The Mindy Project debuts tonight on Fox at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
David Sims: As with timeslot partner New Girl last year, much of the critical reaction to The Mindy Project seems to be a debate over whether it’s worthy of some sort of imaginary comedy mantle. I don’t know if this is because of Mindy Kaling’s pedigree on The Office, because of her status as both a funny woman and a funny Indian-American, or just because this is one of the more interesting pilots in a weak fall season. But the first episode of The Mindy Project likely could not ever hope to live up to that buzz. Viewers and critics are either ready to crown Kaling the new queen of TV comedy or denounce her for perpetuating a bunch of hoary old rom-com tropes.
To her credit, Kaling isn’t shy about her influences (the episode is infused with Meg Ryan from start to finish), and I’m not about to string her up for writing a TV show that presents us with a series of potential will-they/won’t-they pairings, sure to be rife with cute bickering and workplace misunderstandings. Last year, my initial feelings of distaste for New Girl were worn down as its ensemble grew more well-rounded and it stopped relying on Zooey Deschanel’s zany antics. For all its silliness, that show finds strength in its surprisingly realistic character interplay. There are genuine moments to be found between the characters there. The same is true for certain scenes in The Mindy Project, especially between Mindy and Danny Castellano (Chris Messina, whom the show is extremely lucky to have on board).
But there’s stuff to overcome, too. The workplace setting (an OB/GYN office) isn’t the most exciting, and the replacement of Richard Schiff (grumpy and muted) with Stephen Tobolowsky (weirdly chipper) as the boss hasn’t made much of a difference, although it may have been the right call in the long run. Smug English handsome person Jeremy (Ed Weeks) feels ripped right from the pages of Bridget Jones in a bad way, although the show is smart enough to acknowledge the reference.
What’s most intriguing about this project is just how harsh it is about its lead character, who is certainly not without flaws. Kaling wrote an astute piece for the New Yorker last year that skewered the tired tropes of female protagonists in romantic films/TV shows, and she’s done well to mostly avoid those pitfalls. Mindy Lahiri isn’t just a nutty klutz whose love life is a series of wacky misunderstandings. She gets up to all sort of mischief in the pilot but doesn’t feel one-dimensionally slutty or self-obsessed. There’s hope for further, more intriguing shading as the show continues.
Todd, do you agree? Or did Mindy start to lose you when she gave a drunk speech at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and biked into a swimming pool?
Todd VanDerWerff: I’m torn on The Mindy Project, to be honest. The pilot is something of a mess, and it tries to do far too much. On the other hand, in a fall when so many comedy pilots seem mostly interested in recreating the shows of the ’90s, over-ambition is more promising than the same old thing all over again. The pilot isn’t nearly as assured as the other Fox comedy debuting tonight, Ben And Kate, but there’s also a higher upside here and more room to grow. Whereas it’s hard to see Ben And Kate straying dramatically from the tone and quality of its pilot, it’s possible to imagine a world in which The Mindy Project is either the best or worst show on television. There’s ample room for both in the pilot.
We’ve skipped around the premise here, somewhat. The Mindy Project aims to be both a weird spin on romantic comedies, following the lovelorn life of rom-com fan Mindy Lahiri, as well as a workplace sitcom set in the aforementioned OB/GYN office. Unlike you, I think the workplace stuff is where this show could shine. It’s rare that a comedy would get better by steering more fully toward its premise, but the scenes in this episode where Mindy and her colleagues are hanging out around the office are among its best and the only places where the episode stops to breathe. Plus, there aren’t a lot of good, traditional workplace sitcoms on the air, and there’s lots of room to poke fun at the complications of the nation’s healthcare system. There’s a tiny bit of this in the pilot, with the story of the pregnant immigrant woman who communicates via her son, but it really only leads into one choice comic scene where Mindy goes to the clinic’s receptionists and essentially begs them to send her more white people. That scene has bite where much of the rest of the episode lacks it. If the show follows this sense into becoming a workplace sitcom with romantic complications on the side, well, it could very easily live up to all of its potential.
The problem, then, stems from just how many different things the pilot tries to do. It tells Mindy’s complete backstory (involving an essentially wasted Bill Hader). It gives us a sense of her work life and her personal life. It sets up a romantic-comedy obsession that feels forced. It has room for a botched date and a badass surgery montage meant to remind viewers this woman is more capable than her general klutziness would indicate. (On this point, at least, Aaron Sorkin could take pointers.) The pilot is overwhelmed by an endless assault of stuff, stuff, stuff, and it’s not helped by trying to set up the entirety of the show’s giant ensemble (which also features the always enjoyable Anna Camp and Zoe Jarman) and a brief guest part for Ed Helms.
