I've watched Mindy Kaling's new Fox sitcom The Mindy Project (currently streaming on Hulu) twice now, trying to figure out just where this once-promising sitcom goes wrong. Ultimately it's hard to pinpoint a specific moment that gives the show its acrid air, that scent of high hopes curdling into disappointed reality, really there's just something not-right about the general tone of the half-hour. Though, of course, this is only the pilot episode, and we could simply be experiencing a bumpy start.
The show's pedigree is certainly there. Kaling, a longtime cast member and staff writer on The Office, is one of the celebrated young wits of the day. She shares some cultural space with Lena Dunham, both of them Web-savvy (Kaling has a dedicated Twitter following) young renaissance women who are secure enough in their own smarts to also spend a fair bit of time evincing a love of things like bad reality TV, corny romantic comedies, etc. Kaling is a New Yorker-published essayist with a successful book, giving her the New York-y cred of earlier David Sedaris, while her Office work keeps her in the bigger Hollywood spotlight. Kaling exists in nice Venn diagram territory, and she usually navigates it well. She has an occasionally mordant self-deprecating streak that endears and humanizes her — it's easy to forget that she's a wealthy celebrity and not your college dorm friend who lives down the hall and is glued to your side at every party, cafeteria visit, and late night gossip session.
So for all her piquancy and magnetism, it's odd and unnerving in a glum way to see her not hit many of the right notes on this first outing of The Mindy Project. The bones of the show are fine. The premise is serviceable, if not terribly inspired — Kaling plays a frazzled OB/GYN who is serious about her job but also somewhat obsessed with romantic fantasies and real-world dating woes — and she's accompanied by a fine cast, among them Anna Camp, Stephen Tobolowsky, and a cranky Chris Messina, playing the main antagonist/guy she's totally supposed to end up with. But instead of juggling all those balls evenly, the show (so far) spends too much time frustratingly focusing on fake Mindy's madcap messiness. The episode's big set piece is Mindy getting drunk at an ex-boyfriend's wedding and winding up in jail for the night, thus missing a baby delivery she was supposed to, y'know, be there for, as a doctor. There are funny bits within the sequence, like Mindy drunkenly yelling "Racist!" when a car honks at her for bicycling down the middle of the street, but overall the whole routine is a little debasing. I know that the point of the thing is to prove that she's human like the rest of us, warts, pratfalls and all, but it ends up an unfortunate example of that most hoary of romantic comedy clichés, that in order for a high-powered female character to be relatable she has to be clumsy or bumbling. She can't be a slickster Matthew McConaughey type, she has to be a pretty disaster. Maybe Kaling means to satirize that convention with Mindy's flailing, but it comes across too straightforward and stale to register that way.
There's also a strange bite to the writing that works in some cases, like with that "Racist!" line, but in others is discordant and jarring, as when Mindy not-so-subtly alludes to her secretary that she wants more white patients because they're more likely to be insured. Is this a dizzy romantic comedy or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Lite? Maybe it's possible to find some odd blend of the two that works, but this first episode is not it. I'd also like to see less of the lothario doctor that keeps Mindy as a f--k buddy; the joke that he likes to have a lot of sex isn't really funny the first time we hear it, let alone the sixth. Gossip Girl's Amanda Setton (she was one of Blair's lackeys for a few seasons) does an unfortunate New Yawk accent as one of Mindy's secretaries that I'd hope will disappear once the show gets out of pilot awkwardness. And so far Anna Camp, a nimble actress who's done appealing work on True Blood and The Good Wife, isn't given much to do beyond playing the soundboard best friend. (She has a kid. I guess that's her character trait?) Someone as good as Camp is shouldn't be stuck in a human prop role.
Again, this is just the pilot, so The Mindy Project could still turn out to be comedy genius a few weeks down the road. But for now, I am wary. Kaling is a true talent (though, her acting could use a little work) who deserves a chance at a big show like this, but I'm worried this particular setup might not be the one. Bawdy talk in an OB/GYN office followed by drunken antics in a mini dress is all well and good, I guess. But Kaling, to some of us at least, has always seemed a bit better.