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matt zoller seitz

Seitz: The Mindy Project Is a Thoughtful Riff on Rom-Com Clichés

“Your life is not a romantic comedy,” a friend tells the heroine of The Mindy Project. “Right now it seems like a documentary about a criminally insane spinster.” Actually, this show is a bit of both, and more.

Created by Kaling, a longtime writer, producer, and costar on NBC’s The Office, The Mindy Project (which premieres tonight on Fox at 9:30) is a sitcom about Mindy Lahari, a young female OB/GYN with an amusingly disastrous private life. She’s self-centered in the manner of so many talented, hormone-addled young professionals; she seems to think she’s the star in the movie of her life — “I’m basically Sandra Bullock!” she exclaims, after falling head-over-heels for a handsome young doctor who emphatically will not end up being the great love of her life — and everyone else is a supporting player. When the world dashes her illusions, she seems genuinely hurt and baffled, but she keeps stumbling on, often in heels and a cocktail dress. She’s the sort of woman who knows full well that she shouldn’t make a toast at the wedding reception for a guy she used to be in love with, but does it anyway, with too much alcohol in her system, and digs herself deeper into a hole with every syllable she utters.

But Mindy is not pathetic or (seemingly) mentally unbalanced; she’s not the early incarnation of Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, in other words. She’s just a talented but still psychologically unformed early thirtysomething (we Americans are maturing later and later) who hasn’t endured enough of life’s body blows to have a bit of sense knocked into her. She’s good at what she does, and when she pulls herself together, we see that she didn’t land a good job with serious responsibilities by some mysterious stroke of narrative luck. She suits up for work briskly and moves in operating rooms like somebody who knows her job and can be trusted with people’s lives. (Kaling based the character on her own mother, also an OB/GYN.) Mindy could be an extraordinary person rather than a talented, eccentric, self-destructive one, but her fixation on romantic fulfillment and what seems like a nascent drinking problem are getting in the way of her growth. (There are hints that Mindy is at risk of becoming an alcoholic if she doesn’t watch out, and to its credit, this is a rare comedy that seems as though it could deal with that development honestly while remaining funny.)

Kaling and her collaborators have surrounded the heroine with one of the best casts of the season, and the writing is stellar. Characters who initially seem like cardboard foils for Mindy soon reveal themselves as people who are every bit as weird and interesting as her, and who might, in an alternative universe, have their own sitcoms, with Mindy as a supporting player. My favorites are Chris Messina and Ed Weeks as two of Mindy’s fellow residents. Weeks’s character, Jeremy Reed, is a handsome English doctor who uses his handsome Englishness to cultural advantage (and to get laid). I expected him to grow tiresome quickly, but he’s a very insecure person, and in one marvelous scene with Mindy, it seems as though he might be emotionally damaged in some mysterious way, to the point where he can’t give or receive love. Messina’s character, Danny Castellano, has the bedside manner of my middle-school gym coach (“I’m the man who’s gonna take a person out of you,” he informs an expecting mother), but in time he reveals a chivalrous side that might or might not indicate a crush on Mindy; I’m hoping for “might not,” because I’d love to see a scenario wherein a walking hard-on like Danny could become platonic best friends with a lusty, impulsive woman like Mindy without the thought of sex ever crossing his mind.

The show’s antic energy and aggressively kooky heroine may not hit everyone’s sweet spot, but the pilot is a brisk, confident piece of work, made by people with a clear vision. From its first five minutes — a disarmingly weird switcheroo, wherein Mindy tells another woman a story that isn’t leading where you assume it’s leading — you can tell that this isn’t a series that’s spinning its wheels trying to figure out what it’s about. You can instantly sense The Mindy Project’s creative influences: not just the Meg Ryan/Sandra Bullock comedies the heroine has watched obsessively since childhood, but all the young-woman-in-the-big-city TV shows that preceded this sitcom: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Sex and the City.

There’s a wild card in that stack of influences: NBC’s Julia (1968-71), which starred Diahann Carroll as a nurse. That late-sixties series was a trailblazer, the first comedy to star an African-American woman. The Mindy Project treads softly in Julia's footprints, weaving references to Mindy's Indian-American roots into dialogue and flashbacks. There’s something quietly revolutionary about those images of a young brown-skinned Indian girl re-watching Hollywood rom-coms and memorizing the dialogue. We’re not just seeing pop culture cannibalize itself in these scenes. They’re also a statement on the messy emotional realities of assimilation — on how men and women who, for whatever reason, should naturally identify as outsiders in the American mainstream want to be in the middle of it. This is just one little aspect of The Mindy Project, but it’s a big part of what makes it special. The cultural awareness isn’t italicized and boldfaced, it’s just there: one piece of the heroine’s psychological puzzle. Kaling, whose parents nicknamed her after the heroine of Mork & Mindy, is working through some complex, important issues on this sitcom, and she’s having a ball doing it, blathering and pratfalling and getting it on with hunky guys. This show is a keeper.

Photo: Courtesy of FOX