Mindy Kaling's love of romantic comedies is well documented. In her book Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me there's an entire essay written about her love of the genre in which she writes:
I love romantic comedies. I feel almost sheepish writing that, because the genre has been so degraded in the past twenty years or so that admitting you like these movies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them.
Let's be clear. Mindy Kaling is not stupid. She wouldn't have managed to pull off her new sitcom The Mindy Project (which premieres September 25th on Fox, though you can now screen the entire pilot on Hulu) if she were. Don't get me wrong — plenty of stupid people create equally stupid sitcoms, it's just that Kaling isn't one of them.
That's not to say that her new show is without flaws. Kaling's character is so boy crazy and self-absorbed in the first episode that, by the 20 minute mark, I actually felt a little exhausted (mind you, I watched this lying down in bed) and wanted to throw in the towel on this whole dating thing for her. Much of what motivates the fictionalized Mindy is her desire for romance, a notion about which she manages to be both jaded and optimistic. The result — we're left somewhat unclear about where Fictional Mindy stands — is slightly frustrating, and the mixed messages can feel overwhelming.
On the bright side, Mindy's character is a doctor rather than an assistant (the profession of all lonely single women, according to the movies). But her career isn't really part of the show's identity — it's more like a playground on which her character can fall in and out of love triangles. In the case of The Mindy Project, the hospital is a working healthcare facility in the same way that Ally McBeal's Cage and Fish was a working law office.
And that's fine. If you want a hospital drama then you should watch a hospital drama. If you want a lighthearted romantic sitcom then you should watch The Mindy Project. And this is where Kaling's skill as an entertainer is most evident. The show is aptly titled; this is indeed Mindy Kaling's project. It's entirely her — in the writing, in the main character, in the clothes — whether we like it or not. By default, The Mindy Project is about the things that Mindy Kaling loves. It's about boys, gossip, outfits and, most notably, it's a show about romantic comedies. The pilot's entire cold opening is about Mindy's love for the genre and how she's always had faith that she, too, would turn out like Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan. That hope is inevitably crushed in the first 3 minutes. Mindy doesn't get the guy she meets in an elevator meet-cute. He marries someone else and, instead, Mindy gets drunk and bikes into a swimming pool.
Of course, that, too, is a trope of romantic comedies. Early on, the woman gets her heartbroken and makes a fool of herself, but then she finds the one who makes all of the pratfalls worth it. People were right to compare The Mindy Project to Bridget Jones; post-breakup Mindy is sleeping with a dashing but careless Englishman (Ed Weeks), who they literally compare to Hugh Grant while she meanwhile spars with her gruff but ultimately goodhearted fellow doctor Danny Castellano (played by the always fantastic Chris Messina) — an obvious stand in for Darcy.
This calls into question a post-modern dilemma: Can you forgive blatant clichés of a genre piece if, as is the case with The Mindy Project, the perpetrator is winking at the clichés? I don't know if you can; it seems that Kaling is trying to have her cake and eat it, too, by appealing both to the lovers of romantic comedies and those who find them tiresome. It's a delicate balance, though not an impossible one. But the weight is primarily on Kaling's shoulders; unlike other post-modern efforts — Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings, The Office — this is no ensemble comedy.