We all watched The Mindy Project online or on demand weeks ago and decided we loved it, right? I loved it enough that I was looking forward to seeing it a second time, a feeling I haven’t had since the early-to-mid-aughts with shows like The O.C., Lost, and 30 Rock.
But watching Mindy again allowed the chance to ask: Why do we like these first 22 minutes of this simple comedy (31-year-old ob-gyn is great at her job, bad at love!) so much? Pilots are notoriously difficult to pull off, but Mindy lands it. For me, the answer to how it does that is as complicated as Mindy’s personal life, and perhaps that adds to the entire experience’s postmodern charm. Mindy unabashedly wallows in its influences and its antecedents, while collaging them into a whole new experience. It gives us this familiar feeling, this, “Finally, a relatable sitcom about a smart-but-flawed heroine!” feeling. Then we realize we’ve been having that feeling more often these days, granted with wildly varying results: New Girl, Two Broke Girls, Girls … hell, it’s an innovation just that this isn’t called That Mindy Girl. We’ve gone through that whole “peak vagina” thing and emerged (oh, so many ob-gyn puns!) at a point where maybe, just maybe, a sitcom like Mindy can be judged as a sitcom, not as a single-lady-in-the-city-com.
Still, comparing Mindy to its ilk shows how special star and showrunner Mindy Kaling’s vision is. She can do the same comedy riffs that New Girl, Bridesmaids, and Girls did and still surprise us. She pokes fun at romantic comedies without denigrating the women who love them; she sends up rom-com conventions while using them to her advantage. Girls, for all of its wonders, doesn’t seem to have that much respect for any of its characters, which is probably its point. But Mindy brings us right into the worst of the whirlwind that a successful career lady’s disastrous personal life can be. She slurs, “I’m Sandra Bullock!” while bicycling home drunk. But she is most definitely not the Sandra Bullock character who’s so professional she must be charmed into thawing out by Hugh Grant or Ryan Reynolds. Watching a truly professional woman with a truly disastrous personal life is much more fun than the movie version. And when we think, at the end of the episode, that perhaps that knock on her door is her promising date (played by her former Office mate Ed Helms!) coming in for a happy ending (not that kind!), the joke is on us.
We’re also somehow left with no doubt that Mindy’s smart; something else is holding her back when it comes to dating, sex, and love, and that’s the central mystery this pilot sets up. Mindy has been compared, as all single-girl shows have before it, to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (I know a little about that show — my book on the making of that classic sitcom comes out next year.) In a way, that’s apt: Mindy is as smart as, perhaps smarter than, Mary. (She’s a doctor!) She’s just escaped from a relationship, as Mary had in her pilot, though for Mindy the escape was involuntary and less classy. But it also gave her one of her best lines, while drunkenly giving a toast at her ex’s wedding: “You said you wanted to build a future with someone with more years to share.” Mary would never have been so bold, nor so drunk. Mindy is a Rhoda, which is how we prefer our heroines these days anyway. (See: Lena Dunham.)
We also prefer our heroines dirtier since Sex and the City, and Mindy gives us that, too. Though she seems less concerned about seeming “empowered” like that HBO show's ladies when it comes to sex — when Mindy nails her British co-worker, she’s not necessarily proud of it, but she knows she’s getting something she wants, and that’s okay. She’s more relatable than Carrie Bradshaw, more at home in her sexuality than Liz Lemon. She’s a Grey’s Anatomy character with her own sitcom. “The one with the insurance?” she asks when she gets a call about a patient going into labor. “Oh, hell, yes.” That’s a joke the often-funny Grey’s would’ve made in its better years.
The fact that Kaling is a woman of color — still too rare on network television series not created by Shonda Rhimes — only underscores her image as a Grey’s Anatomy refugee. In the pilot, Mindy neither hides from nor makes a major plot point of her Indian heritage. In fact, she slyly uses it, making jokes that white writers might shy away from. When the receptionists send a non-English-speaking patient her way, “with literally like burqas and stuff,” as she says, she can reprimand them for it. And she can have the wonderfully fawning receptionist respond, “More white patients. Done.”
In other words, Kaling is giving us a unique perspective that bodes well for future episodes. Oh, and she’s just an absolutely killer comedy writer, period, as we know from her great scripts on The Office. The quotable lines in this first episode came too fast to write them all down:
“When that hot, mean doll pointed out that even she had a boyfriend, I started to cry.”
“Who I have been is not who I’m going to be.”
“You know what? You are boring. Contribute something.” —in answer to her friend’s kid’s complaint that talking about Mindy’s personal life was boring.
“Oh, great. We broke this model of the human pelvis.” —upon stopping a make-out attempt on co-worker’s desk.
“You, I like you. I wouldn’t want to ruin it with sex.” —upon awkwardly leaving a promising date to deliver a baby, and sort of implying that he could come over at like 3 a.m., and then realizing how that sounded, and trying to backtrack.
“Maybe I’ll do one of those Eat, Pray, Love things. Ugh, I don’t wanna pray. I’ll just die alone.”
I, for one, am looking forward to seeing more of that journey, and I’m glad Julia Roberts isn’t starring.