What does it take to survive as a sitcom in today’s television world? Can we simply not handle several seasons of the same characters anymore? One of my favorite comedies has strong writing and a stellar cast, yet its following remains underwhelming and its future murky.
The Mindy Project, now in its third season, makes for an interesting case. Following her stellar writing work on The Office, Mindy Kaling took her biting voice and overdramatic onscreen persona to new territory. Her show follows Mindy Lahiri (played by Kaling), an obstetrician-gynecologist, as she confronts personal and professional issues in and around a dysfunctional medical practice. Like with Kelly Kapoor, Kaling uses Lahiri to emphasize the high-maintenance tendencies she herself does not show. Chris Messina stars alongside Kaling as Danny Castellano, her frustrating co-worker and current boyfriend.
The third season has dealt largely with Mindy and Danny’s relationship, serving as a fascinating example of how a show can innovate even after releasing the sexual tension of its main characters so early in its arc. Kaling, who still writes many of the show’s episodes, has proved more than willing to have the lovebirds rail against each other, saving us from the sight of the overly simple, happy relationship—see: the bulk of New Girl’s third season. Mindy is often irrational, loud, and needy; Danny tends more towards brooding, pious, and rigid. Kaling does not seem interested in letting the pair fall into a typical, high-functioning relationship, which makes for a far more entertaining romance. Even in this week’s episode, “Diary of a Mad Indian Woman,” Danny kicks Mindy in the face, refuses to sleep at her apartment, and destroys her intimate diary. Kaling knows that a predictable, stable relationship would make for boring and replaceable television.
She also knows that it takes more than two to tango. I love most of the Mindy-Danny storylines, but the show rounds into form each week in large part thanks to its supporting players. Filling out the rest of the office are Jeremy (Ed Weeks), Morgan (Ike Barinholtz), Tamra (Xosha Roquemore), and Peter (Adam Pally). Weeks and Roquemore step in with uproarious inanities, but Barinholtz and Pally steal just about every scene in which they find themselves. Barinholtz, who has also done great work on The League and Eastbound and Down, makes Morgan volatile and creepy but endlessly lovable. Pally (Happy Endings) has turned Peter into far more than an archetypal frat bro. Peter’s stories of Dartmouth debauchery eventually reveal him to be a malleable loser rather than a harmful meathead, and his simultaneous vulgarity and romantic ineptitude consistently create some of the show’s best moments. Also, his IMDb picture is with Shaq.
So where do Mindy, Mindy, and Mindy go from here? Kaling has rotated an impressive group of guest stars, from Mark Duplass and Anders Holm as quirky love interests to Rhea Perlman as Danny’s hard-hitting mother, to support an already strong cast, yet her show cannot seem to establish itself as a hit. I have explained how she manages to keep the show rolling despite the early pairing of the two leads, but now what? Can the show go on without throwing the relationship into disarray? Breaking Danny and Mindy up seems quite risky, with the likely outcomes in such a case being stilted melodrama or awkward disregard for the storyline (see again: New Girl). The aforementioned supporting stars have taken on bigger roles, but any more growth there would in all likelihood lead to crowded, rushed subplots and storylines.
Going on three promising seasons, the show may simply be nearing the end set by its own premises and characters. The office is small, as is the cast, and only so much can happen between Mindy’s apartment, Danny’s, and Shulman & Associates’ intimate halls. The show thrives on the wit of Kaling and her writing team rather than elaborate, far-reaching plots. The humor delivers every week, but after a few seasons it appears the room for the humor to explore is disappearing quickly.
The case of Mindy makes me wonder about television as a whole. Is it just getting harder to sustain comedy shows for several years? Enduring hits like Modern Family and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia may be exceptions, though even those staples have faced accusations of growing wearisome. With game-changing shows like The Office and 30 Rock long since concluded, and with numerous others trying to follow in their footsteps, the big networks are struggling to find mainstream success and consistent achievement. Kaling’s comedic voice still resonates with many viewers, but many more seem to be looking for something new. Perhaps this speaks to a collective attention deficit among American viewers or to, more optimistically, the public’s increasingly refined taste. Regardless, Mindy probably does not receive the love it deserves. Maybe its voice sounds too familiar. Maybe 2008 would have treated it better. I don’t know the answer. I just know I’ll keep tuning in.