Of all the new shows I’ve been monitoring this fall, the one that confounds me the most thus far is The Mindy Project. I had what were almost certainly unfairly high expectations for the program, about a young ob/gyn based in part on Mindy Kaling’s mother, given Kaling’s work on The Office, her status as a fully-developed cross-platform comedic voice, and my enthusiasm for the subject material, including women’s health and medical billing. But I can’t decide if I like the show, in part because I can’t decide if I like its main character.
Low-level female difficulty on television tends to be most interesting if it’s to an end. Liz Lemon’s crazy is the result of a poor work-life balance and in response to the insane expectations of women in Hollywood. Hannah Horvath’s wild vacillations are the result of a girl being told she’s talented but never being expected or forced to turn that talent in any applied direction. So far, Mindy’s damage, seems more like a symptom of bratty entitlement than part of a larger constellation. I appreciated that her character carried out a competent delivery in the first episode, but not so much that it erased my real sense of anger at her for missing another patient’s delivery because she was being a mess and then acting irritated when another doctor got credit for and business out of doing her job. Similarly, the idea that she’d hire a nurse because of a shared affinity for romantic comedies turned me off. Mindy seems more like a child than the grown person with character and nuance the show seems to want me to believe she is, more the supporting character with her love of romantic comedies as a single, defined quirk that provides fuel for recurring jokes, rather than the multi-faceted main character The Mindy Project needs her to be. Some of these elements feel like natural transitions from Kaling’s stint writing and playing Kelly Kapoor on The Office, and perhaps an illustration of some difficulties Kaling is have extricating herself from a character who is drawn closely from her own experiences and viewing Mindy independently as the woman who is ushering her character into the world and into prime time.
But it remains a problem for the show that Mindy is someone who, if I met her in real life, I don’t think I’d want to spend much time with. The bar is lower for people I don’t have to meet in the real world and admits much stranger fictional creations than I’d accept real ones. But they aren’t completely divorced from each other. A character who falls in the dangerous zone of irritating, rather than being either genuinely compelling or a fascinating, illustrative train wreck is a difficult one to attach to.
The Mindy Project also feels to me, so far, like an illustration of why, while it’s really important to have shows that star women of color and women whose bodies don’t fit an exceedingly narrow Hollywood ideal, the presence of both of those conditions is not actually sufficient to make a show good or interesting. It’s nice to see that Kaling didn’t shrink in between her transition from a supporting player to a star. But it’s exhausting to see Danny (Chris Messina), the doctor who is her obvious love interest, tell her, with what seemed like apparent intent to hurt her, that she could stand to lose fifteen pounds. And I thought last week’s episode, in which Kaling repeatedly re-orders frozen yogurt while on a date with Seth Meyers, ended up making her look like a child (something that was also the case during her first-episode date with Ed Helms) rather than saying something sensual and interesting about her appetites or her relationship with food. Maybe Danny will come around about Mindy’s body, maybe the show’s thoughts about Mindy and food, which has popped up as a theme twice, will cohere. But right now, the show is in an odd interim place where more mean about Mindy’s weight than it is either treating her like a normal sitcom star no matter what she looks like or actually examining Mindy’s relationship to her body. I’m not sure it’s progress to put someone of Kaling’s size (which honestly, seems fairly close to mine, and thus not even truly that daring) on television if the joke and character beats feel old and slightly cruel.
Thus far, the show’s perspective on race feels like it’s coming from a bunch of different directions, and I’m more interested in the ways in which they’ll cohere into a complete picture. The scene in the first episode where Mindy, drunk and riding a stolen child’s bike down a dark suburban street, hollers “Racist!” at a driver who honks at her, is a very smart, subtle one-word joke both about the possibilities both that people’s actions are influenced by racism and that charges of racism can be not just spurious but frivolous. The show hasn’t commented directly on what it means for a South Asian woman to covet romantic comedy dreams, though Mindy’s boyfriend, who she meets cute in ideal romantic comedy circumstances, does leave her for a younger, Eastern European woman—the dream is only available to everywomen who meet certain racial and age criteria. Then, there’s her attitudes towards lower-income patients, which is inflected by both class and race. Mindy may act like she has a candy heart with a little boy who translates for his veiled, uinsured mother, telling him to lie to her about their family’s insurance status so she can accept her as a patient, but she complains bitterly about poor patients to her coworkers. That constellation of factors is sharper and more interesting than anything The Mindy Project‘s done with body image or Mindy’s relationship with food, and I think the show might be sharper if her relationship with romantic comedies was filtered through a lens of race and class rather than foregrounded. I understand that romantic comedies are the show’s hook. But I can’t help but wonder if the show would be more interesting if Kaling’s specific perspective on them was a bit more foregrounded so the show would feel like a conversation with a close, smart friend rather than a recapitulation of archetypal story beats.
And really, I suppose, that’s what I’m finding difficult about The Mindy Project, which should be everything I like on television. I need Mindy to give me a reason to keep her around. Because unlike her best friend Gwen, we’re not bound by chains of friendship stretching back to colleges that require me to do hangover maintenance on her and debrief over lunch. We’re still getting to know each other. And so far, though Fox has given the show a full season, I’m not sure whether I want to stay for another drink or another episode.
For more on The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect, and other pop culture ephemera, check out the latest episode of A Movie and An Argument With Alyssa and Swin: