The first season of The Mindy Project shows a lot of promise, but it’s also full of growing pains. Mindy Kaling (of The Office fame) is the eponymous Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful OB/GYN whose love of romantic comedies has distorted her own search for love. At her worst (and funniest) she’s a stereotypical late Gen-X/early Gen-Y woman. She’s self-obsessed and dramatic, a lover of pop culture and social media. Her intelligence and sincerity usually kick in after she’s made a fool of herself.
As a female lead in a comedy I immediately started comparing her to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. I liked how Mindy is not portrayed as fearful of sex like Liz Lemon (or even Zooey Deschanel’s Jess in the weaker comedy New Girl). Early on I wasn’t sure if the character was enthusiastic about sex, but the ambiguousness was created because of Mindy’s need for epic romantic love. It’s the running theme of the show that a lifetime of watching romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle has warped the way she interacts with men. Midway through the season though it’s clear that she gets horny, likes sex, has hookups, and ogles men.
Unlike Liz Lemon, Mindy Lahiri has a positive body image even though Mindy Kaling (certainly an attractive woman) has a rounder figure than Tina Fey. Mindy plays up her figure as an asset while the supporting cast is ambivalent about it. It’s a running gag that shortly after Mindy extols her body type another character will shrug at it. That’s in contrast to 30 Rock where Liz Lemon was roundly condemned as unattractive by her peers even though Tina Fey is gorgeous. Both are seen as having a healthy appetite, though nothing can compare to Liz Lemon eating an entire steak while in the span of 30 seconds.
All in all, putting the quality of the comedy aside (the first two seasons of 30 Rock are some of the best comedy of all-time, but the first season of The Mindy Project is better than anything after that), I think The Mindy Project does a better job with its lead. While watching the first season and noting some of the similarities between Lemon and Lahiri I did worry that in order to have a woman lead a comedy she couldn’t be seen as attractive. On the other hand, for most characters to be funny they have to be flawed. This is especially true for the lead of a show. He or she has to be the one driving the comedy. I once read something similar about dramas. The theory went that the great dramas - e.g. Breaking Bad or The Sopranos - were great because the lead character was causing all the conflict, whereas the merely very good dramas - e.g. Boardwalk Empire or The Walking Dead - missed out on elite status because their leads were merely reacting to conflict. In the same way, a comedic lead can’t be the straight man pointing out what’s wrong with everyone else.
Mindy’s nemesis at the practice is Danny (Chris Messina, whom I remember from Six Feet Under way back in the day), another OB/GYN. Uptight, strict, and emotionally repressed he’s the opposite of Mindy. A major comedic device in the show is the abhorrence both Danny and Mindy exhibit for what the other enjoys. Mindy can’t understand Danny’s love of Bruce Springsteen, Danny can’t understand anything Mindy likes. As adversarial as they are each comes to the other’s emotional aid at times. There is also an obvious romantic chemistry that the two fail to acknowledge.
The supporting cast is solid too. Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), with his British accent, is the other OB/GYN. He starts off as Mindy’s hookup but comes into his own comedically later in the season as the one who jabs at the faults of Mindy and Danny. Betsy (Zoe Jarman) is the shy, good-hearted receptionist. Her naivete provides solid humor. Beverly (Beth Grant) is a vulgar, incompetent nurse who gets fired only to come back later as a receptionist.
The mid-season hiring of Morgan (Ike Barinholtz), an ex-con turned nurse, might have nudged The Mindy Project into the elite comedy bracket. Morgan is a maddening character because he’s childishly unaware yet flashes an almost idiot savant-like competence in completely random circumstances. For instance, he bombs his interview (wears a track suit, mentions he was in prison) but is saved when he quickly calms the office after Mindy gets assaulted (by a just fired Beverly). But even when he’s adeptly administering medical care to Mindy he manages to tell her what sexual positions she shouldn’t use with a broken nose. Morgan exists in the opposite mindset of the rest of the cast at all times. When the others aren’t taking something seriously (like a trip to a women’s prison to give out free care), Morgan is taking it seriously. When it’s a serious situation or it requires tact (he finds Mindy sleeping with a member of a rival practice), Morgan will blow it up.
The show does suffer from some continuity issues. Sometimes a date is introduced in one episode and then in the next they are sleeping together. I’m not saying sleeping together quickly is a bad thing, it’s just that the show seems to skip over some connecting plot. Maybe it’s not bad to skip the part where the next step is taken. It’s possible that’s just wasteful plot that all shows engage in. It was slightly confusing though.
Early on the show dumps the owner of the practice, Marc Shulman (Stephen Tobolowsky, most notably from Groundhog’s Day) and later on the receptionist Shauna (Amanda Setton) just disappears. As the show still has a half dozen solid members of the supporting cast, it was probably a good decision to drop them. It’s not that the characters were annoying or even bad, it’s that they just weren’t as funny as the others and probably would have crowded out better material. Shulman is like a father character but without any typical dad faults like being overbearing or oblivious. Shauna is the cool hot girl but wasn’t all that ditsy - Mindy occupies a lot of that space - nor does she call out a lot of uncool activity - Mindy, Danny, and Jeremy take turns doing that.
Xosha Roquemore as nurse Tamra doesn’t directly replace Shauna, but arrives soon after we stop seeing her. Her role is tenuous. Mindy’s friends Gwen (Anna Camp), Alex (Kelen Coleman), and Maggie (Mary Grill) make sporadic appearances, with the latter being the only one that adds much comedy. Gwen’s role as “Mindy’s best friend” is at odds with how much screen time she is given on the show.
The show is full of guest appearances. Well-known actors posing as (mostly failed) love interests for Mindy abound. The show starts with Mindy’s disastrous showing at an ex’s (Bill Hader of SNL) wedding. She blows it with Dennis (Ed Helms, The Office) and Matt (Seth Meyers, SNL). Sam (Seth Rogan of lots of movies), a childhood friend, has only one day with her before shipping out to Afghanistan. Adam (Josh Meyers) is actually a prostitute. Josh (Tommy Dewey) is a cheating bastard. Brendan (Mark Duplass, of The League fame) is a hookup from a rival holistic practice she gets attached to. Casey (Anders Holm), well Casey could be the one, as the season ends with Mindy agreeing to volunteer in Haiti with him.
Other love interests for other characters include Elllie Kemper (again from The Office) for Josh, Allison Williams for Danny, Maria Menounos for Brendan, and Chloë Sevigny as Christina, Danny's ex-wife. Dan Castellaneta and Common are other notable appearances. Utkarsh Ambudkar plays Rishi, Mindy's younger brother. Amar’e Stoudemire, Baron Davis, Danny Granger, Clay Matthews, and Moby make appearances as themselves.