Why “The Mindy Project” Is No Longer A Work In Progress, But Perfection

Mindy Kaling’s single-camera comedy is not only hitting all of its marks in its second season, it’s surpassing them… and leaving New Girl in its wake.

The noticeable creative decline of Fox’s once-sterling comedy New Girl — which this season has offered some head-scratching plot developments (who exactly was calling for the full-time return of Coach?) and a dearth of actual comedy — has had a unintentional silver lining of sorts. It’s allowed the show’s winsome timeslot companion The Mindy Project — created by and starring Mindy Kaling — its own opportunity to shine.

And, let’s be honest: The Mindy Project is currently glowing with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Season 2 of this sharp comedy has continued with the strengths of the back half of its freshman year, having jettisoned some of the show’s elements that weren’t working (such as Anna Camp’s best friend character and Amanda Sutton’s Shauna) and focusing on the quirky interplay between the staffers of a women’s health clinic in Manhattan.

The show hasn’t been afraid to make those changes either, restructuring the ensemble so that Beth Grant’s Beverly, Zoe Jarman’s Betsy, and Xosha Roquemore’s Tamra now pack as much comedic wallop as the core trio — Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri, Chris Messina’s Danny Castellano, and a presently paunchy Ed Weeks’ Jeremy Reed — and writer/actor Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan Tookers. I might have described the latter as a scene-stealer, but the truth of the matter is that each of these players can now walk off with a sequence tucked firmly under his or her arms. That’s a real feat for any comedy, particularly one that initially appeared as though it might not make it through its first season; but something truly alchemical happened along the way with The Mindy Project: It not only found its groove but pushed itself to become something truly great in the process.

 

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Those early baby steps in Season 1 are now a distant memory, and the show strives to embrace its inherent oddball nature, allowing its characters to be brittle or brave, selfish or selfless, caring or conniving. The Mindy Project gently tweaks its characters’ foibles, mocking Mindy Lahiri’s egocentricism and body image issues, Danny’s profuse sweating, or the ongoing storyline involving Jeremy’s weight gain. (Or anything involving Morgan, whose very weirdness has avoided going into Kenneth the Page territory and becoming its own sometimes-terrifying thing.) See also: the partners’ innate distrust towards their competitors, a pair of male midwives and brothers — played by real-life brothers Mark and Jay Duplass — who operate a holistic women’s health clinic upstairs from their own gynecology practice. With their New Agey vibe and unthreatening demeanor, these two make for unlikely villains anywhere, but within the off-kilter world of The Mindy Project, their very incongruity is part of their charm.

And that’s the rare joy of this show, really. What other show would have its lead character get engaged to a rapping minister, chop off her hair, and head to Haiti? Or have an entire episode centered around providing health care to inmates at a women’s prison? The Mindy Project clearly isn’t afraid of itself or what it might be perceived as being; it is simply its best self on a weekly basis.

 

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That essential truth is profoundly felt when watching it immediately after New Girl, a show that was so whip-smart and fearless in its first two seasons but now, its third season is a transparent shadow of itself. The Elizabeth Meriwether-created comedy feels a bit tired… and as if it is now trying way too hard to be the coolest guy in the room. (In comparison, The Mindy Project feels as if it’s not trying at all to be seen that way, thus achieving an innate coolness.) A plotline that involved Schmidt (Max Greenfield) attempting to date two women at the same time — Hannah Simone’s Cece and Merritt Wever’s Elizabeth — was such a throwback to Three’s Company that it might have been covered in Jack Tripper’s DNA. The romance between Zooey Deschanel’s Jess and Jake Johnson’s Nick, who got together at the end of Season 2, has oddly curdled this year; it doesn’t feel charming or fresh… or particularly funny, either.

As if poor Lamorne Morris’ Winston didn’t have enough to contend with — such as the fact that the character is often mired in his own, separate storylines and has been given zero character development since he was introduced in the second episode of Season 1— the character that he was created to replace, Damon Wayans Jr.’s bombastic Coach, is now returning full-time to the show, leading many to wonder just what Winston’s purpose is and how much further Morris will be pushed out of the central spotlight. The way New Girl has handled his character has become so noticeably confused and fraught that it’s often difficult to watch the show without thinking of The Winston Problem.

That’s a lesson that New Girl could definitely learn from The Mindy Project: how to deftly balance a talented ensemble and service those elements that need to be tended to on a weekly basis without toppling over. This season, the latter introduced a new doctor to the fold in the form of Adam Pally’s macho OB-GYN Peter Prentice, an addition that has not only brought in a new foil for Kaling’s Mindy, but also further destabilized the testosterone levels of prickly Danny and flighty Jeremy. (Watching Jeremy’s distant father bond with Peter was a treat.) While adding another character into the mix could have spoiled the chemistry of the ensemble, Pally and Peter have proven to be quite at home within the show’s cast. Whereas James Franco’s Paul Leotard was too overtly designed as a guest star in the first two episodes of Season 2, Pally’s performance has a nice lived-in quality. You buy that this guy really could exist, and even with the slightly absurdist patina that The Mindy Project casts off, these characters — semi-damaged though they may be — have the ring of truth.

Even when they’re going off the deep end.

 

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The Mindy Project airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

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