Mindy Kaling became famous playing dim bulb Kelly Kapoor on The Office, a character who was shallow, clueless, and awful in equal measures. It’s a testament to Kaling’s charm that Kelly was always appealing despite her terrible qualities. It’s great, then, to see Kaling escaping the still-sinking ship that is The Office and moving into the lead role in a new comedy. The Mindy Project is Kaling’s from top to bottom. She created the show, she’s the star, she’s an executive producer, and she’s a writer.
Apart from the lead role, though, none of these positions is new for Kaling. She was a producer and a regular writer on The Office, and even directed a handful of episodes. Her 2011 memoir and advice book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, was a bestseller, so one would think she knows what she’s doing. Clearly she has the confidence to run her own TV show. But The Mindy Project is a show that, for the first episode anyway, seems half-finished, and worse, not all that funny.
The episode begins with a voiceover from Mindy (named Mindy Lahiri in the series), relating her lifelong love of romantic comedies, and how it’s colored her worldview to look for exactly the right person. But as a 31-year-old resident OB/GYN, she explains, she doesn’t really have time to look for that person anymore. So when she has an honest-to-God meet cute (they get stuck on an elevator together) with an oral surgeon (Bill Hader), she takes it as a sign that he’s The One.
He isn’t The One. So next we see Mindy, drunk, at his wedding to another woman. She takes the microphone and makes a passive-aggressive toast that gradually turns plain old aggressive. It’s a really uncomfortable moment of the type that used to be a hallmark of The Office, but here the viewer is doing more cringing than laughing. Worse, we’ve seen a lot of drunken, embarrassing wedding toasts in movies and on TV, so seeing this bit in the first episode of The Mindy Project already feels derivative.
Once past this opening sequence, the show introduces Mindy’s colleagues and friends, but keeps getting distracted during the process. She has a circular, not particularly funny conversation with her best friend Gwen (Anna Camp) in her office before being called away to care for a patient in labor. And then we don’t see Gwen again for the rest of the episode. A bit later, the great Stephen Tobolowsky shows up as her boss for a whopping 30-second exchange, and that’s his only appearance in the episode.
As for Mindy herself, besides discovering that she’s a starry-eyed fan of romantic comedies and a mean drunk, we also learn she has a big heart. “Big heart” appears to mean that she’s a pushover, and more especially, that she can’t seem to resist a sob story. She takes on a Muslim woman who is nine months pregnant as a patient, even though the woman has no insurance and no way to pay for the care. Afterwards, in one of the episode’s few funny scenes, she asks the office staff to send her more patients with insurance. “I just I need a different kind of patient,” she says. “More white patients, done!” replies the secretary, picking up a pen to make a note. “Don’t write that down!” Mindy says, while mouthing “yes” and nodding.
Such moments tend to be outnumbered by more familiar comedy, much of it presented by Mindy’s nemesis, the arrogant jerk Dr. Castellan. A fellow resident who is fully aware that he’s the best doctor on the staff, he lords it over everyone else. As played by Chris Messina (whom we last saw as the arrogant cable news channel president on The Newsroom and the arrogant brother in Ruby Sparks, not to mention the arrogant yoga student in Celeste & Jesse Forever), though, Castellano is a damn charming jerk. The Mindy Project goes out of its way to demonstrate that Castellano, despite his off-putting personality, has some self-awareness about how “guys” think. At one point he talks Mindy out of wearing a silver, sparkly blouse on a first date and counsels her to wear an understated tight dress instead.
The other primary male in Mindy’s sphere is less interesting. When discussing Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), her on-again-off-again fling with Gwen, Mindy says she thinks he has “a good heart,” but Gwen claims otherwise, insisting that he’s “bad news.” Neither of these characteristics is evident in the episode, and it’s also pretty confusing as to why Mindy appears to hate herself for sleeping with him. We get the idea that she has slept around a lot in her search for Mr. Right and that maybe Dr. Reed is the latest “Not Mr. Right.” It could be that she’s trying to stop sleeping with guys who are only okay, and instead wants to focus her energies on finding the one who’s more than okay. But iIt’s unclear.
Part of the reason it’s unclear is that the pilot devotes essentially 10 of its 25 minutes to its guest stars. Neither Bill Hader nor Ed Helms is a regular on the show, but each is featured for a good five minutes in minor parts. More troubling than its time allocations, is that The Mindy Project isn’t particularly funny. A couple of jokes might warrant a chuckle, but that’s about it.
That said, the episode doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience or its characters. Aside from Mindy’s drunken hijinks, the show isn’t going out of its way to be self-consciously wacky, and it isn’t aiming for the lowest common denominator. It just needs sharper writing, and the supporting cast needs to be developed. While Kaling and Messina are charming and work well together, the rest of the show needs to catch up. The question in the current climate, when network shows are cancelled quickly, is whether it will be allowed the time to do so.