We are in an interesting era rife with self-lacerating television heroines, ones who don’t look like or act like your typical leading ladies and who directly confront that fact on screen by shouldering criticism and humiliation, some of it self-generated. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon may be gone, but Lena Dunham has trudged to the forefront of this trend with her defiantly slovenly Hannah Horvath on “Girls,” a character who seems created to challenge every built in expectation we have about a female protagonist’s need to win our affections by being competent, lithe and perky and by waking up every morning with a full face of makeup already in place. This fall Rebel Wilson joins her with her new ABC sitcom “Super Fun Night,” which is an unfortunate mess of a series, but is also one that aggressively pushes its main character Kimmie’s plus-sized figure, geekiness and social awkwardness to the forefront not just of the jokes but of her situation in life as a reliable “workhorse” at her law firm who spends every Friday night at home with her two best, equally outcast, female friends. (“Please don’t become too cool and leave us,” one pleads when her character gets a promotion.)
But “The Mindy Project,” which returns tonight for a second season on Fox with the first of two episodes featuring the omnipresent James Franco, is the most conflicted of the bunch, because it attempts to have things both ways, to treat its main character in both a conventional fashion in her search for happiness and love as well as in one that undermine the tropes of the usual single gal in the city story. Mindy Lahiri, played by Mindy Kaling, is not a spunky size two blonde who adores children and animals, she’s a curvy, occasionally obnoxious 30-something Indian-American doctor whose determined attempts to see herself as an adorable ingenue exist in contrast with the realities of how she’s treated and how she actually behaves. She makes vows about self-improvement that are quickly abandoned and she dates guys who rarely show themselves to be the Prince Charmings for which she’s searching. She’s the main character of the series, but in what was the best arc of the first season (featuring Kaling’s executive producer, “Office” co-star and ex B.J. Novak), she realizes she’s serving as the roadblock in someone else’s swooning love story — she’s the girl one of the two romantic leads dates before realizing who he’s really meant to be with.
Mindy takes a fair amount of abuse, but plows through it with an endearing, partially self-willed obliviousness. It’s a tone that’s difficult to sustain, which is part of the reason “The Mindy Project” still feels like a series that’s noticeably in flux — it’s dropped some of the ill-fated rom-com-dictated logic that initially defined the character’s approach to life, it’s traded in cast members for new ones and it’s introduced a long-term but conveniently also long distance serious relationship for Mindy with the hip Christian pastor Casey (Anders Holm). The start of the new season doesn’t find the series any more surefooted than it was when it left off in May, though it still manages more hits than misses as Mindy returns home early from Haiti to find a new Dr. L, played by Franco, has been hired to fill in for her during what was supposed to be a year-long trip. Franco’s character, who’s a handsome, successful and popular sex therapist in addition to a doctor, isn’t terribly differentiated from the one played by Mark Duplass last season, but he allows Mindy to have a genuinely great moment in the second episode in which she uses her inherent ability to drink more than him to teach him a lesson.
It’s worth observing that “Girls,” “The Mindy Project” and “Super Fun Night,” and “30 Rock” before it, were all created by their leads, speaking to the cravings of female actresses, writers and audiences to see women on screen who aren’t easily, blandly lovable, who have real imperfections as well as a few throwaway surface ones like strange fashion sense. “The Mindy Project” may continue to have the too loose air of a work in progress, but it does have a totally solid idea at its heart. Hannah may be a genuine mess trying to find her way through her early twenties and Kimmie may be a sad sack to the point of defying believability, but Mindy is a character whose life is actually not bad — it’s just not the one she wants and sometimes believes she has in her head, one formed over years of her projecting herself into Meg Ryan movies. It’s the gap between perception and reality that’s where the humor comes from, even if the new season leans a little hard on the weight jokes (“I’m a tiny, dainty woman!” she insists when given the new nickname “Big L”). After all, the media landscape has plenty of actual Meg Ryan types — it doesn’t have many people like Lahiri. When it works, “The Mindy Project” manages to have a flawed female heroine who can actually stand up to the slights she takes, even when she totally deserves them.