Michael Tedder is filling in for Jennifer Armstrong this week, who has found herself without electricity as a result of Hurricane Sandy. She will return, rejuvenated, next week.
Parks and Recreation showrunner Mike Schur recently told GQ that “if there were one wish that I would have for the critical community, it would be that people would stop being amazed or even remotely surprised that comedies get better as they go along.”
This is worth keeping in mind when considering his former Office co-worker Mindy Kaling’s new show. To be fair, it’s overall funnier than Parks and Recreation was by its fourth episode, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. There were a few memorable lines and nice sight gags (Dirty Harry Potter probably being the best, though Chris Messina’s sad little smile when hitting on his driving test instructor should not be discounted), but taken as a whole, this introductory run of episodes has so far veered from promising to just likable enough.
Which is honestly just fine at this stage of the game. The first five or six episodes of any sitcom are usually made around the same time. It’s not until the seventh episode or so that the producers can take a breath and get audience feedback on what’s working and what’s not. I’m sure most showrunners would prefer that recapper types just left well enough alone until then, but that’s just not how we do things around here. But I won’t be remotely surprised when The Mindy Project gets a lot better, because I can already see the hard work being done to get there.
“Halloween” (clearly Kaling has adopted Greg Daniels’s utilitarian approach to episode titles — though it also shares the same name as last night’s episode of sister show New Girl) is pretty light on plot, though at this point it seems clear this is going to be more of a hangout show than a narrative-driven one. Mindy gets invited to a costume party during a morning date (replete with world-music CDs and a French press) with Josh the Pushy Sports Lawyer. She isn’t sure she wants to go, so he threatens to invite one of his many backup Caitlins. She later decides to go after bumping into her ex Tom, then gets discouraged after she can’t find the right costume, then changes her mind again after her best friend’s daughter recounts the plot of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. (Once again, television recapping changes people’s lives.) The entire episode centers on the idea of insecurity and indecisiveness, which seems appropriate, as The Mindy Project is still trying on a number of different tones to see what works.
Is The Mindy Project going to be hyperreal and almost cartoonlike in the mold of 30 Rock? The stray feline coming out of nowhere because it sensed a potential cat lady was a very Liz Lemon joke. Will it be knowingly meta like episode writer Chris McKenna’s old show, Community? This show has already played with the idea that Kaling is narrating her life like it’s a prime-era Meg Ryan flick, but the extended riff on why Inigo Montoya is way better than Westley seems like something from Jeff Winger’s mouth. (But also, duh, of course he is.) How much cringe humor from Kaling’s old gig is in the mix? (The DMV stuff was just a 7 on the uncomfortable scale.) And what is the right mix of character moments and humor beats for this show?
There was plenty of both tonight, and it’s encouraging that the show can tone it down a notch for things like the lovely scene where Mindy and Tom (played by a surprisingly restrained Bill Hader) reconnect after she ruined his wedding and then slammed a door in to his head. It’s going to take a while for Kaling to differentiate Mindy Lahiri from Kelly Kapoor, but this scene already showed us a few things. Lahiri is not only more professionally competent than Kelly; we also know that, as much as she’s a hopeless romantic, she doesn’t need a man to define her the way Kelly did. Kaling played her new character’s resilience well, casually mentioning the blond guy and pretending not to know Tom’s new wife’s name, but also seeming genuinely concerned about the damage she did. Then it all goes to hell when she finds out that Tom didn’t tell her about his new baby because she’s a “pathetic spinster with no prospects,” because it wouldn’t be fun otherwise.
What happens next shows the work that still needs to be done. The Mindy Project has assembled a capable cast (Poppy, we’ve missed you!), but they haven’t congealed just yet. Only about one-third of the jokes not delivered by Mindy landed, a sure sign that the good material needs to be spread around a bit more. The group banter during the baby revelation and costume quest largely fell flat, as the actors have not gotten in to a tight enough rhythm for the jokes to snap back and forth properly. Shauna and Betsy have not yet developed in to more than de rigeur Long Islander and Shy Girl types, while one-man Human Giant Ike Barinholtz’s take on Nurse Morgan seems like it’s going to be too big for the show once things slide in to gear, though I did smirk at the human urinal gag.
But that’s just a matter of time and getting everyone in to a groove. We can trust that the show will get around to filling the rest of the characters out later, because this episode began the task of helping us Tell the Difference Between the Identical Male Supporting Characters, which has clearly been a problem lately. Dr. Jeremy the Handsome British Lady Killer and Dr. Danny the Brooding Jersey sneak off from work (Mindy’s complete disinterest in his story or where he was going is one of those likable self-involved turns she does so well) to get their driver’s licenses. Dr. Jeremy wants one because he’s sick of taking his passport to bars, which is silly because the type of bars he goes to don’t card people who look like him. Dr. Danny wants a license so he can drive a thousand miles an hour and feel free and other stuff he got from Springsteen lyrics. Dr. Jeremy charms his way through the tests, while Dr. Danny sweats a lot and crashes the car into a Halloween lawn display. Messina has done such a good job playing Dr. Danny as a cocky, borderline mean (“stinks” is not the correct way to answer hot or not) character that watching him do pathetic and nervous feels like a revelation. The man’s lip quiver and terrified glances were on point.
After blowing the test, he unloads on Jeremy and complains that he’s not jealous of him, but “there are things about you that I wish I could have.” Without the show being too on the nose about it, we learn that Danny was too anxious to get by in life on charm, which eventually made him coarse and resentful, while Jeremy fears there’s nothing to him beyond charm. He’s all smile, no passion. So he arranged for Danny to take the test one more time by telling the teacher that the reason Danny freaked out the last time was because he was once molested in a car. That’s like a 9 on the cringe scale, but at least it worked.
That dark aside and the “She died. I take that back. That’s a horrible thing to say” explanation when Mindy explains why she didn’t have to be delivering a made-up baby were good reminders of Kaling’s often brutal wit. Dismiss her as all cutsey at your peril. If she focuses on that edge and keeps fleshing out the characters, it might not be long before critics are showering it with the sort of praise that will make Schur slap his head.