TV JANUARY 22, 2014
In the year-and-the-half it’s been on the air, “The Mindy Project” has never been quite sure what kind of show it was trying to be, floundering for direction and putting its ensemble through many, many rounds of musical chairs. But in the last few months, Mindy Kaling’s sitcom has become one of the most reliably funny and charming things on TV—thanks in large part to the ongoing sexual tension between Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) and her colleague/friend/sparring partner Danny (Chris Messina). And so when they finally kissed last night, it was sexy and exciting and highly gif-able (just check tumblr). It also, according to some critics and fans, might be the show’s downfall.
Resolving a sitcom will-they-or-won’t-they doesn’t have to spell disaster; “Parks and Recreation” now has a happily married protagonist, and hasn’t suffered as a result; on “Friends,” Ross and Rachel’s original relationship and break-up were parts of the show’s creative peak, however annoying the pair eventually became. It’s a common problem for sitcoms that deal more with the sentimental than the surreal. But “The Mindy Project” has to live with the specter of its Tuesday-night neighbor, “New Girl,” which has struggled this season as Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) moved from secret crushes to official couple-dom. The slump can’t solely be blamed on Nick and Jess (and for what it’s worth, “New Girl” aired one of the season’s best episodes last night) but with the two leads as boyfriend-girlfriend, the comedy has been strangely off-pitch.
Still, I’m optimistic—Kaling shines when working within the tropes of romantic comedy and she has a keen eye for the weird minutiae of modern relationships. As Danny's relationship with Mindy grew from unveiled disdain into unguarded intimacy, Messina became the show’s secret weapon—he’s old-fashioned and stubborn and high-strung and, surprisingly enough, a really good dancer. Their friendly banter was dependably entertaining even in the show’s weaker episodes, and I don't see why that needs to change; Danny’s old-man schtick can still clash with Mindy’s aggressive superficiality even while they’re sleeping together.
This may even make the show better, by forcing it to stop relying on guest stars as a crutch. Coming off eight years writing for “The Office,” Kaling has a full rolodex of friends willing to pop up as boyfriends/exes/potential love interests. In the last year and a half, we’ve had Seth Rogen, Tim Olyphant, Bill Hader, Ben Feldman, BJ Novak, Seth Meyers, Seth Meyers’s brother, and Ed Helms. (Last fall, Emily Nussbaum fittingly called the show “The Island of Realistically Hot Men.”) And for the most part, they’ve been funny! The show could conceivably, and accurately, be renamed “Mindy Kaling Argues and Flirts with Men.” And while Mindy’s bantering is never not delightful, it’s threatened to take over the show, leaving little room to flesh out the rest of the ensemble—especially Adam Pally’s sensitive frat-bro Peter, who rounds out Mindy and Danny’s romance with goofy, impulsive energy. If the show gets renewed for a third season (not a sure thing), it should lean more on Peter as the third lead—and give him his own will-they-won’t-they romance to cheer for.