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Kayla Upadhyaya: Kaling's problematic 'Project'

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published January 28, 2013

“Here’s the thing,” my housemate Harrison said nervously, perched on our living-room sofa. “I don’t actually like ‘The Mindy Project.’ ”

To his surprise, I was relieved.

We bonded over our secret distaste for the Mindy Kaling-created sitcom. Harrison had been scared to confess, certain that I — like all our other housemates — was loving it.

Because what’s not to love? One of my fave comedy heroines finally has her own show, on which she plays a not-white, not-stick-thin OB/GYN. Plus, it stars Ike Barinholtz, a Chicago-improv vet, and Chris Messina, who became one of my favorite TV actors with his multi-season performance on “Damages.” In other words, when I first heard of “The Mindy Project” ’s development, I immediately broke into a chorus of “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.”

After the underwhelming pilot aired, I adamantly defended the show. The first several episodes of a sitcom are often the throwaway batch of too-brown pancakes. Even some of the best comedies out there take a while to find their voice — “Parks and Recreation” didn’t hit its stride until season two, and “New Girl” had one of the most dramatic turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

And yet, here we are, 12 episodes into “Mindy” ’s first season, and I’m struggling to come up with anything the show does particularly well, and I’m done defending it.

A lot of the dysfunction comes down to the shaky character dynamics — all of the friendships seem forced, especially Mindy’s pointless best friend Gwen, played by Anna Camp, who’s given little more to do than rock Lands End clothing and talk on the phone (Camp, thankfully, has asked to be reduced from regular to recurring and will hopefully take her talents someplace where they’re more appreciated).

But it’s the relationship between Mindy (Kaling) and Danny (Messina), the show’s archetypal will-they-won’t-they pairing, that troubles me the most. The friendship between these constantly clashing coworkers soars past tension-ridden into downright nasty territory. In the pilot, a one-upping insult session ends with Danny telling Mindy she should lose 15 pounds. His words just hang there, and neither the show nor the characters ever deal with what has just happened.

“Mindy” doesn’t seem at all concerned with repercussions; it touches on controversial and complex topics, only to barrel right past them. Danny and Jeremy (Ed Weeks) unilaterally shut Mindy out of the decision-making process when the three take over the practice, but the show is too stuck in its own myopia to touch on workplace gender dynamics. In fact, all that really amounts from this is further establishing Danny as a disrespectful jerk. But then the show turns right around and tries to make him a lovable, heartbroken jerk. He can’t call Mindy fat one second and then build her a beautiful gingerbread house the next … it just doesn’t click.

Beyond the stellar cast and stacked writers room, what had me most excited about “Mindy” at the outset was its focus on women’s healthcare providers. While there’s no dearth of medical programming, TV has been noticeably silent about the world of obstetrics and gynecology. But “Mindy” isn’t really breaking that silence; patient-doctor interactions have been minimal, and the show has yet to engage in any kind of discourse or even satire about the highly politicized world of healthcare. As a sitcom, it doesn’t need to be an all-out soapbox for political discourse, but “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” have proven it’s possible — and quite effective — to tie national events and sentiments into their humor.

And the statements “Mindy” does make are confusing, like when Mindy — an intelligent, supposedly progressive OB/GYN — tries to stop her teenage neighbor from having sex instead of providing her with resources for protection. In the end, she distributes condoms to all the girls in her gym class, but it’s an unconvincing change of heart for someone who was just lecturing a teen about waiting and refusing to give her birth control.

In an episode that finds Mindy asking Danny to be her gynecologist — again, a character choice that makes zero damn sense — Mindy explains how “condom etiquette” is hard for women. She implies there’s a stigma against women who have too many condoms too readily available, but the characters again fail to even come close to touching on why that is or how society’s sexist double standards impact women’s sexual health.

I wouldn’t quite say “Mindy” is sex-negative, but that’s because its attitude toward sex is so all-over-the-place that I can’t keep up. In the pilot, Mindy decides that maybe real relationships really are too difficult to balance at the moment, instead opting for a more casual arrangement with her coworker in a scene awesomely scored by M.I.A’s “Bad Girls.”

So naturally, the title for the twelfth episode, “Hooking Up is Hard,” puzzled me. Sure enough, Mindy ends up forgetting everything she once thought about casual sex, as she awkwardly attempts to hook up with her midwife enemy Brendan (Mark Duplass), only to be thwarted by Morgan, who insists she’s too respectable of a woman to be dragged into the depths of hook-up-culture hell. Because even though Mindy is a grown woman, she needs a man to tell her what’s best for her.

And it’s for that very reason that Mindy also just doesn’t quite click as a character. Unlikeable sitcom leads can work wonderfully (would you ever actually want to work for Michael Scott?), but her emotional immaturity and delusions (before hooking up with Brendan, she records a video of herself, outlining who should star in the Lifetime movie about her should she be murdered) push her so far away from the empowering vision I initially had of the character.

She’s an awesome female doctor who owns a practice, and yet her goal in life is to marry rich and quit her job or marry an old guy and collect his inheritance when he dies. She’s a gynecologist who doesn’t seem to have much concern for women’s sexual health. And none of these contradictions have any comedic weight to them.

As an Indian-American woman, I can’t stress enough how significant it is that Kaling is the only Indian-American lead on television and the first Indian-American female lead ever. It’s a huge deal and earns “Mindy” a spot in television history.

But that doesn’t make it criticism-proof, and it certainly isn’t enough to make me forget about all the problems I’m having with the show. So if “The Mindy Project” doesn’t figure its shit out soon, can we just replace it with a “Kelly Kapoor: Business Bitch” spinoff?