Everybody Relax About The Mindy Project
10:30 am, September 26th | by Glenn Davis
Near the end of The Mindy Project’s pilot, which aired at 9:30 last night on Fox, a guest-starring Ed Helms tells Mindy Kaling’s titular character, young doctor Mindy Lahiri, that their brief date was “kind of a roller coaster ride.” It was fitting, since that was more or less how I felt after watching this episode. I’ve seen it twice now, and I came away both times thinking the same couple things: there are the definite makings of a good show here, but some just-as-definite kinks to work out along the way. Luckily, fixing character and tone issues over time is easier than fixing unfunniness, and from the looks of the first episode, unfunniness won’t be a problem. Because I can’t think of a better way to structure this, a few observations on that first episode, and where things might go from here, broken up into sections:
Why to be optimistic about The Mindy Project: It’s a comedy, and the jokes were largely good. Watching the pilot, I found myself either scribbling down or making mental notes of lines that, in addition to the ones that had symbolic value like Helms’, I just wanted to remember because they cracked me up. Lines like “Are we 100 percent sure that she’s not a war criminal?” about Mindy’s ex-boyfriend’s (played by a too-bad-he’ll-probably-never-be-on-the-show-again Bill Hader) Serbian wife, and Mindy’s friend responding to her comparison of a Handsome British Cad Coworker (Ed Weeks) to Hugh Grant in About A Boy by saying, “I think that he is Hugh Grant in real life.”
Speaking of Hugh Grant: if you know much about Mindy Kaling, you won’t be surprised that yes, there are tons of romantic comedy references, but not so many that someone who isn’t so much into romantic comedies (like, say, me) won’t find things to laugh at. And while TV/movie characters getting too drunk at weddings and saying/doing regrettable things is a well-worn trope, I liked that in this case, it ended in Mindy’s arrest. Finally, romantic comedy behavior gets a romantic comedy character arrested!
Why to be nervous about The Mindy Project: Plot-wise, the pilot never got into a groove. It’s tough to, when there’s as much ground to cover as there is in a pilot, but between Mindy’s origin story, her arrest, getting bailed out, racing to the hospital for work not long after getting bailed out (“Isn’t she hung over as shit?” my roommate, also watching, asked at that point), intermittently hooking up with Handsome British Cad Coworker and getting made fun of by Brash And Ball-Busting But Probably Has A Heart Of Gold Coworker (Chris Messina, whom the show will clearly pair up with Mindy eventually), going on that date with Ed Helms, and delivering a baby…it’s a lot to cram into 20-odd minutes, and it never quite felt to me like any of it flowed naturally.
Conversely, one thing the show didn’t cram enough of into those 20-odd minutes, though: Mindy Lahiri’s good side. Yeah, she delivers a baby really well, but before that, she’s a mess. She gets drunk and disorderly. She insults a kid. She takes on a patient she can’t afford to, which might be a sign of her having a good heart but doesn’t come off that way. And of course, there’s repeatedly coming back to Handsome British Cad. In fairness: Mindy being a mess is the point, but there wasn’t enough in the pilot to 1) make me actually like the character, or 2) convince me that she remotely has her shit together enough in any way to be a working doctor. It’s not that playing unsympathetic characters can’t be funny (hell, Kaling’s proven herself that it can be), but I’m sure she wants her Mindy Project character to be someone you root for, and there wasn’t a whole lot to root for in the pilot.
Why to be optimistic about The Mindy Project anyway: A few years ago, I watched a different sitcom pilot and came away with a similar feeling that The Mindy Project’s premiere gave me: “Uneven for now, but the potential for a good show is there.” The main character needed some work, but the elements were in place. That show: Parks and Recreation. If you watch Parks, you know how that turned out, and if you don’t, you are making a grave mistake that you should fix right now by watching Parks and Recreation. And for what it’s worth: Parks is helmed by Mike Schur, a former Office colleague of Kaling’s, so it’s safe to say she followed what that show did right pretty closely.
Generally, shows – especially ones like this, with actual potential to be good – get better after the pilot. There’s no reason to think The Mindy Project won’t follow that pattern, too. There’s time to nail down the characters and the tone, and so far, Office alumni (and hey, speaking of shows that got way better after the pilot: The Office!) have a good track record on that front.
Why to please, please, let The Mindy Project breathe, everyone: Mindy Kaling is a non-waifish Indian woman, and because people like that generally aren’t creating and starring in their own sitcoms on major network television, The Mindy Project has potential to transcend mere sitcom status and become an Important Sociological Event. That’s fine! Any potential barrier-breaking is worth talking about, and disagreements are healthy.
But again – it’s really, really early. Let’s give the show some room to grow before we either anoint it as groundbreaking or dismissing it as setting women back 50 years (yes, that was actually an opinion I heard at one point in discussing the show). Because if we don’t give the show any room to grow, you know what we’ll have? Another round of Girls-esque backlash, where the initial praise then became an internet-wide race to the bottom where everyone competed to see who could be least impressed by this Girls show everyone was talking about. From there, the competition to see who could hate it the most became not so much beating a dead horse but beating a living horse to death, then beating the dead horse, then chopping off the horse corpse’s legs, then beating the dead horse with its own cut-off legs, then beating the cut-off dead horse legs. I don’t want that for The Mindy Project. I don’t want that for any of us.
Oh, and I should probably say something about what I took away from all this as a guy. As you probably gleaned from my name, I’m a guy. As this is not a site guys contribute to often, and since I’m absurdly unqualified to say what The Mindy Project could mean for women, I feel obligated to say something about the show from a guy’s perspective. Only problem… I got pretty much nothing. I remember getting actually angry when I first watched the trailer for The Mindy Project, and I’m sure that was rooted in insecurity because I was seeing Handsome British Cad being handsomer than I am (screw you, hot guy!) and watching characters go on dates with Mindy Kaling when I want to go on dates with Mindy Kaling, dammit.
Anyway, it was totally irrational and I was probably just in a bad mood at the time, because I really didn’t get any gender-specific feelings watching the full pilot. And maybe that’s for the best. Kaling said it herself in a recent interview: any ground she might be breaking because of her gender, ethnicity or body type is incidental to her. She just wants to make a funny show – and for all the pilot’s imperfections, The Mindy Project was funny. Maybe the show will be seen as an important development one day, or maybe not. For now – for me, at least – it has good jokes, and that’s good enough.