(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
While not the sort of compliment I’m sure Mindy Kaling dreams about, I will say that I have started to enjoy The Mindy Project a lot more since I lowered my expectations of it. Before the show began, there were predictions that it would announce the arrival of another Tina Fey. There were certainly comparisons to be made: Both worked their way up through a beloved comedy institution (SNL, The Office) both as writers and performers. Both wrote comic memoirs (Bossypants, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?) chronicling their journey as a funny woman in a world where every few years like clockwork, established male comedians still lob the “women aren’t funny” bomb. And both eventually launched their own comedy vehicles wherein they would set out to challenge the established order as the new millennium’s “smart women of comedy.” Kaling herself hasn’t been shy about drawing the comparison (albeit self-deprecatingly), name-dropping Fey’s book in the introduction to hers, and even actually dropping in a copy of Bossypants in a recent episode.
So when The Mindy Project revealed itself to be a much less ambitious (and less funny) show than 30 Rock, Kaling came in for a disproportionate level of criticism. That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty to criticize. The Mindy Project’s creative rudderlessness has been evident from the outset. (Richard Schiff jettisoned in a re-shot pilot, his replacement Stephen Tobolowsky similarly phased out via answering machine message, various would-be regulars either eliminated or downgraded. And the elevation of broader characters like wacky office denizens Ike Barinholtz and tonight’s returning Beth Grant.) And, most importantly of course, Mindy Lahiri herself, unlike Liz Lemon, wasn’t a self-aware, crusading (if self-defeating) career woman whose job brought her into direct conflict with gender politics (and the occasional “Fart Doctor” standards fight.) No, for all her professional acumen, Dr. Mindy Lahiri was introduced as someone not completely unlike Kelly Kapoor-sharper maybe, but romantic comedy-obsessed, a little ditsy, and much more interested in defining herself through a relationship with a man than as any sort of standard-bearer. Keeping the Fey/Kaling contrast going, my wife made an illuminating comment during tonight’s episode, saying, “Tina is Mary Tyler Moore, and Mindy is Rhoda.” In other words, it’s not illustrative, or fair, to compare the two: 30 Rock was more ambitious, but sometimes funny is a goal in itself. And I’ve found The Mindy Project to be reliably amusing more often than not.
Take tonight’s episode for example: Directed by Kaling’s Office colleague and executive producer B.J. Novak, it’s silly, full of reliably funny guest stars, and I laughed out loud more than once. In it, Mindy’s received a modicum of the celebrity she’s always aspired to (“I wanted to be a celebrity doctor even before I wanted to be a doctor”) via a predictably-silly taxicab PSA involving a dog costume and a hand puppet, and she gets courted by a pair of blithely unctuous TV reporters to repeat her segment on the local news. Danny predictably objects at the potential embarrassment this could cause to the firm before jumping in with typical Castellano vigor to try and class up her presentation (at least in order to stick it to his infuriatingly blissful nemeses the Duplass brothers’ midwives upstairs). In the B-story, former nurse Beverly returns to the office, via aborted age-discrimination lawsuit, and settles, with signature Beth Grant weirdness, into her role as a receptionist (or something).
Perhaps underlined by words like “predictably,” “typical,” and “signature,” there’s nothing new or groundbreaking going on here. A time-honored sitcom premise sets the wheels in motion, and the show glides comfortably to its conclusion. Nothing wrong with that, especially when the show’s ensemble, and some choice guest stars, continue to deliver some reliably smart, silly chuckles along the way. And that growth (or perhaps viewer understanding) of the The Mindy Project as an ensemble goes a long way toward explaining why the show, while still clearly unsure of what it intends to be, remains more than watchable. Chris Messina’s irascible Danny has become as important to the series as Mindy, his ever-thwarted sensibleness providing increasingly rewarding counterpoint to the office’s wackiness. (I liked his expressed fear that Mindy’s TV gig this week will “make the office look like a bag of jerks.”) And while Ed Weeks’ “handsome British guy” doctor isn’t inherently interesting, he can be counted on for one funny line per episode. (Tonight’s was his bafflement at their racist patient: “I’m not even a race. She called me a toffee head.”) As for Ike Barinholtz oddball Morgan, while his introduction seemed to smack of the show’s desperate desire to bring in their own Kenneth the Page to steal scenes, he’s still reliably stealing them without yet heading into “showblocker” territory. I have less faith that Beth Grant’s similarly suspicious return as the dodderingly weird Nurse Beverley will provide as much of a return, though.
It’s a testament, perhaps, to that easygoing atmosphere (or Kaling’s collection of famous friends) that the show continues to attract reliably funny, high profile guest stars who make the most of their small roles. I was especially happy to see Key & Peele’s Jordan Peele (my pick for the most underrated comic actor on television) as one of the reporters: The guy only gets a few lines, but, as he shows consistently on his own show, he makes every one he gets tickle with very specific comic intelligence. Also, I remain more infatuated than most with Mark Duplass’ deadpan smarminess as midwife/possible Mindy love interest Doctor Brendan. (Drea de Matteo’s turn as Mindy’s sarcastic hypochondriac patient was less memorable, but I did excitedly yell out “Adriana!” when she showed up.)
As for Mindy herself, I respect Kaling’s willingness to cede some of the spotlight as her show has grown. Toning down on the overstated romantic comedy meta-ness she came in with, Kaling’s been allowed to reveal her impressive physical comedy chops more (see tonight’s bit of business repeatedly deciding whether or not to leave de Matteo’s bedside for the TV station) and an appealing, and yes, adorable, silliness that provides The Mindy Project with a comfortable, low-key appeal that’s as engagingly charming as its star. There are worse ways to be.
- Pandering to Kaling’s innate adorableness though it may be, Mindy in a dog suit is well, adorable. Damn you Kaling—your adorableness has disabled my critical faculties again.
- The midwives absurdly serene commercial made me laugh, especially Brendan’s proud boast, “Our practice, plastic-bottle-free since 2009.”
- “I get recognized between zero and three times a day.”
- Mindy’s switch to bass riffing in the second verse of her “vagina vagina” song was another one of those laugh out loud moments.
- Messina’s Albert Brooks-style news meltdown was another. “Hand me that vulva, will you?”
- Grant’s a funny lady, but her return story (“Old people don’t understand computers!”) wasn’t especially promising. There may be room for only one office kook…
- See Peele’s, “No human has ever scored sad-dog numbers!” for an example of a typically Peele-ian line reading.