First things first: I’ve adored Mindy Kaling since the first time Kelly Kapoor opened her mouth and said something interesting on The Office. Admittedly, it took a while for them to figure out how to use her (outside of Michael Scott making lame racial jokes), but once they did — I think it wasn’t really until Season 3 — I would spend each episode anxiously waiting for her one or two lines. I was nothing like Pam, Angela, Phyllis, or Meredith (thank god!), but Kelly — a character who listed “Beyoncé; pink, the color; Pink, the person; hot dogs… basically, anything that is awesome. Snow cones…” among her favorite things — was someone who I could identify with, even if she could be really awful at times.
From reading her memoir, I know that Kaling had a much larger role behind-the-scenes on the show, first as a staff writer, and then a few seasons later, as the director of a handful of episodes, most notably “Michael’s Last Dundies,” a rare comedic gem in the series’ later and way less funny years. This is all a long way of saying that when I heard that Kaling was leaving The Office to write and star in her own TV show, I was elated. She’s an incredibly talented writer and performer, and finally I was going to be able to see her do a lot more of both.
If I’m remembering this correctly, I started getting nervous when I heard that the title for the show: It’s Messy. Yuck. (Let us not forget the lesson of Cougar Town. A bad name can wreck a show.) Thankfully that changed when NBC decided to ditch the pilot, and the project moved over to Fox. Months later, the first promos started to make the rounds. I didn’t hate them. I just didn’t connect with the material as much as I had assumed that I would. It wasn’t that the show looked like a Bridget Jones’s Diary ripoff. As someone who has seen that movie more times than I care to admit here, that wouldn’t have been a deal breaker for me. And it wasn’t that the main character seemed kind of unlikeable. Kelly Kapoor wasn’t exactly what you’d call pleasant. It just didn’t feel like Kaling to me, if that makes sense. She’s someone who clearly understands the genre, but the promo footage didn’t seem to have her clever stamp on it.
A few weeks later, the full pilot arrived online. I put off watching it for days because I was so afraid that I wouldn’t like it. I let a few friends see it first, and based on their mostly positive reviews, decided that I was being kind of crazy. But it turned out that my gut instinct was right. For someone who was smack in middle of the target demo and a Mindy enthusiast, this should have been an easy sell. But I can remember laughing out loud only once during the first episode — that scene where she’s in the pool, drunkenly talking to a Barbie doll. Other than that, I didn’t find the show all that funny. The tone was off. Take that scene where Chris Messina’s character, Danny, nastily tells Mindy that she could stand to lose 15 pounds. It was a jarring moment that completely killed the mood, not only of that particular scene, but of the entire pilot — especially given some heavy hints that, while a condescending jerk, Danny is going to end up being Mindy’s Mr. Darcy somewhere down the line. (Also problematic for me: Ed Weeks’ character — apparently intended to be the equivalent of Hugh Grant’s sleazy womanizer — has no sex appeal. In fact, I find his character kind of asexual.Possessing a British accent and being reasonably attractive isn’t all it takes to make someone sexy.)
In spite of my initial misgivings, I stuck with it. The addition of the hilarious Ike Barinholtz as reformed ex-convict Morgan Tookers in the second episode helped provide more laughs. (It’s probably worth nothing that he’s also a writer on the show.) I was also pleased to see The Mindy Project shift from being a romcom into more of an ensemble based workplace sitcom — something there’s a surprising shortage of these days. Then the third episode (“In The Club”) got everyone out of the workplace and into a less formal setting where we could really start to appreciate some of the group dynamics (you know, as opposed to Mindy and Danny just bickering with one another), and put more of a focus on the supporting players for a change. Plus that bit with Morgan pretending to be a bathroom attendant was weird and fantastic. In the same way, the Thanksgiving episode continued to expand the show’s universe, giving us a glimpse into the home lives of a few characters. The scenes with Dr. Reed getting cozy with Betsy’s family, while a bit stereotypical, were sweetly funny, while Danny, all alone in the office and singing “Piano Man,” kind of broke your heart. And of course, Morgan again, this time inexplicably cooking for Mindy’s bestie Gwen at “Wayne Manor,” and doing pushups to entertain her family.
And of course, the more time I spent with our protagonist, the more I became invested in her. I would argue that she became more likeable as she became a bit more relatable — of the nine episodes we’ve seen so far, one of my favorite moments to-date involves Mindy surrounded by a group of high schoolers, struggling to get up out of a beanbag chair. It’s not just that we’re getting to see Kaling do some physical comedy here — it’s also that I imagine that many viewers, like myself, could easily picture themselves behaving the same way in the same completely awkward situation. When she later gets busted for passing out condoms to her 15-year-old friend Sophia and the rest of the volleyball team, it’s one of the first times I can remember thinking that this character was the kind of woman I’d like to spend more time with. Real talk: She’s no Liz Lemon and the situation was entirely random. But we were finally seeing some hints that Mindy was capable of thinking about more than her own love life. It was a rare moment in the show that actually tells us something about her — you know, outside of the fact that she’s leaving all of her money to Tina Fey.
But last week’s holiday-themed episode is when things really got serious between me and The Mindy Project. I usually DVR New Girl, Happy Endings, and Mindy, and then watch all three the next morning. For the first time, I decided that I had to watch Mindy first. The episode didn’t disappoint. In it, Mindy, who has been dating this kind of charming but also kind of douchey sports lawyer, Josh, for the bulk of the season, finds out in the midst of their joint holiday party that he has been cheating on her — or rather, that he has been cheating on his girlfriend of two years with her. She is the Other Woman. Mindy, of course, freaks out. She ends up barefoot on the sidewalk outside of her apartment building, incessantly replaying the voicemail from Josh’s girlfriend (played by Kaling’s pal Ellie Kemper).
It’s in this scene, when Danny tries to pry the phone out of Mindy’s hands, and ends up accidentally dialing the girlfriend (!) who they then end up speaking to (!!!), and then later, when Danny comes into Mindy’s bedroom to comfort her, that the show finally became interesting to me as the romantic comedy that we were originally presented with in the pilot. That’s also when I decided that I would forgive Danny for his weird outburst in that first episode… come on, he made her a gingerbread house. My hope for The Mindy Project when it returns in January, is that it takes things very slowly with the relationship between these two. Keep the focus on the workplace stuff. Give the secondary characters even more breathing room. There’s obviously a greater plan for Mindy and Danny to end up together in the end (or rather, as she would have it, to kill each other if they’re still both still single in five years), but if The Office’s Pam and Jim storyline taught us anything, it’s that the longer that this show’s writers can keep teasing us with that romantic tension (and I’m talking seasons, not episodes), the more interesting things will be for everyone involved.