Matilda Dixon-Smith: The Problem with “The Mindy Project”

Posted on February 4, 2013

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I wanted to wait as long as possible before I spoke for or against Mindy Kaling’s new Fox sitcom, the uncreatively titled The Mindy Project. Last year, I wrote a glowing review of Fox’s exciting comedy prospect, New Girl, based on its excellent pilot. Then the show had an uneven run for the first half of season one and I squirmed through each episode, embarrassed by how wrong I was. Thankfully, New Girl picked up its game, and is now a solidly enjoyable comedy. Still, the discomfort of speaking too soon about that fledgling series was enough to make me hold back on judging this one.

Mindy aired its thirteenth episode this week, and I reckon it’s time to call it: this show just isn’t working. People, this is a show about romantic comedies. It has a kick-ass lead; a woman who is actor, writer and producer for the show, and who projects power in every scene she steals. It’s got Chris Messina (a.k.a. my favourite thing about the final season of Six Feet Under). The show seems tailor-made for my enjoyment, and yet every week I end the episode unsatisfied.

“The Mindy Project’s” starring trio, (R-L) Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and British Doctor (Ed Weeks).

The thing is, Mindy Kaling is a fantastic writer. She wrote some of the absolute best episodes of The Office—US (The Dundies, Pam and Jim’s wedding) and her New York Times bestselling memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is vibrant, fascinating and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. There’s no denying the woman is talented.

Mindy’s persona—at least the one she presents to the public in articles like this and on her prolific Twitter feed—is slightly more divisive. People debate about her vapidity and self-obsession, her propensity for bragging on Twitter, and her overall gregariousness. It’s important to note this because Mindy has so much Mindy in it, her personality might be part of the problem.

Mindy centres on Mindy Lahiri (Kaling), a single, thirty-something OB-GYN who works in a private practice in New York. She is bubbly, quick-witted, self-concerned and a classic over-analyser. She talks a lot about romantic comedies, and sometimes she’s at work having a verbal sparring match with her grouchy colleague/obvious future love interest Danny Castellano (Messina).

Often it’s hard to know what Mindy is really about, though, because it feels like everyone changes their mind every week. Some weeks, it’s a show about a woman who is a brilliant doctor, but whose professional life is a mess (think a sitcom-y Offspring). Sometimes it’s a romantic comedy parody, and other times it’s an actual romantic comedy. Occasionally, it’s a rather paltry office comedy. Basically there’s a lot going on.

The lack of definition cripples Mindy. It makes the series unexpected, but in the worst way. The show is not surprising; the changes of pace aren’t elegant, as they are in Community; and, unlike Parks and Recreation, the show does not comfort or bring joy to the viewer. You sit down to watch an episode with your standards on the floor, because you hardly know where to set them.

It’s tough when you’re a less-convincing doctor than Rachel Bilson.

Part of the issue is that Mindy’s world is poorly constructed. I frequently forget the show is in New York because you hardly ever see New York. She needs more moments like the fantastic voice-over/monologue subway scene, or the Central Park carriage ride. A show’s setting can add so much depth and vibrancy, especially when the location is as colourful and definitive as Manhattan.

It’s not just the place; it’s also the people who are badly drawn. There are so many characters, and most of the time they’re not doing anything. The British doctor, the two receptionists, Anna Camp, that other brunette friend—these characters are practically cardboard cut-outs, in place for Mindy to bounce off her zippy one-liners. The only two actors who get decent screen time are Messina and Ike Barinholtz (Nurse Morgan) who, in my opinion, is the most loathsome character on the show—possibly on any show. Goodness knows why they lazily fired Amanda Setton (who played receptionist Shona) and demoted Anna Camp from series regular to a guest star, instead of focusing energy on developing the core cohort.

Perhaps the issue is that most of the cast can’t match Mindy’s wit, and her impeccable comedic timing. Plus (or perhaps as a result) she saves all the best lines for herself or Messina—who is the only actor performing to her standard. B. J. Novak’s appearance in the most recent episode (as Jamie the Latin professor) was a breath of fresh air. Novak and Kaling are best friends, writing partners and former on-screen lovers as Ryan and Kelly in The Office, so Novak gels effortlessly with Kaling. If only she put as much thought into interactions with the rest of the cast.

Novak and Kaling have a rare zap of chemistry on lacklustre “Mindy”.

That’s the problem: it feels like Kaling just does what she wants with the show, so the writing is selfish. She writes a great role for Novak because she knows they shine together; she gives screen time to the repugnant Barinholtz because he’s a writer for the show; the best scenes are with Messina because he is the potential love interest. The sections of the show that are most developed are those which directly affect how Mindy comes off on-screen, and that’s boring. New Girl took off the minute they realised it was an ensemble piece, not a solo act.

This is so unfortunate because some of the series is brilliant. The romantic comedy pastiche is clever and considered, and the best jokes hang on that concept. There’s also this fantastic awkwardness to Kaling’s comedy—just peeking through—which is refreshing and unusual. And despite my resentment towards Kaling the lazy creator, Mindy the character is a joy to watch.

The meanest version of me thinks that perhaps Kaling isn’t cut out to be a show creator. She writes so well into a show (her Office episodes always capture the ethos of the series and its characters with astounding effectiveness), but it seems she can’t construct one from scratch.

I will keep watching, but with that grotesque watching-a-car-crash sensibility (the sensibility which defines the Glee or Smash viewer): one half of you revels in the juiciness of the failure, and the other half prays for things to get better.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief. Her column, Fantasise or Perish, in which she is entirely too obsessed with television and movies, is released every Monday. 

What do you think of The Mindy Project? Do you think Matilda was too harsh, or are you hoping Fox chucks it in the proverbial garbage bin? Voice your concerns/support in the comments

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