I’ve been thinking a lot about Joan Rivers lately, and her death remained in the back of my mind as I binge watched the second season of The Mindy Project now on DVD. Starring/created by/and occasionally written by former The Office scribe and costar Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project tells the story of Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful Manhattan OB/GYN who survives a string of disastrous love affairs while maintaining a successful practice with her partners, Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), and newest character addition, Dr. Peter Prentice (Adam Polly). Supporting the doctors are nurses Morgan Tookers (Ike Barinholtz, who writes for the show and is a producer) and Tamra (Xosha Roquemore). Rounding out the staff are the two receptionists, Beverly Janoszewski (Beth Grant) and Betsy Putch (Zoe Jarman).
Like most work place sitcoms, Mindy’s coworkers make up her family. She turns to them for support. And like most work place sitcoms, very little work actually happens. I’m hoping this will be rectified in the third season, as I’m starting to wonder just how Mindy is able to have this successful career as a busy doctor, and yet still have time to do all the crazy, nonsensical stuff the writers have her do. Mindy Lahiri is an interesting example of the current female TV protagonist because she benefits from the trails blazed by characters like Mary Richards, Murphy Brown, Liz Lemon, and Leslie Knope, but she’s definitely much goofier and sillier than her predecessors. In fact, despite being a doctor, Mindy’s drawn more toward pop culture and junk entertainment than science or high culture. She models her life after Bridget Jones, seeing herself as a hapless singleton looking for love in the big city.
All of this makes for a very good sitcom, with the whole being greater than some of the parts. While Mindy’s a wonderful center for the show, it’d be nice if the writers took a break from making her the butt of every joke. And that is why I thought about Joan Rivers when watching The Mindy Project. A large part of Rivers’ act was self-deprecation – she turned the joke inward, insulting herself before anyone else could. It’s an old defense mechanism of every smart aleck kid who got bullied as a kid. It’s a poignant impulse, though it can become difficult to listen to – and that was one of my beefs with comediennes like Rivers, Phyllis Diller or 70s-era Bette Midler.
But Mindy Kaling is in control of Mindy Lahiri, and therefore has a large hand in the direction her character is going in, and so it’d be nice if we were reminded of just why Mindy’s such a great doctor. One doesn’t need to create perfect heroes in order to show competence. I’m obviously thinking of Amy Poehler’s brilliant Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation – she, like Dr. Lahiri, is a wide-eyed optimist who loves TV and junk “literature” and is often roped into insane antics. But she’s also in love with her job and is crazy good at it; we have to assume that Mindy’s good at her job, too. And there are peeks of the kind of doctor Mindy Lahiri is, especially when she insists on helping women without health insurance. It may be that the writers don’t want to drag down the sometimes-lighter than air plots with politics, but some scathing social critique wouldn’t be out of place.
That being said, the second season is still aces because while it somewhat disappoints as a workplace comedy, it excels as a romantic comedy. It’s no big secret that Mindy loves romcoms, and sometimes arranges her life as if it were a Nora Ephron movie. Because of her idealism, she often gets into strange and ridiculous relationships, often with men who are completely inappropriate for her. She also is weighing her feelings for Danny, in what can be described as the Sam and Diane element of the show (is there a replacement for that trope for folks too young to remember Cheers?). Mindy’s a catch – beautiful, (at times) intelligent, funny, witty, and successful. So it’s no surprise that she has a string of boyfriends. What’s great is that throughout the show’s two years we got to see a line of great comics play Mindy’s plus one. In this season, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Glenn Howerton joins the show as Cliff Gilbert, the handsome and sensitive lawyer whose practice is down the hall from Mindy’s office. The relationship is obviously doomed because though Cliff is a nice enough guy, he doesn’t challenge Mindy. But it’s fun to see them together, especially in the early moments of their relationship, when they are still nursing adversarial feelings for each other: after all what romantic comedy doesn’t start with the two lovers hating each other first?
Another reason why the show hits more often than misses, is because the actors are really wonderful. An assemblage of comedians and comedic actors, each performer brings something unique and important to the show. As the central character, Kaling is great – and it’s clear that she’s developing into quite a versatile actress. The second season has some dark moments for Dr. Lahiri, and when the scenes ask for more than just Kaling’s facile wit and killer delivery, she responds with some Emmy-worthy emoting. Kaling’s growth as an actress is reminiscent of similar progressions in talent in women like Tina Fey, Roseanne Barr, or Amy Poehler – all comics who were able to develop and mature as actresses in their respective television shows. It’s a joy to watch talent blossom, and Kaling does some stellar work in the second season.
And the rest of the cast match her. As her comic foil, Chris Messina is also a standout. He plays Danny’s toughness with a soft, gooey center. And as Morgan, Barinholtz is a loud and raucous force of nature, throwing himself into some outstanding physical comedy. And new hire Polly steals his scenes as the bro-ish Dr. Prentice. Though not given as much to do, Weeks, Roquemore, Grant, and Jarman offer solid support. And the recurring guest stars who include Bill Hader, Chloe Sevigny, Max Minghella, Anders Holm, and Josh Peck each blend effortlessly into the cast, making strong impressions.
As the show progresses, I’m hoping that it shifts back to the workplace and we see Mindy the doctor. Adult children are great to watch, but they also have limited shelf-lives. I’m not saying Mindy Lahiri is a woman-child – and she definitely had some assertive moments in the second season – but it’s important that the writers allow for the character to grow out of her Meg Ryan-esque adorable phase – especially if the show lasts long enough for Mindy to enter her 40s (and judging from the strength of the first two seasons, there’s no reason why The Mindy Project couldn’t run for six or seven seasons). I know we’re watching a snarky take on a lot of romcom cliches – and they’re all funny. But when The Mindy Project reaches emotional highs like Danny’s fractious relationship with his deadbeat dad or Mindy’s feelings of self-worth after particularly bruising breakups, it shows that it can easily combine pathos and silly, rapid-fire comedy.