With its quick-talking, neurotic characters and dull, digressive plotlines, the first season of The Mindy Project, which revolves around the lives of Doctor Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and her co-workers at a Manhattan OB/GYN practice, was both endearing and frustrating, a trend that continues into the show’s second season. Kaling, who also co-writes the series, knows how to create engaging, finely drawn, if archetypal, personalities whose relationships with each other amount to a comic clash of competing quirks. What she lacks is the focus necessary to keep her lens trained on these interactions: The Mindy Project is at times too Mindy-centric, elaborating on the titular character’s idiosyncrasies and romantic misadventures at the expense of the show’s narrative momentum.
Mindy’s prone to enacting fantasies culled from rom-coms with awkward real-life results. (Last season, for example, she accidentally went home with a male prostitute, deciding to make the most of it by acting out the plot of Pretty Woman, casting herself in the Richard Gere role, but the prostitute was less amenable to role-playing, revealing his identity in the middle of a party with Mindy’s friends.) But she doesn’t waste an inordinate amount of energy wallowing in existential crises, and her unwavering determination is inspiring to watch: She accepts her shortcomings and setbacks, and moves forward anyway. At the start of season two, Mindy is seen being airlifted from Haiti, where she’s reluctantly gone on a mission trip with her boyfriend, manically planning a wedding for herself that’s eventually aborted and angrily scheming to oust a doctor (played by James Franco) who’s competing with her for patients at the practice. Mindy is subjected to multiple discomforts and humiliations, but things somehow manage to work out.
The show, however, leans too heavily on Mindy’s travails for laughs, veering into solipsism. Mindy’s pluckiness becomes an irritating motif: We’re supposed to chuckle at her falling out of a tree, or getting attacked by ants after covering herself in whipped cream to seduce her boyfriend, and then bask in her eventual triumph. This type of setup is predictable, becoming progressively more tiresome as it resurfaces in episode after episode.
The series is more rewarding when Mindy interacts with her friends and co-workers, all of whom are as idiosyncratic as she is, albeit in different ways. Mindy’s chief foil, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), one of the partners at her practice, is firmly retrograde, pretty much summing up his approach when he sketches out his ideal type of man in the first episode: “Was this the kind of guy who, if he heard glass breaking in the middle of the night, is he gonna jump outta bed, say ’Stay here,’ and look through the house naked with a baseball bat, or is he gonna hide under the covers with you?” Mindy and Danny’s exchanges (“Now you’re just talking about yourself,” she snaps in response to his home-invasion scenario) are reliably diverting clashes between two people with extreme personality tics who, underneath it all, are pretty reasonable. Their peculiarities rebound off each other, making for a generally sharp exploration of just how crazy ostensibly normal people can be. Moments like these demonstrate the show’s considerable strengths; if Kaling focused more on playing her characters off each other and less on her heroine’s mishaps, The Mindy Project would make for a smoother, more consistently engaging series.