The Mindy Project entered the 2012 fall season with a full head of steam. When asked by The Huffington Post which comedy series they were most looking forward to, a much larger number of TV critics selected it than any other new comedy series. (I defaulted to the sadly departed Ben And Kate.) The show issued from much-loved writer and actor Mindy Kaling. It had a premise that combined two elements—romantic and workplace comedy—in potentially interesting ways. It had an amazing ensemble cast that included Chris Messina, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Anna Camp. And its pilot, though problematic enough to require reshoots (mostly to replace original cast member Richard Schiff with Tobolowsky), had enough promise to suggest places where the show might become the next single-camera comedy classic.
Now, after a host of changes made on the fly, the series heads into its first-season finale Tuesday a bit of a wounded duck. Those promising elements from the pilot grew only fitfully. The ensemble cast mutated and changed, with two of the three prominent actors listed above now gone from the regular cast. The workplace-comedy and romantic-comedy elements never gelled in a convincing way, and the seasonal structure, featuring Kaling’s character—Dr. Mindy Lahiri—dating a succession of interesting men who ultimately revealed their unsuitableness as long-term matches for her, was mostly an intriguing dud, building and building but never finding anything close to resolution. An incredible writing staff never found a way to make Kaling’s voice a going concern on a weekly basis, and the critical dialogue around the show turned toward the negative surprisingly quickly for a series with such an accomplished pedigree. To make matters worse, the show never attracted the ratings it might have, with several episodes falling below the 3 million viewers mark, and it had to compete with lead-in New Girl, which was in the midst of a creative surge in its excellent second season.
Fox, however, is a network that has seen nearly everything on its airwaves plummet in the ratings this season, including longtime stalwarts American Idol and Glee. It’s a network in need of product, and it can’t cancel everything. So The Mindy Project is returning for a second season in the fall of 2013 or spring of 2014. And during the summer, a more fixed solution will presumably be sought to the show’s troubles, one that will take a series that still shows fitful signs of promise and turn it into something more grounded and consistent. In the event that this actually happens, let me make a rather sweeping suggestion.
Make The Mindy Project network television’s version of Louie, not in terms of tone or production values, but in terms of how it tells stories.
Granted, Louie’s ratings are so low that any major broadcast network airing it would be forced to cancel it immediately. So it’s highly unlikely that anyone at Fox—or Kaling herself—is going to see this and say, “Hey, sure! Why not?” (In addition to all of the other terrific reasons creative people should not take advice from critics.) But after watching every episode but the first season’s finale, I’m convinced that this is just crazy enough to work. The workplace element of the show has simply never worked, with much of the ensemble cast and storylines there feeling like a way to kill time. The romantic-comedy elements have been better, with some of the show’s February episodes rising to the level of genuinely good, particularly the more they focused on Mindy’s assorted weird courtships and adventures in Manhattan. In short, The Mindy Project works better as a one-woman show (with occasional appearances by Messina) than it does as an ensemble comedy. And that’s the perfect scenario for a network version of Louie.
The reasons for Louie’s low ratings aren’t necessarily in the show’s presentation. Even at its most joyful, Louie can be damned dark television, and melancholy comedy has rarely been the taste of American TV viewers. The show’s storytelling gambit—one man has a series of assorted, largely unlinked adventures—isn’t necessarily off-putting to viewers, however. Many of TV’s earliest comedies had very small ensemble casts, and the tradition extends to even major hits like Seinfeld, which certainly had solid ensembles but could also give over significant amounts of time to any one of those characters to have adventures mostly disconnected from the others. The Mindy Project’s tone, which is bubbly and ultimately hopeful, has far more in common with these other shows than with Louie, and it has even seemed to embrace minimizing the workplace elements in favor of more personal stories.
As mentioned, the show itself seems aware of how problematic the workplace setting has been. Two entire characters were removed from that part of the show—including Tobolowsky’s, who only appeared twice (then in voiceover once)—and the voices of most of the other characters haven’t sharpened in the way that workplace comedies require. Ed Weeks’ Dr. Jeremy Reed, for instance, has yet to develop into anything other than a hanger-on, frequently getting dragged into crazy adventures but possessing no character traits that might instigate said adventures. Worse, the one character who does tend to instigate crazy adventures on a regular basis—Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan, a strange nurse hired in a seemingly throwaway story in an early episode who gradually took over the show—doesn’t seem to have a defining character trait other than “weird.” This might be fine in a better-calibrated group of characters, but in one as wishy-washy as this show’s ensemble, it’s far too easy for his oddity to overwhelm everything else, until the primary driver of humor on the show is Morgan throwing out a random joke and everybody else looking at him oddly.
