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Rise of the Manic Grumpy Dream Fellow

November 1, 2013  |  11:45am
Rise of the Manic Grumpy Dream Fellow

By now we’re all familiar with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, maybe not invented but certainly distilled down into quirky perfection by Cameron Crowe in a process that began with Penny Lane in Almost Famous and reached its epitome as Kirsten Dunst snapped pretend-pictures of a sleepy Legolas. Her turn as an outspoken stewardess-slash-Tom Petty enthusiast in Elizabethtown prompted the invention of the term and this article by Nathan Rabin. (For a comprehensive list of media featuring MPDG’s, see this, but the most-cited modern examples are the aforementioned Dunst as well as Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State).

(For notable deconstructions of the concept, see (500) Days of Summer, in which a seeming MPDG does her damndest to ruin the protagonist’s life, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, in which Mary Elizabeth Winstead looks every inch a harmless wacky hipster dreamboo, only for her copious baggage to come screaming in to literally kick our titular pilgrim’s ass).

Witness, though, the ascent of a new trope: The male equivalent of the charming cutie with an abundance of hats and quirky hobbies and the penchant for singing: the Manic Grumpy Dream Fellow. Turn your television set to the Fox network on a Tuesday and watch one Nick Miller, grumpy mystery, say things like “if we were supposed to talk about our feelings they’d be called talkings” while he moonwalks away from his problems on New Girl.

(It’s worth pointing out here that I actually love New Girl and think that the show’s portrayals of, for one thing, friendship in your late 20’s are an accurate and refreshing change of pace from stuff like the Always Sunny crew and the buds on The League who seem to just be groups of people who hate each other but stay in the same general area all the time. If we’re being completely honest, I also have a soft spot for Elizabethtown.)

Nick Miller tends bar, and refuses to get haircuts to avoid conversation with strangers, and has written one brilliantly terrible zombie novel, and flies on shady airlines out of San Diego at 3 in the morning, and it would be too easy to create an equation where the MGDF equaled the latent desires of the show’s sensitive lady writer/creator Elizabeth Meriwether in the same way that Rabin asserts Dunst’s character does for writers like Cameron Crowe. It would be wrong, though. That’s not what’s happening.

Nick Miller is your male hero for a new age, for a new generation of media-consumers who distrust ambition and earnestness. We hate Anne Hathaway because she says that she wanted an Academy Award and then worked really hard to try and get one, and love Jennifer Lawrence because it seems from her affect that she fell ass-backwards into fame, and is still visibly starstruck around Jack Nicholson, while the truth of that dichotomy is that it isn’t real: they are both really talented, beautiful actresses who work very hard.

Remember when I.M. first came out and everyone’s problem was that it was impossible to tell when someone else was being sarcastic? We solved that problem by exclusively being sarcastic, and we either can’t trust or can’t relate to (anymore) a character who’d be reliably open with his feelings. This is why the internet doesn’t like Garden State anymore: it’s two hours of Zach Braff not being sarcastic, opening up his heart to people while The Shins don’t stop trying to change your life aurally.

Don Draper is probably going to go down as one of the most interesting television characters of all time, but all he really is is Nick Miller played seriously. Take away their names and haze out some of the specifics and you’re left with:

Character A: psychosexual issues that stem from being born (SPOILERS) and raised in a whorehouse, tracked down by a long-lost brother who enters his life briefly (SPOILERS) only to die unexpectedly. Dropped out of the military, truly open with no one, has a weird relationship with the quirky but fiercely intelligent girl in the office.

Character B: massive trust issues that stem from his father being a con-artist who returns briefly to his life only to die unexpectedly, dropped out of Law School, truly open with basically no one, has a weird relationship with the quirky but fiercely intelligent girl in the loft.

The real differences between the two of them have more to do with the fact that Character A exists in an AMC drama and Character B lives inside a sitcom.

If the MPDG has no faults of her own, and exists for the sole purpose of solving the problems of sensitive male protagonists, then her grumpy dude counterpart is all faults, and exists entirely as a puzzle to be solved. Nick Miller is a bundle of debt, and mistrust, and jury-rigged but creative solutions to major plumbing issues. A central question about his relationship with Jess* is whether or not she will be able to “fix” him, or whether or not her desire to fix him is worth following, or even whether or not a “fixed” Nick Miller would appeal to her at all, shed of all his MGDF glory (though a major episode’s plot deals with Jess’ heightened feelings towards Nick as he gets more ambitious at work and starts taking basic care of himself and his things; “I’m thinking of taking a vitamin today,” he says while doing his laundry for the first time).

*And isn’t it interesting that this is taking place on a show that so thoroughly lampshades the idea of the MPDG, combining quirk-characteristics as well as perceived truths about Zooey Deschanel’s personality to draw attention to and then subvert?

The real genius of New Girl is the way it plays with audience expectations of characters’ personalities and traits. Schmidt is the successful douchey businessman we’re used to seeing, but who turns out also loves his friends to a staggering degree. Winston is the ex-jock we’ve come to know, but who turns out is also transformed into a psychopath by puzzles and revenge-kidnaps his ex-girlfriend’s cat. This is where the show excels, and so it’s hard not to think that the writers are setting up the Manic Pixie and the Manic Grumpy to clash, and then to fix each other and meet in the middle somewhere, where humanity exists.

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