Monkey See
10:07 am
Tue September 25, 2012

'The Mindy Project' And Why Comedy Pilots Are Like Dogs

Watching comedy pilots is a little bit like trying to adopt a dog. There are dogs that you meet that are clearly not for you and never will be. There are dogs you meet that crawl up into your lap and go to sleep, that could not be more clearly meant for you if they held up a sign that said, "I LOVE YOU, I NEED A HUG, WOOF, PLEASE BE MY MAMA."

But with most dogs, you just don't know. You just squint at them and you try to see the future. (This is also the way first dates work, but I think saying so is kind of degrading, especially once I have admitted it is true of adopting a dog.) Sometimes, you get the lowdown on a dog, and whoever has been taking care of it tells you, "Weeeell, he barks." And you say, "Yeah." And they say, "Aaaand, he isn't quite housebroken." And you say, "Yeah." And they say, "There's a thing on his ear, but we're pretty sure it's not anything bad." And you say, "Right." And they say, "We think there's a possibility he's part chicken," and you say, "I can work with it." But you're not really sure, because how can you be?

(Of course, sometimes, the dog is so ugly, so obviously unlikely to be loved by anyone else, that your heart swells for its hapless, misfit existence. This is how I feel about the aliens-in-the-neighborhood comedy The Neighbors. More on this later.)

Comedy pilots rarely — not never, but rarely — play the huge role in the legacy of the show that drama pilots do. Comedy pilots are often mostly forgotten, and many play awkwardly or poorly in retrospect. The Office had a sketchy, tonally unpleasant pilot. The Big Bang Theory pilot is awful, and the Parks And Recreation pilot is only so-so. Happy Endings only got good after someone apparently realized that they'd been mishearing what the comedy gods were whispering about the show's rightful mission: "Ohhhhh, it's not Friends-y. It's frenzy." For that reason, talking about a comedy pilot requires some caution, because often, you're looking at a puppy you could wind up taking home or leaving behind.

I find myself in this odd, middle-of-the-road place with Fox's The Mindy Project, which is a surprise, because I think Mindy Kaling — who created it, runs it, and stars in it, meaning at least the title constitutes truth in advertising — is so funny on The Office that I was prepared to be enthusiastic about it. Moreover, she's working with her Office pal B.J. Novak, as well as a bunch of other good comedy writers.

The Mindy Project is about an OB/GYN named Mindy — and I should note that naming a character after yourself in a situation like this is a blurring of actor and character that I generally don't favor except in cases like Seinfeld, where it makes a little more sense. This Mindy has been raised on romantic comedies to the point where she can act like a complete fool at the wedding of her ex-boyfriend (Bill Hader) and still somehow feel like Sandra Bullock as she rides her bike drunk down the middle of the street.

Kaling is cheerfully playing with unlikability here, which is perfectly understandable; comedies certainly don't have to be about people you would want as friends. But for me, in the pilot, the sourness is a little overpowering for a show that's not really aiming to be pure cringe comedy. It feels like Kaling still wants Mindy to be fundamentally sympathetic, and for people to be invested in her relationship with her best friend Gwen (Anna Camp, who has comic chops I didn't get from her appearances on The Good Wife and Mad Men) and her ramshackle dating life.

In the pilot, that dating life is strongly Bridget Jones-inspired, placing her between two guys at work: an obviously untrustworthy British smoothie (Ed Weeks) and a sharp-tongued, self-assured mostly-jerk (Chris Messina) with whom she engages in hostile banter that presumably hides the usual romantic comedy subtext and the fact that he secretly is drawn to her messed-up self.

Despite some good lines, the tone isn't right quite yet, particularly when it comes to Messina's character, Danny. Chris Messina is everywhere all of a sudden: he was on HBO's The Newsroom, he recently had a nice turn in Rashida Jones' unconventional romance Celeste And Jesse Forever, and he's about to show up in Ben Affleck's terrific film Argo. He always has a bit of a bite to him, but here, it feels like a misstep when part of their banter, for instance, is a frankly nasty snarl to Mindy that she could stand to lose 15 pounds. When he tells her that her first-date look is tacky and too much, that makes sense; it's about how she's presenting herself. But when he effectively hisses that she's fat, it doesn't really seem playful in the slightest, and it brings the scene — which up until then is bubbling along fairly well — to a halt.

Again, there's time to iron all this out and there are a lot of good pieces in place, but my sense is that the long game is getting the audience invested in the two of them, and if that's the plan, having him take cheap shots at her that she's completely ill-equipped to volley back (Mindy doesn't have much of a wit to her, at least in the pilot, and actually doesn't come across as remotely intelligent enough to have finished medical school) is probably the wrong call.

I think the biggest issue, though, is that they've crossed the line and made Mindy not just screwball, but kind of an unpleasant and legitimately obnoxious person. She never seems to have any real interest in being a good doctor or caring for her patients, she's rude to everyone, and again, she frankly doesn't seem very bright. Again, there's nothing wrong with that on its own — comedy is filled with the wretches and the jerks and the fools. Michael Scott, after all, despite flashes of heart, was the same way for most of Steve Carell's run on The Office.

But that's why there were other characters who were in place to give the audience a surrogate. They existed to see Michael from the outside, to see him as he really was. If The Office had been pitched from the start as Michael Scott's story and told entirely from his point of view with an angle on making you invested in his journey as a quirky leading man who happened to regularly say things that were racist, sexist, and generally clueless, I doubt it would have worked. The show had a point of view about him, and if Mindy is going to be this unappealing, the show is going to need more of a point of view about her. She ultimately probably needs to be either more likable or less so; they're sort of at halfway, not committing to either a warm approach to her or a chilly one, and while either could work, I don't think both can work at once in the way they're trying to do it here.

It's not a bad pilot, exactly. There are ideas in it that I think could work, that I think there's a good chance will work. But right now, I'm only letting it in the house on a probationary basis.

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