by a non-traditional distribution model; something which has become increasingly prevalent.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the story of Kimmy, a woman who is tricked by a cult leader into believing that the world has ended and she is one of the only people still alive. Upon escaping the bunker where she has been kept, she decides to move to New York and restart her life, learning about the modern world as she heals from the wounds of her past. The show was initially developed as a project for NBC, but when it was passed on by them Netflix, the online distribution service, picked it up, produced 13 episodes and announced a second season shortly after the show premiered. This development is particularly interesting because the show looked poised to be the jewel on NBC’s comedy crown, the closest thing that the network had to a sure-fire hit. It is co-created by Tina Fey, a bonafide comedic genius who was the first female head writer of the NBC juggernaut Saturday Night Live, created and starred in the long running and almost absurdly critically loved NBC sitcom 30 Rock and wrote one of the most successful memoirs of the last decade Bossypants.

NBC’s decision to let Netflix have The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is made even stranger by the fact that the show stars Ellie Kemper, a veteran of the above mention The Office, and Jane Krakowski of 30 Rock – two proven stars for the network. The show works like gangbusters; it is funny, heartfelt, and almost irritatingly smart. It also plays as one of the most complex and curious examination of feminism and society’s approach to modern femininity in a long time. Within the hilarity, the show throws up questions that are genuinely thought provoking. An episode about exercise becomes an extended metaphor for the way that the fitness industry controls women’s perspective of their own bodies. The episode Kimmy Kisses A Boy, which focusses on the way one of Kimmy’s fellow bunker mates uses the tragedy of their kidnapping to her financial and romantic advantage, is a refreshingly non-judgemental and even handed look at the way that women can pick and choose aspect of feminist movements to suit the life they want to live. As a show, it is a beautifully handled course corrective, a call to arms for people to embrace the challenges of life and an unabashed good time. It has brains and a heart and could well have given network television a shot in the arm – but instead it was forced to find an audience via a rockier route.

Still, find an audience it did – becoming a big hit for Netflix, garnering 7 Emmy nominations, inspiring hundreds of think-pieces, receiving an immediate renewal and accepting an avalanche of critical goodwill.

This inevitably leads to some questions: are the ‘normal’ distribution streams unable to foster female comedic voices? Do they lack the resources to promote female-driven projects successfully? Are the target audience for these programmes inherently better suited for the kind of viewing experience these online/niche distributions provide? Is this kind of content simply not allowed on NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS?

Take for example HBO’s Girls, which was created by, stars, is produced by, directed by and written by society’s current lighting rod Lena Dunham. Dunham is, in an of herself, one of pop culture’s most intriguing and illuminating players but her show is one of the few to display a largely female cast, represent young women’s daily lives and actively address controversial topics. The show has covered issues including late in life coming out of the closet, abortion, body image, mental health and adultery. These plotlines have been traversed throughout television history, but rarely from a female perspective and rarely in relation to the way they interact with feminist thought. In a way Girls has become more than a television programme – each episode seems to ignite debate amongst bloggers and entertainment journalist and most major culture publications run episode recaps and reviews. HBO has a hit on its hand – a show that allows people to vent about their personal views, one that is inherently designed to inspire a strong reaction within its viewers. It is equally critically hailed and lamented; brandished the newest step in feminism as well as its biggest opponent. Dunham is a very modern star and Girls is a very modern show.

But could it exist on one of the big four networks? If you stripped it of its nudity and swearing and racier content would Girls be allowed to sit side by side with The Big Bang Theory? Lena Dunham won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Hannah Horvath and was the first woman to win a Directors Guild Award For a Comedy Series – but I have a sneaking suspicion that the show wouldn’t have even been deemed worthy of a slot on network television. How many women are out there with a unique point of view that is getting squashed by the traditional routes to success? Dunham’s contribution to the pop-culture landscape has been seismic, she like Kaling and Fey recently wrote a controversial but fantastic memoir, and Girls, for all the strange detours it takes and its occasional impenetrability is always clever, thoughtful and witty. As it enters its fifth season Girls shows no sign of slowing down.

The examples are too numerous to write about here. But let’s take into account the wonderful comediennes Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s road to sitcom bliss. Best Friends Forever, created by St. Clair and Parham, aired on NBC in 2012 and was quickly cancelled – sound familiar? The show had a small but vocal fan base – sound familiar? There was a push online for the show to get saved – sound familiar? USA, a television network outside the realms of the ‘big four’ picked up on the goodwill towards the show and asked them to create something for them. Thus, Playing House was born. Playing House is the story of Maggie and Emma; two best friends who decide to co-parent Maggie’s daughter when her husband’s online infidelity is revealed. It is a genuinely wonderful show; funny, loose, moving and tightly written. It’s an interesting case study simply because it seems so well suited to the tradition sitcom formats. The scripts are acutely aware of the conventions of the genre, playing around with them whilst making them something new and refreshing. It should fit right in alongside the networks comedy slates –but it has found a home outside of them.

Perhaps the difference lies in the way that Playing House deviates from the sitcom norms that it so closely resembles at first glance. These unconventionalities might hold the key as to why these shows thrive away from the conventional television channels. For example, the birth of Maggie’s baby is subtle, astute, moving and heartrending in a way that a similar scene in Best Friends Forever might not have been. It goes dark in a way that could have felt incongruous with what St. Clair and Parham were doing on NBC. It’s the most beautiful scene in a show littered with beautiful scenes. A beauty that comes from the sequence’s complexity and whip smart changes in tone – something it shares with The Mindy Project, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Girls. Playing House has been renewed for a second season – with each episode showing on the internet a week before television. Video on demand, a new and untraditional platform, saved the show – sound familiar?

There are, of course, network shows that have strong female perspectives but they are outmatched by those that exist on the peripheries: Judy Greer on Married, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on Grace and Frankie, Aya Cash on You’re The Worst, the women of Orange Is The New Black and Lisa Kudrow on The Comeback/Web Therapy to name a few. It’s a great time to find astute, human comedy from a female perspective right now, it just takes a little digging.

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