TV: ‘The Mindy Project,’ fall’s last chance for fresh comedy

By Nicolien Buholzer | | @nicobuholzer

The Mindy Project airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

Between Go On and The New Normal, the chances for a new fall comedy were starting to look pretty bleak. Yes, I knew The Mindy Project was coming, and while Mindy Kaling wrote some of my all-time favorite episodes of The Office, her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) was something of a disappointment. It was enjoyable, it was cute, but, well … it was nothing special, let’s leave it at that.

So I had obvious concerns for The Mindy Project, at the forefront of which was the way women would end up portrayed. Kaling’s book ended up knocking her down a few pegs for me mainly because she came off as sort of a bimbo — a bimbo with a quick tongue, but she hardly seemed like a strong female role model. We hardly needed another show like New Girl, where girls are cutesy quirky Manic Pixie Dream girls who mostly obsess over their love lives and fashion. We live in the age of children’s movies like Brave, for God’s sake! Let’s see an awesome, independent lady kicking butt at her job.

And, well, OK, The Mindy Project doesn’t really give us that. Kaling plays Mindy Lahiri, an OBGYN who’s been obsessed with rom-coms her entire life. Right off the bat, it’s quite obvious Mindy’s life essentially revolves around finding the perfect guy. Within five minutes, she’s giving a drunken toast at her ex’s wedding and talking to a Barbie about how she doesn’t have a boyfriend.

Mindy then, after a day at work full of quirky banter, ends up on a date with Dennis (Ed Helms, her co-star from The Office). After suppressing her crazy self, said crazy bubbles to the surface when she has to run off to work to deliver a baby.

Yet, Kaling’s writing still manages to drive home enough funny lines (“Today I’ll change my life. Today I’ll take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or maybe the escalator. Baby steps.”) to win me over, and more than that, Kaling manages to also poke fun at girls like her who obsess with clothes and impressing guys.

And, at the end of the day, Mindy leaves a date with a seemingly fantastic guy because of her job. It’s her job that gives her a sense of satisfaction, of purpose, and I sincerely hope that’s what she figures out, sooner rather than later.

But what I think The Mindy Project offers to TV is a character with traits that would usually be their entire identity — Mindy’s no size 2 and she’s Indian — but in the end isn’t defined by those traits. The Mindy Project is the first sitcom created and starring an Indian-American, but Kaling didn’t write Mindy to be an Indian-American. She’s mostly a woman, and yeah, I’m sure down the line there will be plot lines focused on her being an Indian, but it’s not her defining trait. It seems like almost any movie or show starring an Indian woman has to revolve around how Indian families have strict traditions and the star is breaking those traditions to be with a nice white boy. So far, Mindy’s dating white men hasn’t surfaced as a problem.

And, as is the case with HBO’s Girls, it’s refreshing to see a female star who isn’t a size 2. Characters like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon — and if you know me at all, you’ll know it’s hard for me to criticize 30 Rock too much — get made fun of for not being skinny, but no one can look at Tina Fey and comment on her size. Sure, Tina might have been a size 12 in her Second-City days, but she’s dropped down quite a bit now. When Dr. Danny Castellano — who will obviously end up being the guy we want Mindy with — tells Mindy she’d look a lot better if she “lost five pounds,” it doesn’t sound as ridiculous as when Jack Donaghy makes fun of Lemon for her size.

Women who aren’t super tiny have always been reserved for playing the funny, chubby best friend who’s always eating and making jokes about eating. Sure, there are a few comments about Mindy’s size, but Kaling’s always been an advocate for being a healthy size and loving your own body, so I feel confident saying she won’t end up turning Mindy into a caricature.

So I’m rooting for The Mindy Project. It’s not going to dethrone any old favorites, but when put alongside its freshmen peers, it’ll likely push its way to the forefront as the strongest of the new comedies — even if it’s still trailing behind the kingpins.


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