Sitcoms normally tend to balance pop culture references with more universal storylines: memes and tabloid cover lines come and go, but will-they-or-won't-they romances are forever. But two of the most intriguing sitcoms of the moment, The Mindy Project and Don't Trust The B---- In Apt. 23, have thrown out that rule to explore a very particular phenomenon: our desire to live inside our favorite pop culture artifact.
When we first met Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) in the pilot of The Mindy Project, the show presented her romantic comedy addiction as the most important single fact in explaining her personality. Throughout the season she has struggled to fit her life experiences into romantic comedy narratives, and is crushed when they fail to conform. (Example: The guy she meets-cute in an elevator that gets stuck between floors leaves her for a younger woman.) But where The Mindy Project ultimately reaffirms the romantic comedy dream more than it critiques it, Don't Trust The B---- spends a lot of time blowing up the idea that June (Dreama Walker) would be happier living in the world of her favorite show, Dawson's Creek.
With her life falling apart when she moves to New York, June ends up becoming friends with Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek, playing himself. "Growing up in Indiana, that show was a religion," June explained to James earlier this season, trying to convince him that he should do a Dawson's Creek reunion. "My friends and I, we were obsessed with it...Do you know how awesome it would be if I called them up and told them James was doing the reunion show? It's been a while since I had some good news. I lost the job I moved to New York for, I broke up with my fiancée, and I'm pretty sure my breasts have decreased a cup size because of the sadness." But James can't pull his fellow actors together to make the reunion happen. And June and James end up on the couch together having come to the conclusion that their lives were better a decade ago.
The show's approach to pop culture gets even more meta. In last week's episode, June's roommate Chloe (Krysten Ritter) staged a takeover of People magazine to get James named “Sexiest Man Alive” and to prove to June, who's developed a strong platonic friendship with James that she doesn't want disrupted by romance, that she's being duped by the magazine into lusting after whoever it puts on its cover.
But rather than moralize about June's celebrity magazine addiction, the episode ended on a cheerful note. "If I'm a sheep, I'm glad you're my shepherds," June told the People staff, explaining that she's glad for them to make her fall for a different guy every year as long as they pick her out a good one. It's not that women should abandon pop culture fantasy because it's bad for them, as Will McAvoy suggested on The Newsroom. It's that we deserve fantasies that are worthy of our enthusiasm.