Over a month ago, FX CEO John Landgraf put forth the notion “there is too much television” available for consumers to easily find the best programming in the market. The cream, so to speak, is not rising to the top. Despite the fact this wasn’t exactly a new idea or even a fresh statement from Landgraf himself, the TV world is still buzzing with debate. Should the industry be scaling back? Are all these new original content providers really necessary? Has the “golden age of television” only produced more TV instead of more great TV? Answer how you please, but maybe we all can finally agree on an overriding answer if we just look at the most basic aspect of the argument.
Too much TV? I think not.
Rather than cite all the excellent TV shows out there thanks to new, unexpected networks, websites and streaming giants, instead I offer up just one show: “The Mindy Project.” Mindy Kaling’s former Fox sitcom arrives at its new home on Hulu Wednesday with Season 4’s premiere, and, in doing so, helps prove there’s no such thing as too much TV.
I’ll be the first to admit “The Mindy Project” isn’t perfect. It’s far from “great” television, and could, in another argument, be used as an example of “good” TV stealing eyes from much better programming. But here’s the thing: not only was that argument started by a man who’s eternally jealous of HBO and its consistent dominance of award shows, ratings and cultural conversation, but it also promotes the idea that viewers are — at least to some degree — lazy. Or stupid. Or both. Either they’re too busy to find what’s by-and-large considered “great” or they’re too ignorant to look. This belief all but ignores the idea people know vegetables are good for them, but can’t happily survive without a break or two for desert.
Many of the people tuning in for the Season 4 premiere of “The Mindy Project” know exactly what they’re going to get by doing so — a tasty treat they may realize wasn’t necessary 15 minutes after consumption — and Kaling & Co. happily deliver it to them. There are no surprises in the Season 4 premiere– Well, there’s one big surprise in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his role in the A-story’s “Groundhog Day” spoof (in which Mindy awakes in an alternate reality), but even that fits squarely within the mold created by the series. And that mold is the tried-and-true, classic sitcom formula with a (slightly) feminist twist: Girl meets boy. Girl dates other boys. Girl falls for original boy. Girl gets together with boy. Silly, trivial little things keep them apart for 20-minute chunks before they come together again in the final two minutes via a romantic gesture, realization or event, and bam! There’s your show.
This, more or less, is every episode of “The Mindy Project.” It’s also every episode of “New Girl,” “2 Broke Girls,” “You’re the Worst,” “Friends,” “Cheers,” and so on and so forth. Quality is determined by external factors working around the basic formula, like talented actors, clever writers and risk-friendly producers. “The Mindy Project” has just enough of these to elevate it above its average peers (like “2 Broke Girls”). For one, Chris Messina is easily the show’s MVP. Kaling may be the driving force and her je ne sais quoi is undoubtedly key, but her character too often slides back and forth between flawed role model and laughed-at disaster. Though one could argue Kaling embraces Dr. Lahiri’s real world persona — especially after the Season 4 premiere goes to such great lengths in illustrating her growth over the past three years — it feels a little too out of control to be calculated.
She’s far better at creating other characters; mainly Messina’s Danny Castellano, a straight man elevated to comedic heights by both carefully restrained plot demands and the actor’s natural likability, but also Ike Barinholtz’s wild-card nurse, Morgan Tookers, and the Season 2 and 3 highlight of Adam Pally’s Dr. Peter Prentice. All of these actors are deserving of more screen time and more challenges than “The Mindy Project” can give them, as evidenced by the lack of balance in the Season 4 premiere. Part of me wanted to see more of Gordon-Levitt (mainly because the talented young gentleman is playing a sex-crazed hunk with a subdued husky voice), part of me wanted more of Messina, and part of me wished Mindy was given more to do than plod from plot point to plot point. Not all of this can be accomplished in just 22 minutes, though the fact I want more from most of these characters indicates they’re doing something right.
And that “something” is why I’m excited that “The Mindy Project” came back for a fourth season — not because I’ll literally watch more episodes (though I probably will, given my weak spot for romantic comedies), but because those episodes will exist. It speaks to TV fandom in general, and here’s where the “too much TV” argument comes back into play: Everyone who wants to watch can keep watching. Thanks to Hulu and the modern television revolution, fans of “The Mindy Project” can stick with one of their favorite shows, instead of letting it end with Mindy pregnant and Danny on the doorstep of her parents about to ask them God-knows-what. At the very least, “The Mindy Project” will get to end as all TV shows should: with an actual ending. Sure, there may be a few more deserving shows out there (“Happy Endings” and “Party Down” spring to mind), but who can be upset that an invested viewer gets to keep enjoying a harmless program they love? Whether it becomes more than it was on broadcast, or remains exactly how it’s always been, “The Mindy Project” will make people happy, even if just for 22 minutes at a time.
As someone who’s complained about the recent flood of TV revivals before, I’ll admit this sort of thing can get out of hand. There’s a difference, though, between bringing something back from the grave and extending a show’s life. This unfinished “Project” getting the chance to continue is fine by me.