Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘The Mindy Project’: She stoops to conquer

If the network television industry brimmed with confidence these days — if it were firing on all cylinders and not chronically worried about its weakening business model — I suspect we would have a lot more shows like Mindy Kaling’s larky and easygoing new Tuesday night comedy for Fox, “The Mindy Project.” As it is, the show feels like one of those rare but commercially outre treasures that surface online and are discovered by a relative few viewers.

Created, co-written by and starring the 33-year-old Kaling, the show is all the things we claim to desire in 21st-century, post-post-Norman Lear sitcoms: snarky but sweet, clean but just a little dirty, quick without being rushed, meta without being niche, and centered on someone who seems familiar and yet comes across as a fresh find.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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“The Mindy Project” (premiering Sept. 25) feels like now, if “now” is shaped by the three or four decades of the meaningless popular culture and meaningful social integration that preceded it. Kaling’s solo effort is knowing and wry without resorting to the annoying adorkability of her peer Zooey Deschanel’s “New Girl.” (The network has predictably teamed “The Mindy Project” with “New Girl” in hopes of securing a Tuesday comedy juggernaut, as if birds of a feather must always flock together. Mindy is a much smarter bird.)

More than that, “The Mindy Project” stars a strong minority female in a story that only she can tell. Drawing its inspiration from Kaling’s confessional and silly memoir, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” the show is about a thoroughly American girl born to high-achieving Indian parents. This fictional Mindy Lahiri fulfilled the duties of the bright second-generation child and became a doctor — an OB/GYN, the same specialty practiced by Kaling’s late mother.

Yet this is not a “minority” or “ethnic” sitcom of the sort networks once routinely ginned up for such comedians, which is what happened to poor Margaret Cho and others a generation ago. In her seven seasons as co-writing and co-starring as Kelly Kapoor in the once-wonderful group effort known as “The Office,” Kaling turned at least one Indian stereotype on its head: Kelly, who will make her exit from “The Office” in a guest appearance or two this season, was an underachieving cog in an office park; her smarts only serviced her own self-absorption and her doomed relationship with the equally vainglorious Ryan (B.J. Novak).

Kelly Kapoor’s “Indianness,” as Kaling has called it, was always a secondary concern, kept in reserve for those occasions where it not only made sense, but also would make a funny situation more funny.

“There’s a saying, I think, that I really believe in, sort of in terms of my Indianness, which is that I try not to rely on it nor deny it,” Kaling explained to TV critics at this summer’s press tour. This is really all our minority TV stars want from us: perspective, dimension — and most of all, the chance to be odd without being viewed as outsider. It’s what so many actors of South Asian descent have been trying to get across, one Kumar at a time.

Like Kaling herself, “The Mindy Project’s” Mindy character fell hard in childhood for romantic comedies of the 1990s, including those made by the late writer/
director Nora Ephron, who is not mentioned in the show but whose presence and sensibility are faintly detectable, just as they are in Lena Dunham’s HBO series, “Girls.” Oblivious to the utter whiteness (and blondness) of such fare, childhood Mindy, in Coke-bottle glasses and diligently doing her homework on the couch, chirps out “I’ll have what she’s having!” along with her umpteenth viewing of the fake-orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally” on cable.

This habit continues through college and hospital residencies in young adulthood. She keeps adding to the canon, through “Notting Hill” and “27 Dresses.” Now in her 30s, Mindy’s life is just a half-organized Pinterest board of hopes and dreams of finding a dream mate by “meeting cute,” while she copes with instant-gratification issues via quick sex with Jeremy (Ed Weeks), a perpetually wanton obstetrician who works at the same medical practice. “Maybe I’ll never get married,” Mindy says and instead choose the path of “One of those ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ things. Ugh, no. I don’t want to pray. Forget it. I’ll just die alone.”

After delivering a drunken yet honest anti-toast at the wedding of her ex-boyfriend (“Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader, in a cameo), Mindy has a rough night and must be bailed out of jail by a friend (Anna Camp). Here she vows to undertake a regimen of self-improvement in all things, especially romance. All Mindy wants is a man with “the wealth of Mayor Bloomberg, the personality of Jon Stewart and the face of Michael Fassbender. [Pause.] And the penis of Michael Fassbender.”

But “The Mindy Project’s” knight in shining armor is well-disguised, in the form of another doctor, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina, who excels at playing jerks). “You know what would really look great?” Danny tells Mindy as she polls her co-workers on whether her outfit is appropriate for a blind date. “If you lost 15 pounds.” His brute honesty is an unwelcome but necessary step in Mindy’s project toward finding her true self.

But “The Mindy Project” is only partly about a loser. Although it is marred slightly by a voice-over narrative style (a lazy storytelling technique that one hopes burns off in a couple of episodes) and has guest stars such as Hader and “The Office’s” Ed Helms offering Kaling a boost up that she hardly needs, the show is a worthy character study of a complicated, slightly deranged woman.

When Mindy gets an emergency page to get to the hospital for a patient’s breech birth, she doffs her date heels and runs barefoot through the streets to save the day, to the thumping anthem of M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” with the spectral notions of those Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock and Katherine Heigl characters hot on her trail. Whether or not she gets her fairy-tale ending, Mindy is someone you’ll fall for.

The Mindy Project

(30 minutes) premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 25 on Fox.

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