Can those jokes be funny? Sure. There’s at least one joke I laugh at heartily in every episode. But that joke structure also introduces a hit-and-miss element to both the writing and the storytelling that keeps the show from ever being truly involving. A trenchant insight or witty gag will be followed up by five minutes of nothing much, and the show flails to fill that time with something other than its usual desperation. Too many single-camera sitcoms nowadays rely on what critic Jaime Weinman has called the “punchline bounce,” the idea that without a studio audience breaking things up with laughter, the possibility exists for every line to be a laugh-line. Proper execution of the punchline bounce requires that every line be hysterical—see also: Happy Endings—or that at least some of the characters be so well developed that they can carry weaker jokes—see also: the aforementioned New Girl (which has three perfectly developed characters and a couple who occasionally suggest other dimensions). The perfect execution of the punchline bounce has both, but too many single-camera sitcoms, including Mindy, don’t manage to have either. A few laughs exist. A character or two might land on occasion. But everything ends up feeling incredibly empty, surface-level, and thin.
In the best sitcoms, every character is capable of driving a story, and every possible character combination creates laughs simply from existing (with the audience knowing what sorts of comic beats to expect). This sort of thing is incredibly rare, to be sure, but it’s a good aspiration for a comedy to have, at the very least. In its workplace storylines, The Mindy Project never really succeeds at this sort of thing, putting even more of the burden on the two characters strong enough to actually push stories forward: Mindy herself and Messina’s Dr. Danny Castellano. Ostensibly, the show is building toward an eventual coupling of the two, but they have alternate approaches to their private and professional lives that can be very amusing. The scenes between Kaling and Messina are among the best things the show does, and the series has tried to capitalize on this.
Then, it’s easy enough to ask, if the romantic-comedy stuff is working and if Mindy and Danny’s friendship is strong enough to believably exist outside of the workplace setting, why not drop the workplace entirely or, at the very least, minimize it within the show’s world? (Zoe Jarman, a very funny comic actress, is too often stranded in workplace plots that go nowhere, and if my theoretical Mindy Project were to bring along a third actor for season two, I would choose her. Other than that, I don’t know that I would miss anybody else from the show’s current cast—even usual ringer Beth Grant.) The show was at its best by far in its February episodes, which opened with a two-parter where Mindy and Danny ended up dating male and female best friends, who came to realize (via Mindy’s extensive knowledge of rom-coms) that they were meant to be, then continued with a surprisingly soulful episode where Mindy hung out with an old summer-camp friend and current military member, played by Seth Rogen, only to have to send him off to Afghanistan. Both stories were all the better for their lack of connections to the workplace world. Both offered intriguing and meaningful tonal shifts. And both featured moments that were genuinely moving—and genuinely funny.
What I’m proposing isn’t that Mindy abandon the romantic-comedy conceit and simply become a series about Mindy having weird, melancholy adventures in the city. That would be too close to Louie, and it would ultimately defeat what makes Kaling an appealing screen presence. But a series about Mindy and Danny’s dating life, one that could tell oddly shaped single-episode (or shorter) stories and longer, multiple-episode tales of significant others? That’s something that would have potential to play to the show’s strengths and look like very little else on TV. Think of the various boyfriends Mindy has had over the course of the season—even the one-offs like Rogen’s character. All of them have been far better defined characters than the people in Mindy’s workplace, and giving them more time would allow that to be an even stronger element of the show. Mindy’s Christian minister boyfriend Casey, for instance, went from being a fairly pious sort to hopping into bed with her, without even a discussion of why he might do that. The storyline would have benefited from more room to play, more of a chance for Mindy and Casey to dissect their religious differences.
What’s more, the show’s romantic stories—those involving Danny in particular—have a fuller range of emotional stories to play. They can be weird, or they can be wistful, or they can be slightly dark, and they all seem to fit within the show’s universe. (Danny’s reunion with his ex-wife Christina, played by Chloë Sevigny, for instance, combines all three tones in interesting ways.) Again, here’s territory that network TV is bad at mining, and it’s territory that could make the series seem different from everything else. It would also allow for some of the slight serialization the show has attempted this season, with recurring love interests and relationships that grow and change over the course of several episodes.
There are plenty of reasons for networks not to embrace the Louie model. For one thing, it usually requires the central star to be onscreen so often that it’s difficult for them to do anything else. For another, network comedy has, for better or worse, traditionally been the home of ensemble comedy since the ’70s, and early casting news from the show’s second season suggests it’s going to continue moving toward the ensemble side of things. It’s entirely possible my suggestion would be impossible in a 22-episode season. But that doesn’t mean the show can’t embrace something closer to Seinfeld, with a slightly pared-down ensemble, where any character can carry a storyline. The Mindy Project won plaudits for being a pretty good pilot with all the promise in the world. In season two, let’s hope it embraces what makes it distinct and finally lives up to that promise.