‘The Mindy Project’: James Franco as a Sex Therapist

The Mindy Project‘s greatest strength is Mindy Lahiri, played by Mindy Kaling. Built around her particular sensibility, the show follows a formula similar to that of other shows featuring comedians, that is, giving full, fresh voice to the frustrations she feels concerning her modern life.

Like many characters before her, Mindy’s frustrations arise out of her desire to have her cake and eat it too — an adage the show takes pains to remind us she often takes literally. In a different setting, with a different creative force at work, such dedicated self-interest might come across as less endearing than it does in The Mindy Project. But because Kaling’s authorship of the show and ownership of her character’s foibles are never in question, the effect seems more amusingly self-lacerating, satisfying because Mindy is much better at living with deflation and disappointment than with contentedness.

The new season’s first episode, “All My Problems Solved Forever,” opens on Mindy as she is living in Haiti with her cool, minister boyfriend Casey (Anders Holm) and espousing her new, blissed-out, non-self-centered lifestyle. In short order, she finds herself engaged and then airlifted back to New York for medical reasons, which is something of a relief for viewers worried that the show might be taking a turn into humanitarian tourism.

Much of this episode focuses on Mindy applying the philosophy she’s absorbed in Haiti to her once-and-again life back in NYC, as well as navigating her ongoing relationship with Casey. These efforts, however, fetter her wicked sense of humor and shift the narrative burden onto her coworkers, who hold the screen reliably but without her panache.

Their concerns remain much the same as they were last season: Danny (Chris Messina) grapples with girlfriend issues, Jeremy (Ed Weeks) is obsessing over his appearance, and Morgan (Ike Barinholtz) and Tamara (Xosha Roquemore) continue to serve as an eclectic and amusing peanut gallery. Still, as the ensemble is now familiar to us, they are by definition less surprising.

Thankfully, by the end of the first episode, a surprise emerges when Mindy finds herself in a professional and personal pickle yet again. This has to do with the sex therapist Paul Leotard (James Franco in a two-part guest starring role, reminding us of the show’s fondness for such high profile turns, including Chloë Sevigny as Danny’s ex, also reappearing here).

Even as Mindy contends with Paul’s usurping of her position in her ob/gyn practice during her absence, we see that his lazy charisma is an apt counterpoint to her frenetic energy. And his oddball wit helps to showcase Franco’s capacity for playing dopey for laughs. Paul and Mindy’s inevitable showdown comes near the end of the season’s second episode, “The Other Dr. L,” in which we learn whether Mindy regains her standing, in the office and in the show.

Along with this brief controversy, The Mindy Project offers a renewed focus on some other developing relationships. In particular, Mindy and Danny appear here in a few moments of camaraderie-and-maybe-more, communicated with engagingly subtle looks and gestures. These couple of episodes give hope that Kaling the writer means to continue to skewer her character’s fantasies with the same combination of intelligence and acid wit as before.

RATING 7 / 10