Mindy Kaling’s new series “The Mindy Project,” which had its premiere last night on Fox, is not “Girls.” It’s not on HBO, so it doesn’t have the aggressive nudity of Lena Dunham’s series, and the sex that takes place in the pilot happens off screen. Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri has a few years and quite of bit of career success on Dunham’s Hannah Horvath — she’s a doctor, not a writer, and as far as we can tell she’s a pretty good one. But like Dunham, Kaling is the kind of actress you used to see unjustly relegated to the role of the sidekick, the funny best friend. She doesn’t look like the type of leading lady common to the romantic comedies with which her character is so enamored, just as Dunham isn’t exactly a match for the women of “Sex in the City,” the series both followed and rebuked by “Girls.”
The main character in “Sleepless in Seattle” watches “An Affair to Remember” before running off to have her own swooningly romantic encounter. The main character in “The Mindy Project” watches “Sleepless in Seattle” and then gets dumped by her boyfriend Tom (Bill Hader) in favor of someone younger, who he then marries. Like Hannah, Mindy’s struggling with the expectations built up by all the pop culture she devoured, and is still floundering in the wake of the life she’s living not matching up to the stories she’s seen on screen.
But with all respect to Meg Ryan, Mindy’s more fun to hang out with, and a lot less calculatedly adorable. What makes “Girls” so refreshing (and maddening or misread by plenty of others), and what “The Mindy Project” does to a lesser degree is allow its main character to be human, to be a little lazy and lame and to say the wrong things. The show works within a more traditional sitcom framework, and the pilot has a periodic frantic quality that I hope the following episodes tone down, but there are plenty of promising aspects that showcase genuine character imperfections instead of the artificially created ones that tend to be dabbed on after the fact on female comedy leads.
It’s great that Kaling is an Indian-American lead in a TV landscape that’s still very white. And it’s great that she could be skinnier. But what’s more of a kick to me is that her character’s indulging in a dead-end friends-with-benefits relationship with dreamy British coworker Jeremy (Ed Weeks), who spews bullshit she’s a little too eager to buy, and that she gets in a real, if brief, spat with her other colleague Danny (Chris Messina) when she hits a nerve making fun of his divorce and he responds in kind by honing in on her weight. The show doesn’t seem eager to coddle its main character, and in truth that feels edgier than its casting. Kaling’s a likable actress coming over from “The Office,” a show with a real following — she’s more than merited a shot at her own series. That it’s a series that will allow its protagonist to make mistakes that go beyond occasionally falling down is something that is, on network television, still a boundary pushing.
In targeting the romantic comedy as the failed imprint for Mindy’s life to date, “The Mindy Project” also digs into the post-feminist confusion that’s also been a hot topic in “Girls.” Mindy has her convenient but confusing booty calls with the noncommittal Jeremy, but she’s not sure how to navigate something more serious. When her first date with Dennis (Ed Helms) is interrupted after going well, she accidentally invites him over later, then realizes how that sounds and uninvites him, and finally, awkwardly, tells him “You — I like you. Wouldn’t want to… ruin it with sex.” It’s a funny, painful encapsulation of modern mores, and I hope it’s the kind of thing the show explores more in what, fingers crossed, will be a successful run.