‘The Mindy Project’s First Season Was Like A Box of Chocolates

The Mindy Project was one of the most exciting shows to watch this TV season, in an odd way. Each week, it seemed like you never knew what show you would get. Would it be the madcap meta-rom-com of the pilot, that leaned heavily on creator and star Mindy Kaling’s persona? Would it be the more ensemble-driven, group outing episodes of the early season? Would it go for something heartfelt? Also, who would be in the cast?

Not that I know how producing a TV show works, but it was at least exciting to puzzle through The Mindy Project’s weird revolving-door supporting cast this year. MADtv’s Ike Barinholtz was introduced as a recurring character in the second episode, eventually joining the main cast. Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Rierson from Groundhog Day) was seemingly perfectly cast as Mindy’s boss, but disappeared after 2 episodes, abruptly written out. Amanda Setton’s receptionist character disappeared when the show retooled halfway through, Anna Camp played Mindy’s best friend until she didn’t anymore, and Xosha Roquemore joined the show with four episodes left in the season. Finally, veteran comic actress Beth Grant’s character was fired in the second episode, randomly reappeared later in the year, and THEN got re-hired in a subsequent episode (owing to FOX airing the episodes out of order).

It was the sign of a show at times struggling to find its tone and chemistry, and it showed. The pilot was promising enough — it established that Mindy Kaling’s title character was an OB/GYN, high-strung and unlucky in love, and she would have romantic misadventures with ringer guest stars (in the pilot it was Bill Hader) all year. Chris Messina’s Dr. Danny Castellano would be the irasible regular-guy foil (and potential down-the-line love interest), Ed Weeks’s Dr. Jeremy Reed would be the smooth ladies’ man type.

The show quickly realized that Kaling’s romantic comedy ethos could only provide so much humor, and I think decided to go for a more antic tone — the addition of Ike Barinholtz’s ex-convict nurse Morgan established that the world of the show is somewhat cartoonish — in a later episode (“My Cool Christian Boyfriend”) he takes the doctors to volunteer at a women’s prison and has to break up a riot. This led to the show often attempting big, episode-ending comic set-pieces of embarrassment that didn’t play that well: Mindy and her best friend get in a weirdly overdone physical brawl, Mindy’s boyfriend’s secret other girlfriend ruins Thanksgiving dinner… the plot of this show can sound pretty ridiculous written down.

But even through growing pains, it was a funny, sharply written show. Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling have a strong chemistry as fictional co-workers, though the early episode “Danny Castellano is my Gynecologist” announced a loud intention to do the will-they-or-won’t-they dance, and the season finale feinted at it a little bit as well. Each episode, though often starting over slightly with a reshaped cast, was clear about setting up stakes and subplots, and Mindy’s later season love interests (including the obligatory BJ Novak, and Workaholics’ Anders Holm) helped add continuity to a show that seemed lacking in defining what its characters want in the long term: we never learned much about Ed Weeks’ or Zoe Jarman’s supporting characters. The Duplass brothers playing a pair of midwives (natural enemies of OB/GYNs) was a great recurring touch, though pretty much the only specific humor the show got out of the particular setting that it chose.

It was odd — the season began by explicitly taking apart romantic comedy cliches (Chris Messina makes fun of Mindy watching Billy Crystal dramatically run to find Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally), then ends with just a dramatic running scene. It’s a testament to the show that it almost gets away with it, too — you root for Mindy to get her most recent boyfriend (Anders Holm’s oddly street-wise minister) back. But the scene is saved from treacle by the random neighbors that are annoyed by people yelling down from the street (one of them throws clothes hangers at our heroine).

The Mindy Project didn’t really set the world on fire this year, but it did enough with it’s New Girl lead-in ratings to get renewed, and I plan to keep watching. Maybe it will capitalize on the chemistry and continuity it seemed to find late in the year, or maybe it’ll keep retooling every few episodes. In a way, that’s more interesting anyway.

‘The Mindy Project’s First Season Was Like A Box of […]