Even as The Mindy Project stumbles, I keep watching
Tonight I will dutifully watch the season finale of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling’s Fox sitcom about a romantic comedy-obsessed Ob-Gyn in New York City. I say dutifully because I don’t particularly enjoy watching the show. But I keep tuning in because I want Mindy Kaling to succeed so badly. Why is that? Kaling is more than your average actress — she’s also a role model, a talented comedy writer and one of the few women on TV with her own show.
So what makes me so torn about the The Mindy Project? The show itself is a bit of a mess. The cast is constantly in flux, and as a result it’s hard to care about any characters other than the two leads, Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and Danny Castellano (Chris Messina). As with many rom-com couples, Mindy and Danny are ostensibly supposed to end up together, but can’t until the end of the series. It’s not an inherently problematic setup: Shows I love like Friends and New Girl rely on tension-filled ‘will they or won’t they’ story lines to move the plot forward. But on The Mindy Project there’s no Chandler-pranks-Joey side plot or Schmidt-Cece secondary romance. So as we wait for Danny to come to his senses, all that is left to watch is Mindy dating every man on the island of Manhattan.
The show’s structure means she has a new boyfriend in almost every episode, which quickly becomes exhausting. Sometimes it feels more like Kaling is showing off her rolodex of comedian friends than adding anything to the plot. Boyfriend guest spots have included Mark Duplass from The League; B.J. Novak from The Office; Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; Ben Feldman from Mad Men; Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live; Seth Meyers from Late Night with Seth Meyers; Ed Helms from The Office; Timothy Olyphant from Justified; Anders Holm from Workaholics; Max Greenfield from New Girl; and Seth Rogen from, you know, all the comedy movies…to name a few. And let’s not forget non-boyfriend guest stars like James Franco.
There’s definitely something refreshing about the way her romantic relationships shape the show, but it feels like she’s covered a lot of ground in only two seasons. She even managed to find time to be engaged. It was a huge relief when she found time to ban dating from her life this season…for one whole episode.
And then there’s the way the show deals with Kaling’s curves. As the showrunner, Kaling walks a fine line between being honest about her body and being too-self deprecating. Off camera, Kaling has spoken again and again and again about her body, always with poise. But every episode of Mindy Project tends to include a joke about Kaling eating a donut off the ground or not being able to work out or even a chair breaking under her — these are fat jokes, not curvy jokes, and there’s an awful lot of them. That’s especially disappointing considering she struck the right balance in her book:
I fall into that nebulous, quote-unquote, normal American woman size that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size 8 – this week, anyway. Many stylists hate that size because I think to them, it shows that I lack the discipline to be an ascetic; or the confident, sassy abandon to be a total fatty hedonist.
And yet I watch every week. Why? Mindy Kaling is incredibly likable. She joined The Office writing staff when she was just 24 — the only woman in the writers’ room. She also took an onscreen role as Kelly Kapoor and even mined her personal life for comedy: She and B.J. Novak’s character dated on-again, off-again both on The Office and in real life. Kaling went on to publish a hilarious book called Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) in the vein of Tina Fey’s comedic memoir Bossypants. It was hilarious and full of truisms, just like her popular Twitter feed and her show.
Her vision for the show is unique: She’s taken her vapid Kapoor character from The Office (someone obsessed with celebrity gossip and fashion) and made her an accomplished doctor, proving that women don’t have to be one type or another. And even though most empowered female characters on TV compromise their work for love at some point, Mindy has yet to make that mistake.
And, let’s face it, she doesn’t look like your typical Hollywood success story. She’s the first woman of color to run and star in her own show, and she isn’t that size-0 star we typically see on TV. While the parade of guest stars can be annoying, their endorsements suggest that people in Hollywood really want Mindy to succeed too. Even Fox chairman Kevin Reilly seems to be having our same struggles in wanting desperately for the show to succeed while recognizing all its flaws. As he told Grantland’s Andy Greenwald on the TV critic’s podcast:
“On some level there are other shows that I have not stuck with that are higher rated, and I’m sure those producers are like, ‘What does she have on him?’ I’ve believed in her voice…I think we got off to a really shaky start in the first season. The first batch of episodes was a little all over the place…I think it turned into a fantastic television show, a particular audience loves it…It’s the kind of show I want to stick behind.”
So I will continue to lend my Hulu click to The Mindy Project and pray that she sorts out the show.