In a 2011 article for The New Yorker that would end up in her book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”, Mindy Kaling wrote, “Saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them.” Less than a year before its premiere, Kaling essentially spells out the thesis of “The Mindy Project,” her terrific new Fox sitcom. Though Kaling and the eponymous heroine of her television production debut are hopeless romantics, they are still pragmatic young women who just happen to hope for the best.
The Mindy Project
Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.
Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) is a skilled OB/GYN in New York City with an insatiable appetite for romantic comedies but the restless feeling that, at age thirty-one, she may not find her own. She’s had the phantasmagoric encounter with a good-looking man in a stuck elevator, but it didn’t work out. She happens to be hooking up with a handsome British coworker, but it’s not love and it never will be. She even gets to date a textbook-perfect friend-of-a-friend, but manages to nip that one in the bud with a delicate combination of career crisis and crazy.
Last but far from least on Mindy’s laundry list of inadequate men is Danny Castellano (Chris Messina, “Celeste & Jesse Forever”), the sardonic male foible to all Mindy’s romantic aspirations. Messina’s performance is a triumph; unabashedly macho but never condescending. He manages to be Mindy’s confidante, colleague, friend and enemy, inhabiting each role without diminishing the others. It is he who tells her to “look hot, keep it simple” on her date (advice she begrudgingly takes to heart), and he who has no qualms about telling her to lose weight in an effort to fight dirty and win an argument with an irksome peer.
In one scene, Danny asks Mindy if her date was “a man” — the type of guy who would investigate the sound of a burglar in the night, or wipe her forehead when she’s in labor instead of being repulsed. It’s an overt explanation of Danny’s expectation of masculinity, but without belittling femininity. He has nothing to say about sports and skills, but speaks to the subtler agents of masculinity to which real, live men can relate.
In the kind of conventional rom-com both Mindys would eat up, Danny is the perfect opposition to a lead female: the surly, reluctant but inevitable love interest. But Kaling’s fantastic writing team deals with even that relationship expertly. Kaling and Messina’s characters interact with the wonderful ease of two people who have known each other well for years; the chemistry is undeniable, yet the prospect of romance is actually uncertain.
Despite how handsome and charming he is, there’s something repellent about Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks, “Olivia Lee: Dirty, Sexy, Funny”). He’s the George Wickham to Mindy’s Elizabeth Bennett — but vapid and possessing zero character depth. It’s empowering to know that Mindy is regularly getting it from an attractive doctor with a poetic soul, but it’s immediately clear (to her as well as the audience) that he represents everything she dislikes about herself and will only inhibit her personal growth.
The beauty of “The Mindy Project” is that Kaling isn’t acting at all — she doesn’t need to. She is real: well-intentioned and sarcastic and funny and successful, but like so many women out there, struggling to find someone drawn to that particular cocktail. It’s the kind of character she would actually be unable to portray if it didn’t strike so close to home, epitomized by a juxtaposition of two scenes: In the first, Mindy is in her office, whining over a Slurpee to her friend about the debacle that is her love life. When her secretary comes in and announces a patient in labor, Mindy switches gears without a second to spare on self-pity. “Oh hell yes,” she says, and she jumps up to race to the hospital.
There’s no shortage in the media of female archetypes, characters who we as young women are supposed to see and want to be. Kaling’s article cites “The Klutz” and “The Ethereal Weirdo” (see also: a certain other Fox Tuesday sitcom) among others, but Mindy Lahiri isn’t any of those. She is us — the everyday viewers, not the women we are told to aspire to, but the women we are. In that respect, “The Mindy Project” is not only delightful, but also realistic, and Kaling, already in the ranks of modern comedy legends, has lived up to and beyond the hype.