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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.