The most common complaint against the pilot has been that Mindy’s love of romcoms undercuts her as a strong female character, but that criticism is mostly false. A careful watch of the pilot indicates she’s just like any male character on a comedy who’s obsessed with movies and TV shows and knows all their tropes. Kaling’s just written a gender-flipped, more-empathetic-toward-others version of Abed from Community in some ways, and there’s lots of room to explore that kind of character. No, the real problem here is that there’s so much going on that the pilot never has time to stop and take stock of where it’s been. There’s no real story here, just an assault of things that happen to Mindy. But if the series can focus and figure out just what sorts of stories it wants to tell, it could be amazing.
Do you agree there’s too much going on here? Or did you enjoy the breathless pace?
DS: You have a point that the pilot is an overstuffed 22 minutes. The scenes with Ed Helms probably would have hit the cutting room floor if Kaling hadn’t secured a “name” guest star. Anna Camp’s character, Gwen, suffers in particular since it’s hard to quite figure out where she fits in. (She was Mindy’s college roommate! But she has a kid now? And she’s the governor’s daughter?) I’d argue there is a story at work, but it’s only in place to justify Mindy’s behavior in the final scene, where, without spoiling anything, she assures Gwen that she’s turning over a new leaf when we can see she’s doing anything but.
So the show’s wild veering between scenarios is a little whiplash-inducing, but I was willing to give it a pass since part of the idea is that while Mindy has something of a grasp on her work life, she’s nowhere near figuring out anything else. From a storytelling perspective, it can be frustrating to watch, but a lot of it made sense for her character.
I liked the jabs at America’s insurance companies, and there’s certainly room to expand when it comes to the workplace stuff, but that could turn out to be a crutch too. The bad-ass surgery montage is fine, but the series is going to have to work to steer clear of the clichés that abound with babies being born and medical situations snapping from fun to serious at the drop of a hat. The pilot does fairly well there—for all her personal foibles, Mindy knows what she’s doing once she’s in the OR.
But while I agree that the bite of the receptionist scene is notable, there are other such instances here. Mindy’s attempts to ignore a pregnant woman’s call at her date with Helms is nicely tough to watch in classic Office style. And it’s not some excuse for Helms’ character to totally write her off, either. There’s a hint of nuance there in a scene that’d just be straight-up cringe comedy in lesser hands. That’s what’s giving me hope for the future.
TV: That’s what’s so weird about this pilot, David: On a scene by scene basis, it totally holds up, but when you start looking at how all of the scenes add up to a larger whole, the show doesn’t work nearly as well. It’s almost as if every single act—the story of a lovelorn woman getting over a bad breakup, the story of a professional woman dealing with jackasses at her workplace, and the story of a woman on the dating scene whose work life keeps intruding—could suggest a totally different way for the show to go forward. My feeling is probably that if the opening sequence detailing Mindy’s backstory weren’t there, the pilot would feel more coherent as a whole. It’s so rushed and all over the place that it’s likely going to scare some people who might really enjoy this show off. In general, showing is better than telling, but I’m not sure we needed to see the entirety of Mindy’s bad breakup to really feel her pain, and it’s not as if the show is going to get Hader back all that often anyway.
That said, even in this opening sequence, there are hints that Kaling has her eye on doing something more ambitious than the standard TV claptrap. So many pilots have opened with the protagonist in jail or some other form of trouble, telling the crazy story that led her to this moment, but Kaling gets to the point where her timeline catches up with the flashback so quickly—indeed, at the end of that teaser—that it suggests all of the episode’s rhythms will be similarly off-kilter. And if the pilot doesn’t live up to that promise completely, it’s at least playing around with different tones and ideas than most shows.
It helps, of course, that the cast is so game and willing and that all of them already have different comedic voices, something it takes many other sitcoms several episodes to pull off. And it also helps that Kaling herself is at once unafraid to make her character occasionally loathsome and to point out how she can be as big of a jackass as any of her coworkers and potential love interests are. You’ve got a point, David, that this is a show about a woman in transition, and her journey is going to be the one we follow throughout the series. Kaling’s not afraid to suggest this woman is a real mess beneath a seemingly sunny exterior, and she’s also confident in her ability in her acting to make Mindy Lahiri likeable, without giving her lots of moments in the writing that show us that she’s a good person underneath it all. She’s good in the OR, yeah, but Kaling is daring enough to make her bracingly unsympathetic at moments.
Like the rest of the pilot, that’s a mix that hasn’t been completely calibrated correctly just yet, but you and I should admit, I think, that we’ve now seen two versions of the pilot, and while the changes between the first and second were very minor, they give me confidence that the people who are making this show have a rough idea of where they want to go. That first pilot was even more breathless, and Schiff (who’s still present here in the teaser, which is a very strange choice, admittedly) was a less interesting comedic presence than Tobolowsky. The way that this has been tweaked gives me hope, even if the pilot remains deeply imperfect.
David’s grade: B+
Todd’s grade: B