Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Mindy Project Recap: Race-Sitcom Relations

 Priscilla (guest star Jenna Elfman, L) confronts Mindy (Mindy Kaling, second from R)

Wow, quite a few advanced sitcom maneuvers tonight on The Mindy Project, and most of them came off pretty smoothly, a particularly impressive feat given a theme no lighter than racism. Here, a show-by-show guide to which classics’ influence came through in this week’s Mindy:

The Office
The episode begins with a non sequitur of a cold open, just like Mindy Kaling’s breakthrough show used to do. Morgan, an attack dog, Tamra, and a misfired stun gun all tangle into a nice bit of physical comedy from Ike Barinholtz, which has me nostalgic for some Dwight Schrute. It may be no coincidence that this episode is directed by U.S. Office creator Greg Daniels.

The Office is also among several sitcoms that made serialization standard in the last decade or so. Yes, shows from Friends all the way back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show dabbled in it, but nowadays we expect it. I’ve found myself frustrated by The Mindy Project’s inconsistencies in the past, so I love seeing last week’s bit of unfinished business — the shadow sexting between “Mindy” and Cliff — addressed, especially if said addressing also comes with a Boston Cream With Bacon Shavings doughnut.

Mindy’s still mad at Morgan for pretending to be her while sexting Cliff, though she’s happy he let her keep the texts. She liked them twice in the same night, if you catch her drift. Things get awkward when Cliff steps into the elevator with them, only to divulge that he’s taking new girlfriend Heather to the Cirque du Soleil show about the history of video games, Joystique. Unfazed by this, one of the script’s best jokes, Mindy lets Cliff know that she knows about the sexts — that one about him taking her bra off with his teeth, for instance.

And voila, Cliff is kept in the running for Mindy’s heart for another week, with minimal fuss and enough flair.

30 Rock
This mommy-blogger business reminds me so much of Tina Fey’s wacky Internet plots, particularly that one where the pretend Jezebel criticized TGS for not hiring enough women. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that this plotline also sets up an intriguing — at times a little uncomfortable, but that’s part of the point — way to back into a send-up of racial discussions.

Something’s clearly amiss as soon as the mommy blogger notes to Danny that the practice has a “wholesome roster of doctors.” (The phrase sounds so weird that at first I fear it’s a clunky setup for some silly plotline, but it’s all by design, cleverly written, incidentally, by Barinholtz and David Stassen.) Things get even stranger when Mindy yells about slipping in the office bathroom because Tamra was shaving her legs there. She has a perfectly good excuse — “I can’t shave at home. Ray Ron turned our bathroom into a recording studio.” But Mindy banishes her to the bathroom across the street, the one Mindy herself is banned from.

Seinfeld
Right around the time that an office discussion about a budget surplus begins, I wonder if this episode is turning into a mess. Is it about the sexting fallout? The mommy blogger? The bathroom dispute? Or now a budget conflict? Even Mindy’s suggestion that they use the money for a table at the Golden Globes doesn’t immediately convince me that they’ll pull this off. Next Peter’s suggesting a mobile health clinic in a way that makes me feel like we’ll eventually decide it’s a good idea — Peter, you see, wants more respect and senior-partner status — but I can’t make sense of much at all. (Adam Pally: Still fine and funny, still not particularly useful to this show.)

I shrug and go with it when the midwives show up campaigning for some guy named Whitfield who’s running for Congress in the neighborhood and is played by Larenz Tate. (Maybe this will all turn out to be a random fever dream of Mindy’s?)

And once Mindy and the gang send the midwives packing, I do love Danny’s old-man-style announcement: “Well, well, well, well, well, look who has an Internet blog.” Ah, we’re back to a plotline I recognize from this very same evening! This is when I begin to at least suspect we may be in for a Seinfeld-style, how-will-they-bring-all-of-these-strands-together maneuver. Impressive, if accomplished. Danny reads aloud from the blog post, which goes from bad to worse as it notes that the practice doctors are “pure of heart and pure of blood” and refers to “Jewhattan.” Turns out the blog is WhiteMommy.com, and underscoring Danny’s Internet ignorance was an important touch.

