February 7, 2013

‘The Mindy Project’ Is An Endangered Species Worth Saving

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The Mindy Project

Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project is such a welcome presence on network television. The moderately struggling Fox show’s ratings thankfully improved with this week’s episode, in which Kaling’s character goes on an excruciating double date with her latest beau, Jaime (BJ Novak), Jaime’s omnipresent best friend, Lucy, and Kaling’s coworker Danny (Chris Messina). But the show is still in that limbo between cancellation and renewal, and it’s not for nothing.

The bumbling brainiac gynecologist at the center of this show is a breath of fresh air. Right now I think Kaling, Lena Dunham and Laura Dern are the only lead comedians worth watching on TV. Mindy Lahiri’s seeming inability to have a healthy romantic relationship is realistic. Her guardedness, coupled with her clichéd concept of romance, reminds me of myself and many twenty- and thirty-something women I know. She has so much of what the modern woman aspires to: ambition, intelligence, wit, loyalty, and financial independence (in a recent episode she ends a scene by saying, brilliantly, “I can do anything, as long as it involves paying for something”). Those qualities, ridiculously, are often anathema to love.

Bolstered by Kaling’s years of experience as a writer on The Office (she wrote upwards of 20 episodes), The Mindy Project is full of quality supporting characters. Chris Messina, Kaling’s foil, is perfect as a bitter divorcé whose experiences leave him always primed to attack Mindy with barbs twice as sharp as the one she throws his way. Ike Barinholtz is wonderful as Morgan, the office nurse, who is cut from the same cloth as certain supporting characters on The Office, but who is stronger on his own than most of those characters ever were (with the exception of Dwight, a comedic cousin to Morgan). Mark and Jay Duplass play Brendan and Duncan, partners in a midwifery clinic upstairs from Mindy, Danny and Jeremy’s practice, and the duo’s growing presence on the show is welcome, and frankly necessary.

“The worst men you can imaging are fucking beautiful, talented women,” the writer Emily Gould recently wrote in a blog post about the difficulties of living in New York City in the present day (those difficulties appearing particularly stark in February, the actual cruelest month). Present-day New York City is the setting — highly prized, in sitcom world — for The Mindy Project, and the show has the ability to make light of what it’s like for a young(ish) woman in a city full of young(er) women by showing us exactly how awful it can be. But maybe that is the one great flaw of The Mindy Project: that, unlike New Girl, its better-paced lead-in, it can’t seem to stop making jokes. There are almost zero moments of gravity in the entire first season of Mindy thus far, and when these moments do come, they make me feel uncomfortable, as if I’ve stumbled upon an off-camera moment I wasn’t supposed to see, some mundane blooper. Before we know it, the tension is gone, erased by some bit of slapstick or some cutting rejoinder from Mindy or Danny.

About Mindy and Danny: their icily flirtatious relationship is, of course, everything, and it’s probably my favorite two-person dynamic in a comedy in years. It started to thaw in this week’s episode, and it’s about time. The writers are playing a long game with this relationship, but because this is Fox, if it takes too long, the show will get cancelled before anything even happens. It’s a real shame if that’s the case. If this were HBO, Showtime, or TBS, Mindy and Danny would probably be given years to dance around each other. Instead, everything must be hurried along, or else the foundation beneath Mindy and Danny, the supporting characters, must be strong enough to keep us continually riveted. There must be a kiss (as New Girl knows), or else there must be several other developments that don’t involve Mindy and Danny. And they can’t just be random, isolated moments of humor created to fill time. So often, as of now, that’s what the writers choose to give us.

A great two-person dynamic, peppered with other funny moments, does not a network sitcom make. But I can think of so many great moments that make this show deserving of a second season. To name four: the entirety of the episodes “In the Club,” “Josh and Mindy’s Christmas Party,” and “Danny Castellano Is My Gynecologist,” and the moment in “Hooking Up Is Hard” in which Morgan crashes Mindy’s hookup date with Brendan by running excitedly into Brendan’s apartment and jumping on the bed, disturbing the awkward seduction taking place therein. But while all these characters are ostensibly “friends,” while they all have stakes in each other’s lives, the thread that keeps them all together isn’t strong enough at this point.

The thread is of course Mindy. She is the center of the other characters’ universe. But Planet Mindy is, intentionally, a rather cold place to live. Mindy doesn’t reveal much of herself to us, much less to her two-person “tier” of best friends or her coworkers. Again, it’s realistic that she doesn’t. Like Danny, she so often protects herself from being vulnerable, from feeling pain, from showing us just how cruel life can be. We saw her vulnerability in “Josh and Mindy’s Christmas Party” briefly, as Mindy hid under her duvet after being confronted by Josh’s surprise long-term girlfriend, and allowed herself to be consoled by Danny. Mindy is difficult. She is full of contradictions. To wit, in this scene, she and Danny make a pact not to marry each other if they’re still not married in five years, the traditional rom-com pact, but to kill each other.

Danny can’t just swiftly break Mindy down, because that wouldn’t be true to Mindy’s character, nor to his. Instead, the writers have to stop writing too-brief, disposable plot developments into the show. They have to commit to the potential goldmine that’s already there. Not just Mindy and Danny, but the midwives, Morgan, and womanizing, sheltered Jeremy, who hasn’t been developed enough. Kaling is set on filling time with slapstick, partly as a tribute to Lucille Ball, an idol of hers, and she’s good at physical comedy (less so the other characters). Perhaps it’s too late to mold this show into something that can invite darkness as well as lightness into its story lines. But the ingredients of a popular, enduring show are still there. Kaling needs to start showing us less of Mindy the superstar doctor and more of Mindy the superstar writer. TC mark

Liz Colville

Liz is a writer based in New York City. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Pitchfork, New York

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