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.