The season finale of FOX’s The Mindy Project aired on Tuesday, and it was a deeply emotional episode for me. The primary emotion I am feeling is relief. After following Mindy Kaling's impressive writing and acting at NBC's The Office, I’ve spent the 2012-2013 television season desperately trying to like The Mindy Project. I have failed. How did one of the most subversive figures on network television end up making such a bad show?
In a TV landscape dominated by white men, Kaling is the rare woman of color to create, write, and star (as New York obgyn Dr. Mindy Lahiri) in her own network sitcom. White men fill a unique role on Kaling’s show, too—they appear in the form of Mindy’s constantly refreshing stream of man candy, who Mindy beds (and usually, discards) at breakneck speed. This week, Rachel Sklar called the show “subversive and sexy” for its depiction of a single woman who “unapologetically hooks up with a parade of adorable guys” with none of the sexual shaming or cloying melodrama that accompanies most depictions of single ladies on television. And as Nisha Chittal recently told Jezebel, “it's really interesting that Mindy Lahiri dates white men,” which she sees as a “conscious decision to refute the stereotype that South Asians only date other South Asians.”
Theoretically, The Mindy Project’s take on hooking up does sound radical. If only it weren’t so boring in practice. On the Mindy Project, men come and men go, but they never go anywhere interesting. Take the guest appearances of the Meyers brothers: In the show’s second episode, Mindy meets-cute with a charming architect played by Seth Meyers. The pair plan a date, but we don’t see it; in fact, we never see Seth, or hear about him, ever again. Later in the season, Mindy flirts at a bar with another charming guy played by Seth’s brother, Josh Meyers, who turns out to be a prostitute. He, too, gets one episode, then disappears. With the right comedic tone, Mindy’s quick turnover of love interests could play out like a fun–or even dark—inversion of rom-com tropes: No, Mindy doesn’t end up marrying the handsome architect after a series of clutzy romantic blunders; she unwittingly falls into a Pretty Woman situation with a guy who looks eerily similar, and that doesn’t work out like the movies, either. But ironies like those aren’t given any space for exploration on the show. Every time Mindy presses the reset button on a new dude, her thin character development resets, too.
It’s potentially subversive that Mindy doesn’t get too emotionally invested in her sex partners. The problem is that we don’t get invested in Mindy herself, either. Occasionally, The Mindy Project will make a bid to insert some emotional heft into Mindy’s romantic life, but these moments also feel like stunts as opposed to stories. For instance, the show clumsily hints at a brewing attraction between Mindy and her coworker, Dr. Danny Castellano, by arranging for them to inadvertently touch hands on a bumpy plane ride.
Maybe the problem is Mindy’s inability to dig deeper inside herself. When one of Mindy’s past partners unexpectedly resurfaces on her birthday with a thoughtful gift, Mindy tells him that after their hook-up failed to materialize into a relationship, she “cried every night.” But we never actually saw Mindy cry. Is she even capable of it? The attempt to bolster Mindy’s unapologetic hook-ups with these melodramatic touches doesn’t feel sexy and transgressive—it feels disjointed, even oddly sociopathic. Even Mindy’s friends and coworkers feel similarly disposable and largely stereotypical. When Mindy’s initial married-with-kids BFF proved boring, writers threw in a new, single (also boring) BFF to pick up confidante duties. The show’s first season also traded in a woman in a wheelchair whose main shtick is acting inappropriately sexual, and a black nurse who communicates largely through singing.
This isn’t Louie, where Louis CK’s constant romantic interactions form the absurd set pieces for his existential anxiety. It’s not 30 Rock, where stereotypes are pushed to absurd limits for comedic effect. The Mindy Project is a potentially subversive take on modern love, shoehorned into the outdated trappings of a run-of-the-mill wacky workplace comedy. It is bad. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. At the end of the season finale, Mindy articulates her character’s main romantic tension: “No guy has ever wanted to commit to me before, because I work too much, I’m kind of selfish, I’ve never voted, and usually a guy figures that out, and then they leave,” she says. Then, she rushes to the hospital, unzips her party dress, wipes off her lipstick, pulls on her scrubs, and delivers triplets. That was the sexiest moment on the show this season, and it had nothing to do with any random guy.