Unsurprisingly, whether you find Mindy Kaling charming and funny or unbearably smug has a lot to do with whether or not you will like The Mindy Project. The show, judging by its premiere, is pretty much a perfect distillation of Kaling’s comedic sensibility and public persona.
Last fall Kaling wrote a well-liked piece for The New Yorker on the ridiculous conventions of romantic comedies and how she loved romantic comedies anyway and had learned to embrace the ridiculous conventions as you would for any other genre. So, in this show she stars as Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN who grew up obsessed with romantic comedies and with trying to enact the tropes of romantic comedies in her own life. This is actually a pretty clever idea. There have been plenty of examples in pop culture of adult males whose development is stunted by their obsession with comic books or science fiction or whatever. Gender-swapping that idea is somewhat innovative, at least by network sitcom standards.
This show being Mindy Kaling’s creation, her character (much like Kaling herself) leads a charmed life and has “problems” most people would kill to have. This is in contrast to say, a Judd Apatow production, where the male lead might well be a bona fide loser. Not only is Mindy a successful and competent doctor, her coworkers are two attractive male doctors who both seem to be romantically interested in her on some level.
There’s Jeremy (Ed Weeks) who’s handsome and speaks with an English accent and with whom she enjoys one of those “friends with benefits” arrangements that are all the rage in pop culture these days. Then there’s Danny (Chris Messina) who seems to be using the “Pickup Artist” approved technique of “negging” to get Mindy’s attention.
For the time being Mindy isn’t seriously interested in either of these guys (but good for her that she has so many options!) because she’s still getting over a long term relationship with a character played by Bill Hader. Hader is totally wasted in this role, which could’ve been played by anyone really. The sequence near the beginning of the premiere where Mindy gets to enact all of her Sandra Bullock-movie-inspired fantasies of “meeting cute” when she gets stuck in an elevator with Hader is legitimately funny though.
The rest of the episode is a bit of a whirlwind. This is easily the most overstuffed of any of the new comedy pilots I’ve seen. Not only does it introduce Mindy’s character, tracing her obsession with rom-coms back to her childhood, show us the entire arc of her relationship with Hader from beginning to end, and introduce us to all of her workplace relationships, but it also packs in a first date with a character played (distractingly) by Ed Helms, and a plot about Mindy delivering a baby for an insured woman. Still, it’s better that a comedy pilot be too ambitious rather than suffering from the same problem of most of the other comedy pilots this year of not being ambitious enough I suppose.
And, much unlike the pilots of Go On or The New Normal, the pilot for “The Mindy Project” does offer a few solid laughs. Whatever one thinks of Kaling’s persona, her twitter feed, her tendency to retweet compliments, her memoir etc., she can write some good jokes. There’s a particularly funny line (that’s been part of all the promos for the show) where in a moment of desperation she says “Maybe I won’t get married, you know? Maybe I’ll do one of those ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ things. Ugh, no, I don’t wanna pray. Forget it, I’ll just die alone.” And the conversation with Ed Helms featured at the end of this trailer is a masterpiece of “awkward” comedy writing. Her before first date prayer that her date have “the face of Michael Fassbender” and then switching it to “the penis of Michael Fassbender” is pretty funny too.
The trick for the show going forward will be figuring out how to balance all these different elements: deconstruction of romantic comedy tropes, workplace comedy, story of a successful professional woman trying to balance dating and professional life, without turning into “Single Female Lawyer.” Provided you don’t hate Kaling, there’s plenty of raw material here for this show to be the best new comedy of this (weak) pilot season. The show will just have to focus and slow down a bit going forward.