In Salon today, my dear friend Willa Paskin has a terrific diagnosis of Fox’s freshman comedy, Ben & Kate, which she says is the sitcom version of a dramedy: emotionally engaging, but too nice to actually be funny in the way we expect comedies to deliver. It was a piece that clarified my growing problems with the network’s other female-centric freshman entrant in Fox’s Tuesday night comedy block, The Mindy Project. What was one of my most hotly-anticipated new shows of fall has turned out to be too unpleasant to have fun with, and a show that sacrifices interesting new territory in the service of its own myopia.
Some of the problem with the show lies in the dynamic between its two main characters, Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and her coworker Danny Castellano (Chris Messina, who I normally like very much). While the two are supposed to be friends as well as coworkers, they’re also the show’s obvious Will-They-Or-Won’t-They couple. But the thought of them together makes that prospect seem more horrifying than charming. In the pilot, for example, Danny told Mindy, in a line laced with some real ugliness, that if she really wanted to look nice for a date that she should lose 15 pounds. One of The Mindy Project‘s most important interests is exploring how romantic comedy tropes play out in the wild, or at least the wild as constituted by Mindy Kaling’s version of her life in which she’s a love-challenged gynecologist. In a conventional romantic comedy, that crack would have been evidence that Danny is the kind of obnoxious person that Mindy will learn to jettison when she meets someone who truly values her for who she is, or that he’s a candidate for a Gerard Butler-style reformation, someone who causes pain to women because he’s in so much of it himself. But The Mindy Project’s riff on it, and on Danny himself, seems to be an affirmation of another cliche: that pick-up artist style put-downs are precisely what proves a guy is desirable.
Some of Danny’s meanness, as when he told Mindy last night that he’s as attached to her as she is her office lamp because “The lamp provides light to that part of the room. You do what you do,” smacks of rivals escalating their war of words. But some of their interactions seem tinged with a genuine cruelty. In last night’s episode, when Mindy decides to have Danny be her gynecologist (an idea that seems terrible and to lack emotional astuteness in any case), their interaction takes a bad turn during Danny’s questions about Mindy’s sex life and family plans. “Do you plan on having children. I’m going to check no,” Danny tells her. “You aren’t married or even in a committed relationship.” Mindy slaps back at him by mentioning his failed marriage, a move that seems like it ought to be off-limits between people who actually have some affection for her. And Danny responds by harshly laying out Mindy’s real prospects for having the four children she tells him she wants to have:
Let’s say you spend the next year or so dating this guy. You’re 33 them. You spend a year getting to know him, 34. Two years living with him, 35, 36. Finally he proposes, you get married, congratulations, you’re 37. You start talking about having kids, but the maternity leave alone is enough to take you out of the game. You spent so long building your career. 38. Now your husband starts resenting how busy you are, he want someone with more free time, but you don’t want to stop working, so he moves out. 39. The divorce is finalized, 40…So you manage to have one kid under the buzzer? Hey, anything can happen.
I don’t think that the timeline he’s laying out is unrealistic. And I would love a sitcom that could honestly and pragmatically root itself in the romantic challenges of women who have focused on their careers and are turning to their relationships later on in that process. But as happens so often in The Mindy Project, when the show touches on these issues, it often does in a way that’s so hurtful or uncomfortable that it curtails conversations rather than opening them up. Mindy can’t respond to that vision of her life, because she can’t: it would be too raw for this sitcom to tackle, and too mature for this character to actually engage with.
I felt the same way about an earlier part of Danny and Mindy’s consultation, when Danny asks Mindy if she uses contraception. “Yeah. Condoms. Ech, am I right?” Mindy asks him. “Condom etiquette is hard for women, you know? ‘Cause you want to have condoms, but you can’t keep them by the bed ’cause then it seems like you’re, like, using them constantly. But you can’t not have them. So you do that whole dance, like ‘Oh, hey, I might have a couple somewhere from, like a bachelorette party, like, I had as a goof.’” Rather than having a conversation about why she might feel that way and what the consequences might be of that discomfort, or, God forbid, giving us a scene of Mindy actually doing something like this with Josh, the sports agent she’s dating, Danny simply tells her that no one does that, and moves on to the next question. It’s both a bad structural choice and a bad emotional one, simply for purposes of maximum impact.
But that total disinterest in actual women’s health pervades the show. My discomfort with the show began in the pilot when Mindy flat-out missed a delivery, blew off another in the midst of a date, and faced absolutely no consequences for her flagrant disregard for her patients. Obstetrics and gynecology are delicate health care issues, and I’d initially hoped that The Mindy Project might break television’s normal awkward silence around them. As that hope faded, I hoped that the show might at least redeem Mindy’s immaturity in other areas by demonstrating her basic competence as a doctor, something that provided the emotional and M.I.A.-scored climax of the pilot. But we’ve never seen Mindy in an extended scene with a patient since. I understand that the choice of setting is an homage to Kaling’s late mother, but she could have done better, or at least more with the idea than this.
It’s not hard to make compelling drama out of young women’s sex lives. Lena Dunham, whatever her other flaws, crafted a multi-episode arc of Girls around its characters’ anxieties about seeking out gynecological care and misinformation about the transmission of and testing for HPV that resulted in the show’s first major emotional catharsis. In the Sex and the City pilot, the condoms that spill out of Carrie’s purse when she meets Mr. Big say more about how she feels about carrying contraceptives, the kind of woman she sees herself as, and the kind of woman she’s trying to be, than any line of dialogue in The Mindy Project.
But for whatever reason, The Mindy Project doesn’t actually seem particularly aware of how it’s answering that and other questions it poses about how Mindy sees herself. In the romantic comedy riff that is The Mindy Project, the pitch to viewers like me should have been that we want to be Mindy’s best friend, to hear about all of her adventures and errors. But at this point in the show, I’m opting out, and wondering how Gwen, Mindy’s in-show bestie stands it.