Dharma and Greg
Because Jenna Elfman is in the house, ya’ll.

She’s a sort of Olivia Pope fixer type, and she’s here to help with the image problems wrought by WhiteMommy. She even handled Taylor Swift’s hit and run! (What hit and run? Exactly.) Her presence allows some meta commentary on Kaling’s lack of suitors-of-color on the series. Danny disagrees with Mindy’s statement that as a woman of color she can’t be racist: “Oh, come on, you only hook up with white guys. I’ve hooked up with every race of woman.” She counters that she went to second base with her friend “Korean Justin. His hands were so small, they made my boobs feel enormous.”

I’m happy to report that Dharma steps in here and voices what we’re all thinking, “Everything you’ve just said was racist.”

Dharma instructs Mindy to put out a joint statement with Tamra, as the resident women of color, about the non-racistness of the practice. Is there anyone else they can add to the statement? “Reggie, the orderly with the hot body,” Mindy offers. No, Danny says, his name is Jerry. Jeremy ends it: “No one named Reggie or Jerry has ever worked here.”

Wow, someone could parse this conversation for a grad-school thesis about representations of race in media. If Dharma weren’t distracting me, I’d say the show we’re really channeling here is the issue-driven All in the Family. But Dharma is here. I miss Greg.

Seinfeld
And now we start truly heading for our full Seinfeld. Will they pull it off?

The effort begins in earnest as Mindy and Tamra meet for dinner to work out their joint statement. Ray Ron joins them, however, because he doesn’t trust Tamra to eat alone. “This one time, I ate next to Mandy Patinkin,” Tamra explains, “and he fell in love with me.” (Note the touch of 30 Rock here, that ability to paint an entire amazing alternate scene in one throwaway line.) No matter, they’ll still hammer out a press release that combines, as Mindy says, “your bold attitude and my fierce realness.” This makes me wish Mindy and Tamra would start a girl group together. May I suggest a remake of “Male Primadonna”?

Nonetheless, the only thing that comes out of the work session is Mindy bad-mouthing Ray Ron. (“He’s kind of a deadbeat. And not that hot kind that Beyoncé sings songs about. The kind that Britney sings songs about.”) Tamra storms off after an admittedly touching defense of her man. He’s uneducated, not vaccinated, and he has webbed feet, but, dammit, she loves him. (For the record, I always welcome back the gently thugged-out Josh Peck.)

Danny and Dharma hook up as she tries to media-train him, though this is my least favorite of the plot strands — it feels like they don’t know what else to do with these two, so why not sex? They’re a heterosexual boy and girl, right?

But everything else does all come together pretty nicely at the Deslauriers’ rally against Schulman and Associates’ alleged racism. (Fun fact: In the street scenes, we can see the bar next to the medical office, and it’s called Kathleen Kelly’s, no doubt a reference to the classic romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail.) Tamra, angry at Mindy, speaks out about Mindy’s demand that she use a separate bathroom and dump her white boyfriend. The best use of Dharma comes from her offhand remark that one of her clients, clearly Alec Baldwin, has just spit at paparazzi, a chance timely joke in a script that had to be written weeks ago.

Peter’s plotline comes into play as he rushes in to save the day when Congressional candidate Whitman, whom he claims to have known in college, shows up. Alas, Peter was mistaken — different black guy. This doesn’t help refute the racism claims.

Just in the nick of time, Tamra explains to Mindy that she was just feeling condescended to. “You can get a little Downton Abbey,” she says. Emboldened, Mindy gives a speech during which, in a last-ditch effort, she mentions their plans for a mobile health initiative. Aha! Peter’s idea. He gets senior partner and respect. The protest deflates. Whitman chides the Deslauriers for involving him: “These people are barely racist.” Whitman even hints at asking Mindy out for dinner, though he also mentions that he’s dating Tyra Banks. Could he be here to solve the suitors-of-color problem? Is he The Mindy Project’s Donald Glover or just a wink at the whole issue?

Oh, and guess what! Jerry, the staffer of color, is real! Very Seinfeld tag, Mindy Project. Not bad.

Photo: Beth Dubber/FOX