Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in this, our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, the TV Reviews section doesn't replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
In its first season, The Mindy Project’s biggest flaw was how unfocused it felt. Its ensemble cast was overstuffed with characters who added nothing to the show, and whatever comedic tension it hoped to derive from the contrast between the show’s workplace setting and its romantic-comedy aspects often fell flat. There were good episodes amid the show’s general messiness—particularly those focused on Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina’s characters—but it never found a consistent groove or comedic voice.
It’s disappointing that the show’s second season starts off with more of the same. The Mindy Project seems relatively unconcerned with moving past a relative plateau it found about halfway through its first season. Admittedly, that season started with a batch of troubled episodes and on-the-fly retooling, so simply finding a place where competent, consistent television was being produced seemed like a victory at the time. But the more time passes, the more the show’s formula seems to be an attempt to stitch together stuff that’s worked in other, better comedies and hope for the best.
It’s possible some of what drives the flaccidity of the first two episodes of season two is the need to get everything back to the status quo. Season one ended by sending Kaling off to Haiti with pastor boyfriend Anders Holm, while Messina returned to ex-wife Chloë Sevigny and the rest of the employees of at the OB/GYN practice put their lives on hold for a summer of reruns. Untangling all of these developments takes up the bulk of the first two episodes—as does dealing with Kaling’s replacement at the office, a charming former model played by James Franco—but it’s surprising how non-urgent any of this feels.
Getting back to a place where Kaling and Messina can banter weekly feels less like a step taken because their characters really want to accomplish much of anything and more because it’s a TV show, and it’s inevitable the status quo will be restored. There are ways to play with this tension, to make the characters feel miserable or enthralled to be trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle, but The Mindy Project mostly shrugs and acts as if its main character’s time in Haiti didn’t exist. (Even the story point that brings her back to New York feels like the writers yanking hard on the character’s leash.)
Worse, the show is still trapped in the two endlessly repeated problems that dragged it into the mire in season one: the utter lack of purpose for most of the characters and its attempts to be a show about a bunch of merciless assholes masquerading as a pleasant hangout sitcom. The series makes stabs toward rectifying the first—Ed Weeks’ otherwise marginalized character is given some new responsibilities—but it’s populated by characters who have no reason to be on the show and have yet to define themselves beyond “the one played by Beth Grant.”
It’s the second that truly drags down The Mindy Project. Shows about gleeful jerks are a rich part of TV-comedy tradition, but they rarely work so thoroughly at cross-purposes as they do here. The characters are frequently, casually cruel to each other, constantly mocking each other and particularly the main character’s weight and body type. This might work if the show had built believable relationships or had well-developed characters or had some teeth to its bite, but it has none of those things. In the moments when the characters care for each other, they seem to do so out of obligation. Then it’s right back to deriving 90 percent of the humor from Ike Barinholtz being a weirdo.
This is most obvious when viewed through the lens of the main character. Kaling is part of a new movement of female comedy showrunners who are willing to let their series be completely merciless to their characters. It’s admirable, but it’s also misguided where Tina Fey’s or Lena Dunham’s work is groundbreaking. Fey undergirded her 30 Rock character’s mock-worthy traits with incredible competence in the workplace, while Dunham provides a foundation for her Girls character through the fleeting moments when she has comprehension of her own weaknesses. Kaling has never figured out that mixture with her own character, who’s competent at work, sure, but in a lazy way that comes up every few episodes or so. Most of the rest of the time, she’s simply someone everybody craps on who, crucially, all too often seems to deserve it. She’s hard to sympathize with or even understand. She’s a cipher to throw odd jokes at, not really a lead character.
It’s possible that The Mindy Project will settle down a bit once it’s done reversing the course of season one’s cliffhanger, but the flaws of the first two episodes are so similar to those of season one that it’s hard to imagine some sort of remarkable turnaround. Messina’s work is still terrific, Franco is a lot of fun, and there are fleeting moments when Kaling is perfect. But more than ever, this feels like a show without a point of view, either comedic or narrative. It’s a show built around a personality who stubbornly refuses to take center stage in any sort of compelling way.
Created by: Mindy Kaling
Starring: Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Ed Weeks, Ike Barinholtz
Debuting: Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Format: Single-camera half-hour sitcom
Two episodes watched for review
Reviews of The Mindy Project by Katherine Miller will appear weekly.