If there is any show on television that has backed itself into a corner, it’s The Mindy Project. The sitcom’s phenomenal first season was like an exhilarating car ride in an automobile that isn’t all that sturdy and could crash at any second, but that’s sort of half the fun. Last season left Mindy Kaling’s character following Pastor Casey (Anders Holm) to Haiti, where he would do missionary work for his church and she would, ostensibly, provide medical care for those less fortunate. The idea itself, while not genuinely in poor taste, is a tough comedic conundrum, because there’s little to laugh at about Haiti; many people there do suffer, so Mindy and Casey working there altruistically puts the show’s main character, known for being self-involved, in a tight spot in terms of what she can do and how she can make us laugh.
So there’s Haiti, and then there’s James Franco.
Our culture is finally at what I would call a “post-James Franco point,” where he’s letting us in on the one huge meta joke that is his life and we’ve sort of realized that resistance to Franco is futile. All the art, the General Hospital appearances, the Oscars, the books, and whatever else James Franco involves himself in, is going to be pretty half-assed. This isn’t me ragging on Franco or any of his 10,000 projects; I’m just making a statement of fact. So The Mindy Project is taking a bit of a risk by casting him in a guest arc on a television show that is still working to capture an audience and find its voice.
The show, while still one of the better sitcoms on television, does indeed stumble out of the gate for its second year on Fox. The way they get Mindy out of Haiti isn’t the cleanest or even the funniest, but the long-term damage is minimal — well, except for the tenuously salvaged engagement, which throws a wrench in a show that depends on the plight of the cosmopolitan single woman for laughs. Regardless, Mindy was in Haiti, she got sick, and, like magic, she’s back in New York. With Danny. And James Franco. No harm, no foul — right?
Not really. The one major problem I have with The Mindy Project is that — while the show is funny and fun to watch, Mindy Kaling is one of my favorite people on television, and the cast is solid overall — it’s having a difficult time defining itself. It could inherit the smartypants mantle of 30 Rock, if it weren’t held back by gimmicks like stunt guest casting or the tired trope of extended and crippling sexual tension between its leads. Obviously that relationship fits in with Kaling’s simultaneous tribute to and satire of Nora Ephron-style rom-coms, which are referenced heavily throughout the first season, but it is also stops the show from becoming as original and surprising as comedy standouts like Parks and Recreation, Girls, and The League.
That’s not to say the show is beyond help. All the ingredients are there for The Mindy Project to avoid the sophomore slump and shine in its second season. Kaling remains the most sympathetic and likable unlikeable character on television. We root for her because she really isn’t that bad; her narcissistic antics are far more endearing than Hannah Horvath’s, or pretty much anything the members of The League do to undermine each other. But that’s all why this second season is so crucial to the show’s success: growing pains are one thing, but by jeopardizing its foundational elements, The Mindy Project risks alienating its audience before it’s even figured out what kind of show it wants to be.